WEIGHT OF THE WORLD
Spoilers: Pretty much up through S3's 'Self Inflicted Wounds'
Rating:R for violence, adult situations, language
Category: AU, J/A, Action/Adventure, Angst
Archive: Anywhere,just let me know
Feedback: Yes, please. firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer: The Farscape characters don't belong to me. Obviously.
Summary: On an Earth devastated and occupied by Peacekeepers, Crichton struggles to retake his world and his own sanity.
Posted in full at: http://myscape.50megs.com/weight.html
Author Notes: As usual, this turned out to be a lot more work than I had planned. Funny how that works. The original story was actually three parts, but I ended up only using the last part, not just for brevity, but because it turned out the initial extra 300 pages were unecessary to the story I really wanted to tell. Yeah, this is an Alt-Universe. Just letting you know in case you, for whatever strange reason, don't like that sort of thing. Of course, its always possible that it won't end up being AU, but that's pretty unlikely. Thanks as always to Kirby for the great beta. Always a help in getting me to focus in on what needs smoothing out. Thanks, doll.
So full of artless jealousy is guilt, It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.
Remember that movie, Independence Day? It was nothing like that. We didn't see any ships or ray-guns till later. There wasn't even the kick-ass spectacle of huge glowing beams of green light and exploding national monuments. Instead, I was knocked out of bed at 3 or so in the morning by a concussion blast that I learned later had obliterated half of Pike's Peak. I suppose they weren't being very careful when they bombed us from orbit, why else would you bother reducing a lousy mountain to rubble?
Half our house fell down that night, killing my folks and my little sister. I don't really remember too much about it, but I somehow ended up with my clothes on and my schoolbag in hand before I fled the house. Good thing I saved 'The Principles of Basic Biology' and that report on 'Treasure Island' I was supposed to turn in that Friday. I guess some of us don't really have control of our brains in an emergency.
Colorado Springs was a wasteland when the sun finally came up, something out of a crazy nightmare. Tons of rubble and dead people everywhere, injured and just plain cracked up folks stumbling around in a daze. And it was dark, even in the day. There was so much dust, dust everywhere. Choking and dirty. We didn't see blue sky for almost a year after that night.
I don't remember crying for my parents, though I must have, right? I mean, they were great. My dad was gonna teach me to fish that summer and my mom made these amazing oatmeal cookies, better than you got at the store. And Latisha, she was only 3 but already smart and funny and way cool for a baby. She would do this thing where she would go into your stuff and then bring it to you like a gift, like she was giving it to you. She really dug on that, giving people shit. But, anyway, I can be sorry later. It takes too much time hiding and running to wail like a kid. And it won't bring any of them back either.
The Peeks, when they finally showed their faces, looked just like us. No little green men, no big-eyed, gray-skinned midgets. They were men and women wearing shiny black helmets and carrying ray-guns just like you always imagined aliens would have. And they showed no mercy, not at first. I think the point, at least this is what Gary says, was to cow us. Make us break. They still needed some of us to do work for them later, to build our economy back up so they could feed like a tick off our bellies.
That's what Gary says too.
Who's Gary? He's the best. He sort of wound up being the guy that we all found. Don't know how. Rob says that it was God's Will that led us to him. Screw that shit. Where was God when the Peeks razed the whole Eastern Seaboard? Nah, Gary was just the kinda guy you ended up with. I bet there were guys like him all over the place. Guys who kept their heads, who knew what we needed to do. Guys like him gave us focus. And they helped us plan for the future when most folks were just trying to survive. Gary had vision.
He'd also been in the army, or whatever. That was pretty helpful because he knew things like secret places to hide nearby. The Peeks never found NORAD, and that was where a lot of big-wig government types ended up hiding out. Cowards. The people, us, we were out in the trenches trying to help. Finding food and forming secret roads in and out of the city, keeping folks alive with stolen and scavenged medicine when the Peeks didn't pass out enough. Gary calls those Generals and stuff, worthless. I guess they're planning or something. Whatever. What are those of us out in the open supposed to do in the meantime?
Supposedly there was one guy who knew the Peeks were coming. He tried to warn the brass in DC before the attack, I heard. I guess they didn't listen or maybe there wasn't time to do anything. What I think is that even if we'd had a year to prepare, we couldn't have stopped them. How do you fight an enemy that can obliterate a 14,000 foot mountain from space?
You don't. You just survive it. We have other ways of fighting back. That's what Gary says.
And that was why we left Colorado Springs, just a part of the organization we'd set up since the Bombardment. Gary let me come even though I was only 10. He said I had skills. He didn't say why we had to go to Denver, though part of it was to try and set up the same underground systems there... if they hadn't been set up already. Turned out they had, but not as good. See, there's a Peek Base in Denver and so the city is under closer scrutiny. More patrols, more surveillance, more random 'questioning'. They have to be a lot more careful. We do now, too.
Especially because of Crichton.
I've never met the guy, but Gary and Wanda (she's the leader of the Denver underground) talk about him in hushed tones of respect. I guess no one knows specifically *where* he is, but we do know that he's in Colorado. In the mountains somewhere. And so far, he's the only one that we know of who has led actual armed, successful attacks against the Peek patrols.
It's because of him that we'll beat them. Everyone knows it.
But sometimes, just sometimes, I wonder if he's real. It almost seems too convenient to have this Zorro-type guy out there who's gonna ride in at the end of the day and save us. When I tell Gary that, he grins and shakes his head and calls me the youngest cynic he's ever met. I never ask if *he's* met Crichton or not because I don't think he has either.
Hey. It's not like I don't *want* to believe in Crichton.
But I'm afraid - more than anything else - that he'll turn out *not* to be real. Like the way that Superman and The Lone Ranger and Spawn aren't real.
Because frankly, we really need a hero.
The snow was just beginning to fall. The Commander stood at the window and looked out towards the distant fading blue of the foothills, his heavy brow furrowed. Viewed from across the room, he was a statue of contemplation, as if he were pondering the questions of the universe.
Tiah Peller approached him nervously, trying to keep from shaking, clasping her hands tightly behind her back to hide her fear. Closer now, and she could hear the muttering. Just below comprehension, but loud enough that it was almost as if he were hissing unevenly to himself. Or whispering. It sent chills up and down her spine, that mumbling. For the tenth time that day alone, she cursed the fate that had made her this man's aide.
"S-sir?" The quiver in her voice made her wince. The Commander seemed to sense her fear sometimes the way an animal sniffed out prey. The muttering stopped, but he did not turn around immediately. Instead, he continued to stare out into the darkening twilight. He seemed to be watching a blanket-shrouded woman pick through the rubble in the streets below. "Sir?"
He did turn then, his eyes gleaming almost preternaturally in the half-light of the offices. She swallowed and quickly saluted him, glad for the gesture because it hid her trembling. The man she served frightened her more than anything she had ever encountered before in her life. And she could not really say why. He was not unattractive or malformed. A tall man with gray at the temples and a strong profile, it was his mouth, perhaps, that made her uneasy. It was tight and cruel, a thin gash that never split in a smile. No. No, that wasn't true. Commander Sallo Darred *did* smile occasionally. And it was more terrifying than any sneer.
Similar to a predatory showing of teeth, rather than an expression of pleasure. Or maybe it was a mixture of both things that made it such an unpleasant thing to witness.
"What is it, Peller? Must you constantly tiptoe around like the frelling rodent you resemble?" His eyes swept up and down her briefly before he turned back to the window.
"I just wanted to inform you that AgSec Chief Gevvis is here to see you." Her spine stiffened at the insult, her chin lifting.
The man's face stilled, the frown smoothing out. He let out a breath and nodded.
"Excellent. Please show her in. And prepare a glass of Grenit -- hot. It's chilly in here."
Of course it was chilly. It was winter and there was no temperature regulator in this primitive, ancient building. The Earthers were no tech-masters, that was for certain. Her eyes flicked to the windows, noting the snowfall was increasing. It would only get colder tonight. No matter what she thought of her Commander, at least being his assistant kept her up in the warmer parts of the Base. Like most Sebaceans, she was not partial to heat, but icy cold was not much better.
She moved to open the door, gesturing in Myla Gevvis. The AgSec Chief was new, she had only been assigned to the Base 7 monens before, but she had already won the respect of her entire crew and word like that got around. The woman she had replaced had been competent too, before she'd defected from the Base, but this one was better. Peller let her eyes flicker up and down the woman briefly before nodding to her.
"The Commander will see you now."
Gevvis walked past her without a glance, her long legs taking her right into the room. Peller bit her lip with mild envy before she shut the door and moved across to get the hot drinks. Myla didn't seem to fear the Commander at all, not like most of the rest of them.
She concentrated on removing the glasses from their wooden boxes and dragging a carved box down from the high backed shelving unit next to the refreshment unit. Flipping open the lid, she could see that the fine gray powdery Grenit was dwindling. The Commander was going to have to pull whatever strings he pulled to indulge in the exotic habit of the alien euphoric. She made a mental note to inform Darred later.
"Commander." Myla's voice was strong and rich, showing no trace of a quiver. Darred seemed to respect the Chief for it, for he never showed any sign of the deliberate cruelty that he did when he dealt with Tiah. Or maybe he just liked tall brunettes.
"Ah, Chief. Sit down. Peller is making hot Grenit."
"Thank you, sir, but none for me."
Anyone with eyes could see that Darred was attracted to Myla. The most astonishing thing was that she seemed to feel the same way. It was the only explanation for the fact that she took the occasional afternoon food break with him. And there were other signs. She would keep eye contact with him and lower her lashes flirtatiously.
It was enough to make Peller nauseous. The thought of that creepy freak touching her even accidentally was enough to make her skin ripple with gooseflesh. She spooned a large amount of the powder into a drink container, poured in the creamy base and spent a few moments shaking it before setting the whole thing into a compartment in the refreshment bar. The small drinkheater pulsed with blue light and then dimmed. She popped the thing open, careful not to touch the hot metal, and withdrew the container.
"What can I do for you this evening, Chief?"
Peller heard the squeak of leather as the woman leaned forward slightly, the tiny beep of the datapad as it was activated.
"As we discussed several days ago, sir, the failing of the entire third quadrant of Hennoc. I told you then that I intended to bring in Earther fertilizer, to see if our plants responded better to a more native soil."
Peller filled a single flute with the steaming Grenit and turned.
Myla was a tall, slender woman with long, dark hair pulled into a sleek braid that reached her mid-back. The hairstyle emphasized her high cheekbones and the sharpness of her features. It was not entirely flattering, but it was practical. And prettiness was not what Myla Gevvis was about. But she was quite beautiful. It was the way she moved and the way she spoke. Myla was magnetic.
"I remember." He took the hot glass without looking at Tiah, and she nodded to him and then to Myla. The woman glanced at her with astonishingly clear blue-gray eyes and gave her a small smile. Peller couldn't refrain from smiling back at her. She could understand why the woman's crew liked her so much. "What of it?"
"I found a place to obtain large quantities of earth fertilizer. I want to send out the cargo vessel for a load."
"Why not just take the Ag Skims?" He frowned.
"I want to do it in one shipment. It will be faster that way, only a few arns instead of a whole day. Crichton's group will be less likely to ambush us if we do it this way. And I can always have some humans clean it out later."
Darred lip lifted in a sudden sneer of pure hate at the mention of the earther rebel's name, but he nodded dismissively as he took a sip of the hot drink. It made Peller shiver when he did that... when he shifted his moods so very quickly.
"Crichton. Fine, fine. I authorize it. Here, give me that." She handed over her datapad and he tapped his code into it. "That fatherless traskik. If I ever get my hands on him or even one of his frelling people..." He started to mutter under his breath again, but stopped just as suddenly, as if recalling that Myla was sitting right there.
Peller stood near the door, waiting to see if he approved of the temperature of his drink before she dared to leave. He seemed to be fine with it and she quietly opened the low-tech wooden doors, twisting the primitive knob silently.
"About tomorrow night, sir..." Myla's voice had gone huskier and Peller closed her eyes in disgust as she slipped out. "Are we still scheduled?"
"I'm looking forward to it..."
She shut the door on the conversation, managing not to press her back against the door. Her desk sat against the far wall and she slid behind it, trying not to imagine why anyone would want to have a late night meal with Commander Darred. Much less the well-respected AgSec Chief.
Clearly there was more to Myla Gevvis than met the eye.
"Chief Gevvis." Lieutenant Peller nodded in respect to her as she strode out of Darred's office, wide green eyes following her with what an odd mix of hero worship and confusion. No doubt over her behavior with the Commander. She managed to smile at her as she passed, and then paused, turning back to the young woman. Peller was a slender little thing with ash blond hair and a narrow face. She couldn't be more than 20 cycles old. Too young to be tied to a man like Darred.
"Lieutenant," she flattened her hands on the desk and leaned over it, meeting the girl's eyes. "A word of friendly advice." Peller looked up at her like she was expecting punishment, shoulders tense. "Straighten your shoulders," she said, gesturing at the hunched posture. "Look him in the eye when you talk to him, don't show him fear, even if you are afraid." She pushed back up from the desk and gave the girl another smile. "He will go easier on you. Trust me."
She barely checked to see if the youngling nodded, instead walking quickly out into the enormous round central chamber of the building. Voices and footsteps melded and merged into a omnipresent hum of noise, bouncing off the high cupola. The interlude with Peller was already forgotten and she wanted to scrub at her arms, erasing the disquiet that encounters with the Commander always left her feeling. Dirty.
Flirtation, never natural for her, was almost a torturous effort when it came to Darred.
Walking at a brisk clip down the stairs, she passed a huddled cluster of administrative flunkies, her boots tapping out a staccato beat against the cracked marble, echoing in the vast chamber of what had once been the City Capital Building of Denver. It was the only human-built structure still standing within the Base itself and she often wondered why it hadn't been razed like the other buildings. Symbols, she supposed, were important.
Two PK troopers stiffened as she strode past them and out the wide doors. The snow was falling thicker now, but she did not hesitate before plunging into the swirling gray and white twilight. All around her, the black wall that had been built around the Base not long after the Bombardment of the planet's surface loomed dark and gloomy at the perimeter.
She pushed aside the queasy distress she always felt after her conversations with the Commander. She didn't want to think about it just now. There were other things on her mind, and she wanted to forget everything else.
Snowflakes gathered in her eyelashes and she blinked them away, glancing up at the sky briefly to judge the time before breaking into a trot. She was late, but it didn't concern her. She would be expected to be late. There was no timetable she could reliably keep. Still, her heart picked up in excitement as she moved through snow that was now ankle deep, not breaking stride as she pulled the fastener of her jump shut at the base of her throat to keep the chill out. The enormous AgSec building, the place where she spent most of her day, towered over the Base, incongruous among the primitive Earther buildings. It was the single food supply for the entire place, the only reason the PKs could survive amongst a hostile, if defeated, population.
She smirked slightly as she recalled the early attempts to force the Earthers to supply the invaders with food. It had been rotting, poisoned and sometimes not even food at all. No amount of threat or force had changed things much. At least at their base. She had heard that other Bases across the planet had fared a little better with the local populace, but not much.
Only five monens into the occupation, it had been decided that it was better to simply grow it themselves. Now, five cycles later, the Base was completely self-sufficient. They grew their own food, pumped their own water and ran their own power. The rest of the city was on its own. Which meant that Denver was still dark.
She passed through one of the many checkpoints and allowed herself to be scanned by the guards. They had installed the checkpoints not soon after the wall itself, when a few disastrous incursions by the human 'resistance' had shown the Commander how easy it was for the Earthers to pretend to be Peacekeepers. The genetic scanners had been installed not soon after the explosion that had wiped out their main power source for a full monen.
She had to hand it to Darred, creepy or not, he adapted quickly.
Her feet carried her past the sprawling AgSec Complex and towards the Barracks where her bunk was. The snow was getting worse, but she lifted her chin up to the cold sting. Cold did not bother her, it was exhilarating, snapping at her cheeks and pinching her ears. Two lines of troopers marched past her and she let her lip curl slightly at the sloppy formation. She could almost feel sorry for the Commander, unpleasant as he was, burdened with the dregs of the Peacekeeper force and expected to get results.
She ducked into the Barrack and down several flights of stairs to where she had taken her quarters. The others had stared at her like she was a lunatic when she had asked to be given the dreary room, but she had her reasons. Reasons she would never tell anyone.
No one else down here, of course. Just storage. That had been one reason why she wanted these moldering, dark rooms. And the other reason... she closed her door behind her, locked it, and quickly moved towards the corner. Shoving back her metal-framed cot, she bent down, shaking her long braid back over her shoulder as she hauled up a hidden trap door on well-oiled hinges. A moment later she was slipping down out of sight into the darkness, pulling the hatch shut behind her. The tug of a cleverly hidden rope pulled the bed back into place over the door after she'd vanished from sight.
Her feet touched ground again after a descent down several cold metal rungs and she quickly pulled out a tiny hand light and flicked it on. Without hesitation, she set off down the long round passage, ducking slightly at each juncture where damage or the structure itself pressed down into the tunnel. She did not slow or falter at a single intersection, moving with the confidence of someone who had passed through the tunnels many times.
Half an arn later, she found herself at a major juncture where at least five pipes converged. It was there that she settled to wait, tucking her arms against her body and leaning against the cold curving metal wall.
It was not too long. She had been late as it was. The sound of several cautious footsteps echoed down the dismal tunnels and she pushed away from the wall, pulling the datapad she had taken into Darred's office out of her jump and tucking it under her arm. It was still warm from her body heat. She could see the faint vapor of her own breath steaming before her, surreal mist in the beam of approaching light.
The footfalls echoed louder, stopped, and then a tiny light flickered twice in a pattern. She replied by switching hers back on. A moment later she was smiling into the familiar face of Tynan Redarr.
"Ty, I'm surprised they sent you." She smiled and clasped his hand firmly in a gesture that was meant to express both muted joy as well as respect for a fellow warrior.
"I didn't have anything else to do," he grinned back at her through graying stubble. There were several more lines etched into his face than there had been the first time they had met, but his eyes still twinkled with all the strength and spirit of a man half his age. He handed her a small bag and she opened it eagerly, dropping all pretense of trying to be aloof.
It contained a new transceiver to replace the one she'd had to quickly destroy a monen ago to avoid a narrow brush with detection. Her braid fell down over her shoulder as she dug in further, finding small things... luxuries that wouldn't give her away in her treacherous position, but would make her life slightly more comfortable. Nothing more. She frowned in disappointment.
"Is this it?" She had been hoping for the letter she usually got. A new image perhaps. She missed them so much it ached like a wound. Tynan was grinning like a frelling fool and her frown deepened.
"No, I brought something else." He stepped aside then, his tiny beam of light streaking up and over to limn the familiar features of a second man. One who was smirking like his friend.
She didn't take the time to berate either of them for their childish games, she simply grabbed either side of John's face and kissed him, the bag falling in a dismissive clattering to the semi-frozen ground. His arms felt wonderful when they encircled her, tightening to the point where it was hard to breathe.
Hezmana, it had been monens. He smelled so good under the sweat and the muck, his hair soft under her palms, his heart thumping against her, his mouth hot and soft and sweet . It was ridiculous, but she felt tears burning the corners of her eyes and she blinked furiously against them, pulling back from their kiss to press her face into the hollow of his neck. His pulse beat softly on her cheek and she took a deep ragged breath.
Hard to believe how much she really *had* missed him now that he was in front of her again.
Long days. Long nights. Every microt bearing the chance that she would be recognized, discovered, exposed. The tension drained out of her limbs in a catharsis of exhaustion, allowing herself to be tired only now. To be needy only now. It was not a weakness, she had learned that from him long ago and now she took pleasure in being able to let his arms hold her up, to let his embrace surround her.
They stood that way, together for a long span of heartbeats, just remembering what each other felt like, living and breathing and not a memory to be cherished like a keepsake in a dusty box.
"What ... what are you doing here?" She finally asked it, pulling back to look up at him. His face was gaunt in the meager light. So tired. More exhausted than she could ever remember seeing him. He had never quite lost that hunted look, not since DK had died. He had changed that day, and not for the better. Something in him, his innocence perhaps, had been lost when his best friend had stolen his death. When DK had stepped in front of a PK bolt that was meant for him. But he was still John Crichton, he still had the same heart, even if it was shrouded by a few new inches of armor. "You know how dangerous it is for you to come into the city. Darred grows more fixated on you each new day. At this point I doubt that he would bother imprisoning you if he caught you. He would pick one of a hundred inventively painful ways for you to die."
His mouth twisted up on one side as he shook his head. His hair was a little too long and she found herself smoothing it back.
"I don't think I had a choice. It's been too long. I had to see how you were doing in there. How it was coming with our friend the Commander."
She took a deep breath through her nose, shaking her head slightly. She would not tell him just *how* she was helping her progress along with Darred, or just what she intended to do. She would not mar their brief reunion by upsetting John. He had enough to worry about anyway.
"Good, John. Good. I think I'm really getting Darred to trust me. I think I might have access to the codes sooner than we had even hoped. Tomorrow night-" He put his hand up suddenly, touching her lips to stillness as he smiled.
"Not yet. Just ...not yet. I brought you something else." Her eyebrows arched up and she backed away from him, peering around curiously as if she could see anything at all in the musty dark. Tynan sat hunched against the far wall now, giving as much privacy as he could afford them and still stand watch. All she could really see was the outline of John's head in the light reflecting off the corrugated interiors of the rusted pipes they stood in.
"What?" She couldn't help but sound slightly suspicious after the earlier surprise. John turned from her, leaning down behind him and lifting up a small form that burst into childish giggles as soon as he was touched. Her heart skipped a beat and one hand came up to cover her mouth in a gasp.
"I was real quiet, mama. Wasn't I? Are you surprised?" She couldn't see him properly and she fumbled for her light, switching it on with suddenly trembling fingers. It had been over half a cycle since she had infiltrated the PK Base as a replacement for the old Ag Chief. She had done it because there had been no one else who could, and she knew what was at stake. But if leaving John behind had been hard, it had been torture to leave her son.
Light streamed from her now-steadying hand and she shone it onto Dylan, named at John's request after his dead friend. Blue eyes squinted into the light and she laughed, a short sharp sound that encompassed both joy and shock. He was so much bigger than he had been. How much of his life had she missed? She didn't say another word, just gathered the boy into her arms and pulled him close, ignoring his squeal of protest. He smelled like cold and snow and something sweet. His hair was sleek as seedfluff against her cheek and she laughed softly into the crown of his head.
Hezmana, who could have known that something that seemed so simple, just separation, would be so hard? It wasn't meant to be forever and yet she couldn't believe how much she missed this. Just the smell of her offspring's hair. Her life had once been defined by the sharp scent of Chakkan Oil and the hard boundaries of rifle, knife and fist. This was all at once simpler and infinitely more encompassing. She took a few steps backwards until she found the curved wall and slowly slid down it until she was sitting against it, her knees bent to curve around Dylan. She kissed the top of his head and smiled through her laughter.
Aeryn only allowed herself so much indulgence before she pulled back, lowering her knees so that she could make out both boy and father at the same time. She shook her head, too full of emotion and wonder to be angry at the risks John had taken this night.
"I thought you might want to see him." John said. The underlying tremor in his voice told her that he knew very well how dangerous it was to bring the boy here. She was still absurdly happy, though her practical side was reinstating its authority now that the first flush of joy was wearing off.
"Da told me to surprise you. To be real quiet and not say a word. Did you know I was there?" Dylan had put two mittened hands on both of her cheeks in a gesture that hurt her heart. He had always done that, even when he was a baby, forcing her to look directly at him. It was like he'd been teaching her as she went, just what it meant to be connected in such an intimate way to another. It had been Dylan who had opened those last doors through her fear. It was Dylan that allowed her to *feel* without fear.
She nodded, bringing one hand up to wipe at the suspicious moisture beneath her eyes. Cold was seeping up through the seat of her jumpsuit, but she ignored it.
"You certainly did. I didn't know you were there at all. You were quiet as a moose." John's snort of suppressed laughter told her she had gotten the phrase wrong, but she didn't care. Dylan was digging through his jacket pocket for something when John squatted down next to her, smiling at both of them. He had turned his own light on, adding a little more illumination to the reunion.
"I brought you something, Mama." Awkwardly, with a child's fumbling movements, he withdrew a malformed piece of wood about as long as her index finger from his pocket and held it out in one mittened fist. There was a piece of thong dangling from it. "I made it for you." He exclaimed proudly. "Da helped a little," the boy glanced sidelong at his father as if he had to grudgingly admit it with John sitting right there.
"Only a little." John grinned.
"Tynan showed me how." It was a carving, she saw now. A crude pointed lump of wood that had been sliced into with a knife or a sharp object of some kind. A hole was fitted at the top and a thong strung through it, likely the part that John had done. She kissed Dylan's forehead, brushing aside the dark, glossy wing of his bangs to do so.
"Thank you, its lovely. I can't believe how talented you are."
"Do you know what it is?" John asked wickedly and she shot him a glare before returning her gaze to the lump in her palm. Dylan stared at her expectantly and she suddenly wanted to throttle her grinning mate.
"Um, certainly I do." she squinted at it, trying to make out a feature of some sort. It was impossible of course. She mentally made a note to remember this injustice. "Is it a ... " she wracked her brain for the earth things that the child was exposed to, "a... dog?"
Dylan's frown told her immediately that she had guessed wrong. "A knife?" The small brow was lowering further. "A pulse pistol?" Her sudden inspiration was rewarded with a smile.
"It's for protection." He grinned proudly. She laughed quietly and looped her treasure proudly around her neck. She would have to hide it under her clothes of course, but it was better than anything else she could have hoped for.
"Thank you, Dylan. It will protect me. I'm sure of it." She met John's eyes then, suddenly serious. She didn't have much time before she would be expected to go on her evening rounds.
He read the expression immediately and he pushed to his feet, allowing Aeryn to kiss her son once more before hauling him up and handing him over to Tynan who appeared from the darkness as if on cue. Then John was grabbing her hands and pulling her up to her feet.
Her heart was turning cold at the thought of having to go back down that long lonely tunnel, leaving them behind again, but there was nothing for it. She had started this job, and as tempting as the idea of simply leaving with John and Dylan was, she couldn't just quit. Not yet.
She fumbled on the ground for the datapad she'd been carrying, passing it over to her mate. He didn't even look at it before tucking it safely into his own coat.
"It's this weeken's roof codes for the AgSec so you can land the Skim. I'm going to send out the cargo vessel tomorrow with directions to the coordinates you gave me. They will be collecting Earther fertilizer from the warehouse you specified. All I can say is that I hope the devices are well hidden. Questions would be raised if they were found, especially since I was the one who 'found' the old fertilizer plant." She took a deep breath, folding her arms tightly across her chest, tucking cold fingers under her armpits. "The bags will be unloaded in the shipyard, I will make sure they are placed. I hope it will be easy to determine which bags I need to leave on the cargo vessel itself?" It was dangerous, that part. She would have to make sure that the devices were not discovered at any point in the procedure. He nodded to her question.
"After that, all we need are the Carrier's docking codes." His voice was gruff, his fear for her seeping into the timbre of his words. But escalation was necessary. He'd said so himself. They couldn't just sneak around blowing up PK Stingers on patrol forever. That would never get them anywhere. Eventually High Commander Kregga would become annoyed enough to have the entire area razed from space. And none of them would be able to escape that. It was only lack of manpower and the PK need for the resources hidden in the same mountains the resistance lurked in that had held High Command's hand.
Why wasn't Tynan in her place? He was Sebacean. He could have infiltrated too. It had been John's silent question the night before she had left to take the place of the new AgSec Officer they had captured. He would not say it out loud, selfish as it was. And they both knew that Tynan could not have done it. The odds of his being recognized were even higher than hers. The ex-PK had been in the first wave before he'd defected.
She had been the only choice. The only way. She had said it to him the night she'd left, and she silently repeated it to herself each day when the loneliness ate at her like a disease. Loneliness. She had been lonely before, before John. But it had never mattered. It was a fact of life. Now it was nearly crippling. A price, she told herself. A price she had to pay for allowing herself to embrace happiness. With John. With her son. Even with the small, tightly knit community of fighters they had built on Earth.
"I will have the codes by tomorrow night." It was a bold statement. Anything could happen between now and then. "If something goes wrong, I will signal you to abort. Can you be ready?"
He stared at her for a long moment, hard. So hard. And then, slowly, he nodded.
She stepped away when John made a move to take her hands in his, ducking her head to keep from meeting his eyes. She was afraid that if she let him touch her again, she wouldn't be able to leave.
He didn't seem to have the same concern. His fingers brushed her chin, forcing her to look up again. She did look at him then, forced herself to really look. Even knowing what she would see. The stripped and whittled version of the John Crichton who had coaxed her into the light all those cycles ago. Hezmana, the past monens had not treated him well. Hollow cheeks and sharp edged intensity. She tried to remember what he had looked like before, what he had looked like before Scorpius. There was hardly anything soft left in him at all. Burned away by bitter truth, by hardship and tragedy and most of all, guilt.
Aeryn wondered now and again if things would have been different if DK had not died. The final turning point for him, the moment he had decided that there was no real justice, no happy endings. Not for anyone. When Dylan had been born, she had hoped that he might regain his hope, but it had only made him tougher, more protective. Never cruel, never unfair. Only ...hard as stone.
She would never tell him that his distance was part of why she had gone into the BaseOp, never tell him that she felt the need to do something, anything. Not just to save Earth, save her new family, but to save *him*. To prove that he could triumph. Just once. That hope was real. That he mattered.
His eyes didn't leave hers and she wondered if he ever guessed her thoughts. The irrationality of that notion vanished as she realized that it was well past time for her to go. She swallowed past the lump in her throat and saw that he realized it too. His fingers threaded back into her hair before she could move away, circling behind her ears, his thumbs stroking her cheeks. He pulled her forward until their foreheads touched, and she closed her eyes at the pain of the simple gesture.
"I want you out of there, Aeryn." His voice was soft, too soft to even echo. She nodded faintly. Her strength was returning, her resolve. She was doing this for them. For all of them. And most of all for him. It had to be done.
"I'll wait by the next juncture," Ty called out softly from the darkness, then to Dylan: "Say bye to your mom."
"Bye, mama. Are you coming back soon?"
"Soon." The word caught in her throat a little as she pulled back from her mate and waved her hand. She could just make out the glint of the boy's eyes over Ty's shoulder. He waved back and then the big man vanished into the dark, his light bobbing. She returned her attention to John. His face was twisted into an expression of pain to match her own. She reached up to touch his cheek, running the pad of her finger along the network of lines just beneath his right eye and then down to touch his lips. He kissed her finger and she let herself press up against him one last time.
"Promise you'll be careful getting back out of the city." She whispered it, hearing the darkness repeat her words back in a sibilant hiss.
"Promise me you'll *get* back out." His raw words were lost in her neck.
They pulled back from each other, both fully aware that neither could promise anything of the sort.
They did not say goodbye as they kissed one last time, a hard, desperate thing, and then parted, walking in opposite directions down separate dark paths.
They'd never said goodbye to each other, and they would not start now.
Wanda died yesterday.
When I say she died, I mean, we killed her. We had to. See, every so often (more and more lately) the Peeks come out from behind their Base walls and they grab random people off the streets for questioning. When I say questioning, I don't mean they sit em' down and ask 'em nice questions. There's no bright light and no good-cop, bad-cop like on TV. The Peeks have ways... technology... that will *make* you talk. And there's nothing you can do about it.
Because of that, those of us who know anything about our little resistance groups, we walk always in threes. And we don't clump up. It's a little scary, actually. Not just to be scared that you might get caught, but to think that you might have to 'take care' of someone who does.
Wanda was a great lady, I feel real sorry for Scott. He was the one who had to shoot her when the Peeks grabbed her. And it scares me too. I don't know if I could kill someone to protect our secrets... even if it meant saving all the rest of us. If even one of us were caught, that would be the end of it all. The Peeks would root out our nest like so many ants.
And then there would be no chance of ever winning.
It was full dark by the time John emerged from the sewer system, climbing up through the damaged network of ladders and rubble in the ruins of the old Dept. of Water and Power station. The silence was eerie, that hollow quiet that always came with a heavy snow. In comparison to the inky darkness of the tunnels, even the moonless night was bright. After running the oculars over the surrounding landscape, he braced his legs onto the opening and leaned down to pull Dylan up from Tynan's hands. The boy was sleepy. With all the excitement of coming down from the mountain camp and the long hike in the tunnels, he was worn out. Tucking him against his body and half under his coat, he kept an eye out with his free hand on his pistol while the ex-PK climbed out of the hole and carefully covered it back up again with debris.
Squinting back behind him through the falling snow, he could make out the reddish glow that was BaseOp 43, a hulking eyesore in the middle of the ruined corpse of Denver, Colorado. Enormous black walls, easily 75 feet high, rose up on all sides of what had once been part of downtown, the repaired dome of the old capital building peeking up over the southwest face. Area lights flooded the area, giving the whole place an unwholesome glow in the inclement weather.
"Come on, John, we have a ways to go yet." His friend's quiet voice was sympathetic and John nodded automatically. Dylan was already asleep against him, breathing softly through his mouth. It had been a risk, he thought, but worth it for the look on Aeryn's face. She had needed it. A lark, he'd thought before when he'd planned his surprise. But he'd had no idea just how much she really had needed to see Dylan... to see *him*. He hadn't even realized how much he'd needed to see *her*. He clenched his teeth and turned away from the BaseOp. If this all worked, then ... he stopped himself brutally. Hope was for fools.
He'd realized that the day that DK had died for him.
The snow was already calf deep as he walked through the shadows of the ruined buildings, trying to keep to Ty's footsteps, always conscious of hiding their numbers. The darkness was hard to navigate, especially with a four year old's dead weight on his arm, but he managed to keep the big man's heels in sight as they hiked. Funny, all the times when he had been on Moya and had imagined being back home again, this apocalyptic landscape was never part of his fantasy.
Moya. He hadn't thought of his old friends in a long while. Were they still out there looking for their homes? He sent out a silent prayer that they would find their worlds in better condition than his. Or that they wouldn't at least be the harbingers of doom to the places that they loved. John was fully aware that it was his fault that Earth had been ravaged by the Peacekeepers.
He had failed to stop Scorpy from opening the wormhole. A wormhole built from the easy-bake oven instructions gleaned from his brain. A wormhole that had led straight to his home.
A humorless, self-deprecating smirk stretched his lips and he looked up to see the ex-PK stopping against a crumbling wall. Darkened streetlights stretched upwards all along the road like dead weeds, the houses to either side hunched dark shapes in the snow. And then, a flicker of light.
Ty snapped his light on and off twice, then once more. They waited for the answer with bated breath, John crushing the old distraction of guilt under his heel for the moment, his grip tightening on his son. So many PK patrols in the city, all out 'keeping the peace'. It would be a simple matter for his small group to be spotted and ambushed. It was a gamble every time they came into the city.
A million scenarios flashed through his head before the single return flash had them both exhaling in relief and trudging forward. Through a gaping doorway and into a living room with half a roof, they found themselves amongst friends again.
"You were gone a long time, we were starting to worry." Jack Crichton wore a full beard in the winters and sometimes John still did a double take when he saw him. His father moved to take Dylan from John's arm before he could ask him to. "We saw a Stinger move past and wondered if you'd been spotted."
Listening to his dad talk after Ty and Aeryn was always a little disorienting. Both Sebaceans' accents were odd and fast, but better with each passing year. Quent had found a way to kill off the microbes in all three of them, enabling them to learn to speak English naturally, which then enabled them to *teach* Sebacean without the microbes interfering.
It had been a long process, but well worth the effort. Even if both Aeryn and Tynan now sounded a little like auctioneers sometimes. Sebacean was a clipped, hoarse language and one not used to drawing out vowels. At first Aeryn had sounded like she wanted to reduce every word to consonants and Ty had tripped over every word that had more than two syllables, but they'd adapted. His people, on the other hand, had learned Sebacean remarkably quickly. He wondered if it had something to do with desperate times.
"We had to evade a few scouting parties on the way in." John grunted, rotating his numb shoulder where Dylan had put it to sleep. The boy made a small noise and pressed his face into Jack's neck, his arms and legs limp. His dad gestured at the half-hidden skimmer just beyond the dining room doorway where the kitchen had once stood.
"We can leave any time you want. We managed to get a little bit of supply hunting done too, while you were down there. How is she?" The last was thrown in almost as an afterthought, but John could hear the concern in his dad's voice. He shook his head, following Jack as the older man walked out to the Skim where the rest of the group was waiting. Quent Gunderia and Kevin Sprage were leaning against the side of their stolen skimmer, pulse rifles held up at the ready. Despite their lounging positions, they were far from relaxed. No one could afford to drop their vigilance for a moment when they were this close to a BaseOp. A roving Patrol could catch a glimpse of them at any time. Valerie was already inside, initiating start-up with a silent humming.
"We've got the AgSec roof now." He patted the datapad she'd given him where it was tucked in his inner pocket. "The big news is that she says she can get the docking codes by tomorrow night. That means we step things up. Can we be ready to go in a day?"
Jack twisted his lips in thought, repositioning the sleeping boy on his hip. The snow was starting to fall in bigger flakes, stark against the black wool cap his father wore.
"I think so. It would just be a matter of getting everything we need together. We can handle it."
"And your team, Ty?" John turned as the big Sebacean came up behind them, hauling a big box under one arm. He grunted.
"They're ready. They've been ready for a cycle now. Isn't that right, Q?"
Quent's old, scratched glasses glinted in the light of the flashlights as he nodded, not moving from his place by the Skim. John might have grinned at the vision of his old Farscape teammate holding a pulse rifle so seriously, if the situation hadn't been so real. Once mathematician, now post-apocalyptic freedom fighter.
"I asked how she was." Jack had not been fully diverted from his original question. John hardened, but said nothing as he turned away from both Ty and his dad and climbed into the Skim.
He did not miss his father's soft sigh as he handed Dylan into the compartment, but he ignored it. The last thing that he needed was to talk. His dad, hell, even Melissa, wouldn't stop trying to unearth things that John had no interest in letting see the light. No talking. Not now. Jack settled on the opposite bench, staring at John with measuring eyes though he said nothing more. Only once Tynan shut the hatch and moved up into the pilot's seat, did he lean forward and touch John's hand.
"She's doing fine, son. She's strong. Stronger than all of us."
There might have been a time that John would have tried to appreciate his father's concern, but now it only grated. He turned his eyes down to Dylan's sleeping face instead. The skimmer rocked as Tynan maneuvered it up and over debris on the roadways and he tightened his grip on his son.
He looked over at Kevin then, flicking his eyes up and down the kid's too-thin frame. It had been 2 monens since he'd seen the boy. Apparently food was still hard to come by in the city. Maybe not quite 20, Kevin had been on Scout duty the past month in Denver. Watching the Base, watching the Peacekeepers, talking to the downtrodden population. John had taken the trip to contact Aeryn as an opportunity to replace him with a new Scout. And it was Mel's turn.
Melissa was good at spying, she had always taken no small amount of pride in the amount of information she had gathered on his nighttime activities when they had been kids. Blackmail, she had said, always had its uses.
His thoughts lingered on his sister for a moment, shying away from remembering that Jen, his youngest sister, hadn't fared so well in the Bombardment. She'd been in New York, and from what he understood, New York was part of the Atlantic floor now. Another death he could mark up on his list of crimes.
Jennifer could have never survived in this manicure-free, no-valet-parking, eating-out-of-a-can world. But Melissa, Mel was her father's daughter. She'd held up under the trauma of the past years better than he would have expected. Not that he'd ever thought of her as weak, but she'd always been the one in library studying instead of out skipping school like Jen. She'd never joined any teams like her sibs, preferred to read rather than run around. Now she was a compact bundle of muscle, their best Sebacean speaker and a crack shot with a pulse pistol. Sister or not, he would be putting her out as Scout.
He had Scouts in nearly every North American Base, and contacts with small pockets of resistance overseas. The only place he had not managed infiltration was High Command. And that was only because Kregga, blast him, had built his headquarters in Greenland of all places. There was no human settlement near the fortress, and therefore no way to post someone there.
No matter, he reminded himself. He had a few cards left up his sleeve. Things that no one, not his dad, not even Aeryn knew about. It was safer that way. The new, ruthless part of him knew that if any of them were captured, it would only be a matter of time before every detail was spilled out like so much cracked yolk. There were things that he had to bear the burden of alone.
He closed his eyes in the semi-opaque darkness of the skimmer, his chin tucking down over Dylan's soft dark hair. The vehicle didn't touch the ground, it used repulsors to hover only a few feet above the surface, but it still rocked over every irregularity. They had stolen the thing a few years before, outfitted it with as much weaponry as they could and now used it and others like it to transport his tiny army here and there. Mostly in and out of the mountains. There was always the danger that they would be spotted from the air, either from satellite trackers or Stinger patrols - but they were careful. Very careful.
Almost as if to demonstrate his thoughts, the skimmer lurched to a halt and John felt the sudden unmistakable stilling of the air that meant Tynan had dropped a Shield over them. Temporary, of course, since it cut off all the air, but excellent to hide under when a patrol passed over.
"Reaver coming in," Tynan's voice echoed in the silent interior. John's head shot up, his eyes opening. Reaver? That was highly unusual. Was it Kregga? Without being told, Kevin switched from his bench across the aisle and held out his arms for Dylan. John gave the slumbering child over and he and Jack moved up to the front of the vehicle, squinting at the control panel in the front.
Tynan tapped a few buttons, amplifying the view the exterior scanners gave and John watched with tight lips as the deadly black wedge of a Reaver swooped overhead and arched around to disappear behind the massive walls of the BaseOp. It was out of sight in moments, but not before everyone in the cockpit had seen the red painted sigil on the belly that spoke of High Command. Not Kregga, it was a Preklate in that ship, not a Commander.
"I need to speak to Mel. Now." He had to unclench his jaw to talk and Valerie, who was co-piloting the Skimmer, only glanced at him once before immediately tapping a code into the comm. He could feel his father's eyes on him, but he ignored what could only be concern and mistrust. It was exceedingly dangerous to use the comms. He knew that, everyone knew that. Only in emergencies. But if that really was a Preklate...
Val handed him a small comm device and he saw that the woman had already set the frequency for the Denver Scout unit. He tapped it, one hand clamped to the doorjamb for balance as Tynan started the Skim forward again, dropping the suffocating Shield. Clearing his throat, he growled in his best Sebacean:
"SK-1 to Posting 12-6."
All communications were in Sebacean, all terms were Peacekeeper. They used frequencies that the PKs had not hacked yet, but it was best to be on the safe side. Speaking English would be a certain death warrant for both ends of the communication if they were ever overheard. At least Sebacean was a bit of a mask. Not much, but better than nothing.
He waited for a long moment, swaying to the movement of the Skim, his eyes glancing back to rest on Kevin and the still sleeping Dylan. That kid could sleep through a war. He had a few times, actually. Aeryn thought it was because there was always so much going on, he was just acclimated to it. Whatever the case, John had always been glad that the boy was not the nervous type.
"12-6." Melissa's voice was low, concerned. "I saw it, SK-1. Orders?" Leave it to Mel, she was always on the same wavelength.
"Identify. Any means necessary."
Any means necessary meant that she had permission to try and contact Aeryn if she could do so safely.
The connection cut off. Short, to the point. She would contact them when she discovered something. He handed the comm back to Valerie and she returned it to the inner pocket of her heavy jacket without a word. He stared out into the red-lit screens, watching the dead houses move past as they navigated the ruins of what had once been Arvada, a suburb of Denver. No one lived here now but animals. A pair of coyotes scampered across the snowy street, red outlines on the screen, their heat trail leaving a smeared track behind them.
He had a sick feeling about the Reaver. Swallowing tightly, he turned and moved back through the swaying vehicle to take Dylan back from Kevin. He treated the kid as a security blanket sometimes, he knew, but he couldn't help it.
Settling down on the metal bench once more, he tucked his back against the wall and brought his knees up, cradling Dylan to him and closing his own eyes. He didn't want to think about who he thought had just arrived on the Reaver. Didn't want to, but couldn't stop himself.
There was a part of him that was not really him. A part of him that was alien.
And he could feel it stirring.
Melissa Crichton-Myer moved purposefully through the Gather, pushing across the crowded floor, trying not to think about what her brother had just asked her to do. Any means necessary. That was an ugly thing. A desperate thing to say. He was rattled. She doubted that any but a few would have been able to tell by hearing his voice, but he had been scared. No other reason to be so focused on something that might not have any importance.
But what did *she* know? He was the expert. They had all realized that early on. Everyone who followed him now did so on faith of that fact. Of course, they followed him for other reasons too. His drive. His intensity. It was almost impossible not to. When you looked at him, you felt like you had a chance, that things might actually turn out ok.
But if you looked a little longer... if you had known him *before* he'd vanished into space all those years ago... you would know that the fire in his eyes masked a frightening coldness. Even as a kid, he'd always taken such stock in being an optimist. Hope was something that he took for granted. She wondered now if he had lost it. Hope.
A hand touched her elbow, stopping her in her tracks, and she looked down to see a thin teenaged boy staring at her with an uncomfortably sharp look on his dark-skinned face. He wore a low wool cap and a dark red Gore-Tex coat that was too big for his slender frame. A long, pale scar ran down one cheek, fading out just under his ear.
"Are you with the resistance?" The voice was a whisper, low and hissed. She thinned her lips and shook her head. She brushed off his hand and moved on, trying desperately not to show how shaken she suddenly was. Right now, to admit to anyone, even to a starved anonymous kid, that she was part of the John's resistance, was to put them all in danger. And just how had he even known to ask her? Or was it a coincidence? Her heart was knocking unevenly against her ribs.
After all, she was the current weak link of the whole effort. She was the exposed nerve, the Achilles heel. If Commander Darred even guessed that there was a member of John's group in the city, he would turn Denver upside down to find her. The PKs had ways of extracting information, John said. They would know what she knew. She could *not* be caught at any cost. The responsibility was staggering.
All those lives riding on her decisions, her skills. It made her nauseous to think about. She had no idea how John did it. How he was still doing it after five years. Maybe the icy cold armor he wore now was all a part of his own defenses.
It was only times like these that she came close to understanding the weight of it.
She could feel the boy looking at her back, but when she tilted her head to search for him, he was gone. Vanished amongst the other people who crowded into the makeshift market. Somehow it didn't make her feel better.
What was now called a Gather had once been a High School gym, and it served as a sort of shantytown/marketplace. There were several such places in Denver now, Gyms and the once-new football Stadium that served as open bazaars. Places to talk, to trade, to pretend that their lives still had focus and meaning. Most of the human population lived as miners and a menial workforce for the PKs. The rest had been informed that they needed to rebuild their economy. To go on with life as normal. It would have been a funny joke if it hadn't been meant to be serious.
The thing was, the Peacekeepers were used to conquering spacefaring races. A planetary population that had barely managed to land on its own moon did not qualify. Earth's infrastructure had been unable to handle the pounding that the over-zealous Carriers in orbit had delivered. There would be no taxes, no economy, no 'normal life'. Not for a long while.
There was a part of Denver, near Cherry Creek, that had not been hit as hard. Many houses there had become the new residential center for the city. It had once been an affluent, quiet neighborhood. Now it was an overcrowded ghetto. It was where her Scout post was, but it was not where she headed now.
Haggard men and women, ex-bankers and ad executives, waitresses and construction workers, stood behind and before rickety card tables and haggled over half-burned blankets and mystery tins of food. It was gruesome to think what people had been reduced to. Trading a pair of shoes without laces for a dented metal cup of rice.
She ducked out of the crowded and muggy interior of the gym and into the new snow. The fall had lightened and she could just make out the glow from the Base to her right. Finding out who had been on that Reaver would not be easy. She stopped and leaned against the exterior wall, tucking her hands into her pockets and just watching with narrowed blue eyes.
Snow flakes stung her nose and cheeks and her breath billowed in a cloud of frozen vapor. She scrunched her chin further down into her turtleneck and tried to think. She would need a view of the Base from up high. Kevin had talked about a place he'd found... a hotel downtown. Dark blond hair fluttered in her peripheral vision and she reached up briefly to tuck it back under her worn wool cap. Another touch on her elbow made her jump.
It was the same boy and she gritted her teeth in frightened annoyance. This time she examined him more closely, at least as best she could in the pale dark of the snowstorm. Tight curly hair, warm chocolate skin and wide black eyes. He might have been handsome but for the hollow cheeks and the sunken eyes. She guessed he had to be around 14 or so.
"Are you with the resistance? It's ok. I can tell you are." She went down on her haunches without even thinking, grabbing both his arms and staring him in the face.
"What are you talking about? Are you a fool to say things like that out in the open?" Her voice was a grating whisper, her eyes flicking back and forth for patrols. The street they stood on was clear but she could see the melted paths where skimmers had passed not long before. Empty or not, it was no safe place to talk.
Grabbing the boy's arm, she dragged him quickly around the back of the gym, and down a chopped up concrete stair that might have once led to locker rooms. She squeezed his arms a little too tightly, letting the kid know that she was serious. Wanting him to be afraid like she was. Had she been ID'd by the PK Squads? Was her image up on flyers? If it was, she was going to have to abandon her post immediately.
One long finger reached up and touched the unobtrusive, almost-invisible cross of scar-tissue at the base of her throat. John had notched the mark into each member of his group. She'd teased him that he was being too dramatic, but he had not laughed. He hadn't even smiled at the absurdity. There had to be a way, he'd said, to make sure that they could recognize each other if the need arose...a way that couldn't be mistaken for anything else. She peered more closely at the kid. He was *not* with John's group, she had never seen him before. And he did not have the mark.
"How did you know?" The question popped out before she could stop it and she quickly jerked her head around again to make sure that there was no one to overhear. Christ, if this kid was a plant or a trick... she'd just condemned them all. Oddly, he seemed to understand, putting one hand on her shoulder like he was comforting her.
"Don't worry." Thin brown fingers reached into that overlarge coat and pulled out a much-tattered flimsie. John's image was on it. "You are with Him." She could almost hear the capitalization. Like John was a superhero or something.
She bit her lip, closing her eyes in instant and utter weariness. For a moment she was just plain tired. She sank down to the cold concrete of the narrow stairs and rubbed at her face with gloved hands. For some reason, John's picture made her think of the first time she'd seen him again, a week or so after the Peeks had first come.
John had returned from the dead that day. She'd lived through the Bombardment because she'd been out camping with friends the night her and her husband's house (oh god, Eric) had been pounded into dust. John had come, accompanied by a number of high-ranking government suits. They had come to Colorado for NORAD, he'd told her, but he had come for her.
They'd had gone through the city that day (before the PKs swooped down from orbit and built their bases) trying to organize, trying to do what they could, but mostly trying to prepare for the coming occupation. John had destroyed the power plants, wrecked the Cherry Creek Reservoir, and smashed the water treatment facilities. The PKs were quick, but they weren't quick enough. By the time they had come to build their base in Denver, as with most of the spots they chose, John had already made sure it would be difficult for them.
Quick thinker, her brother, she thought grimly. Even the generals who had gone into hiding at NORAD deferred to him now. A new order of things, she thought. And the one with the knowledge had the power. Not that she would have ever imagined that her brother would one day be the leader of some crazy resistance aimed at taking back the planet from alien invaders. Her mouth twitched with actual humor. Maybe he was a superhero.
"I am." she finally said, taking a huge risk, but going with her instinct. Since the Day, she had learned to listen to her instinct. The boy's face did not move, but his eyes lit with something akin to savage glee.
"So he's real then. We want to join him."
She'd heard that vow from hundreds over the past five years, but John could not take everyone. It was too risky to spread too thin, he'd said. The less they were, the stronger they were. It was counter-intuitive, but because the PKs could and did take large numbers of the populace under arrest randomly to scour their minds for information, he was right.
"You can't. And you must forget that you ever saw me. That is the best way to help." She stood up then, staring him down grimly. He did not break eye contact with her, his expression calm and cool. She got the impression that he wasn't just going to nod and walk away.
So *she* did. Turning, she walked up the steps and after another sweep of the area, headed back towards Downtown. Mel looked back only once, and she saw that the boy was gone again.
For some reason, she found herself frowning as she moved on. 'We', the boy had said. Was there another group? It would make sense. Shaking her head, she gave up on it for the moment. She had to turn her mind to other matters, but she would look into it when she finished her brother's task. Ask around when she'd gotten settled into the Scout house. She usually came down to Denver every 6 months or so when her turn came up. She and three others, Kevin, Lindy and Adam, were the Scouts that John had come to rely on.
She was glad to help in such an important way, though there was a part of her that wondered sometimes. About John even letting her post here. Not that she would have welcomed any protective behavior, but she *had* been surprised by the lack of it.
A colorful fall afternoon over 4 years ago now. They had just moved into the scenic Alva Camp and Dylan was only a few months old. John needed Scouts to spy on the Base in Denver and she had immediately volunteered. Dad had put up the useless arguments while John just stared out at the colorful vista of turning leaves that spread below the encampment.
'If you think you can handle it, Mel.' That was all he'd said. It sent a chill down her spine just recalling it. The John she had known would have argued for a straight week at the very notion of her doing something so dangerous. The new John, on the other hand, had thought about it and agreed. It was the right decision, they both knew it. But the fact that John no longer seemed to have that emotional attachment, scared her. He had even let Aeryn infiltrate the base with hardly more than a few tight, angry words of disapproval.
Guilt, she suspected, was the culprit. He didn't talk about it -ever- with anyone, maybe not even Aeryn, but he felt responsible for the PKs being on Earth. He attributed all the deaths to himself. Chalked up each murdered soul onto his conscience. Her thoughts circled back around to where she had started. Too much weight for one set of shoulders. It was cracking him. Maybe it already had.
She swallowed through a throat that suddenly felt too tight, lifting her face to the darkened sky and letting snowflakes melt on her cheeks. It wasn't fair. None of it. She had gotten her brother back, but he was this doppelganger, this hard, tormented creature who wore John's skin. And though they all - Dad, Aeryn, Ty - they all pretended that he would snap out of it, she feared deep down that he never would.
If only DK was still alive... she stopped that chain of pointless speculation before it got started. After the Bombardment, the 'if onlys' of the world had vanished into the dust and debris. But she couldn't help wondering if things would have been different if DK *hadn't* died. If he hadn't died in John's arms. If he hadn't died taking a shot meant for her brother. Would it have changed anything? Would the guilt of his homeworld's destruction be easier to bear without that final straw lying atop with DK's name on it?
They would never know.
She shook her head almost violently and took a deep breath of the icy night air. Task at hand, Mel. Task at hand. She set her shoulders and pushed on.
15 minutes later a brisk trot through the snow drifts found her standing in the grim shadows of what had once been downtown Denver. Empty now, mostly dangerous and unstable, the skyscrapers that used to dominate the skyline were now jagged, broken teeth gnashing impotently against the gray skies. She paused to stare up at the old Hilton Hotel. It was one of the few that remained mostly undamaged...and it had the bonus of overlooking the PK Base.
An oversight on the part of the PK planners, but then, who could expect them to think or care that someone might be able to peep through their curtains from above? She had never tried it herself, but Kevin had. A long, tiring climb through a dark, unstable stairwell, but a view of the compound like nothing else.
Any means necessary, her brother had said. Bracing herself, she slipped in through a broken basement window and made her way to the elevator shaft. The stairwell door had been pried open and she liked to think that it had been Kevin who had done it. If there were PKs here, her Scouting mission would be ending very abruptly. Gloved fingers found the handle of the long slender knife in her deep, inner pocket. No pulse pistol. Owning such a weapon would immediately give her away as one of the resistance. And the knife was not really for self defense so much as it was for making quick work of herself if she was captured. There was no way she was going to be the downfall of all they had worked for.
She didn't dare switch on her little light as she entered the stairwell, instead concentrating on taking each step carefully, feeling ahead in the pitch black to make sure the steps had not fallen away. Something fluttered against her face as she climbed, flapping and softly screeching and she fought back a shriek of her own before slapping a hand over her mouth. She stood for a long moment, heart pounding dramatically, before she continued on - even more reluctantly - one hand on the wall, the other waving blindly out in front of her.
Somewhere around what she estimated was the 13th floor, she decided that she was going to hate John from that moment on. Panting hard, she continued up, trying to recall every delicious moment she had blackmailed John into giving her his car for the night, or blackmailed him into not tattling on her when he'd caught her sneaking in the window of the hall before dawn. She had frozen the look on his face into a delicious memory. The moment when she'd informed him that she not only knew who had put that dent into the door of Dad's prized 1961 corvette; but that she knew who had been in the car with him that night (and what they had been doing!). It had been worth more than money to her. And it had gotten her quite far in life too. Very nice indeed to have a brother in your pocket.
So why was she climbing 21 floors in the dark for him?
Because of that icy core in him now, and her instinct told her that this was part of it. Finding out who was on that Reaver. From the tone of his voice, she guessed that he might already know who it was. Her penance for blackmailing him for most of her teenaged years was at hand.
As if there was anything she wouldn't do for John now anyway.
She was lightheaded when she finally pushed open the metal roof door, gasping for breath, her side aching painfully with a cramp. Christ, she was in good shape, too. Her legs burned and she simply stood, bent over, hands on her knees, while she recovered.
Once she recovered enough to take a breath without coughing, she pushed slowly through snow that piled up to almost her knees. The orange glow through the haze of the storm told her which way the Base was located and she shoved towards the edge of the building, trying not to succumb to vertigo as she looked out over the vast ruin of the Mile High City.
The snow did not allow for much visibility, but the oculars she had taken with her cut through the weather and she zeroed in on the red heat cloud that swirled around the newly landed Reaver. The ramp was down, which was no surprise considering how long it had taken to get her ass up to the roof. She skimmed the shipyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of anyone in a Commander's rank uniform. She knew as well as any of the resistance that a red sigil on the belly of a ship meant High Command. Their uniforms were recognizable.
She frowned, catching a glimpse of a familiar figure. One they had all studied pictures of. Commander Darred. Did that mean that the visitor might still be in the yard? She scanned the men with him, but saw no High Command uniform. The only figure who stood with the Commander was a man dressed head to toe in black. He even wore a black hood. She tapped the side of the ocular and tried to zoom in. It only pulled a little further in and then stopped. She had reached her range. She could not make out features.
She sighed, blowing vapor out of her mouth in dismay. No sign of the visitor then, unless this fellow was it. Unlikely. The Preklate or whoever it was, was probably already inside.
Cold was starting to seep up through her coat and she bit her lip, trying to decide if she should stay. She was essentially a sitting duck up here, her dark clothes making her stand out against the snow like a sore thumb. Any patrol would spot her in moments if it came up this high. She couldn't take the risk.
She would, she decided, retire to the stairwell and wait there till dawn before checking again. Any means necessary. Well, whoever the High Commander was, he would come out eventually. She would have to wait till then.
As she slunk back from the edge and made her way to the rusted metal door, she completely missed the sight of Commander Darred bowing deeply to the stranger in black, something that a Commander would not do to anyone but High Command.
Dismal place. Cold, but then, he liked the cold. His footfalls sounded hollow as he walked down the ramp, surveying the rather depressing squalor of the shipyard. Groups of heavily clad laborers worked in straggling crews over the assorted vessels in the yard, repairing what looked like the most motley collection of ships he'd ever seen. Not a one was not somehow damaged or patched. His lips thinned in interest. The occupation force was not doing as well as had been reported. Not that he'd been keeping up more than a cursory interest in the place. He only came here now for only one reason.
"Ah, Preklate Scorpius, you honor us with your presence."
The voice belonged to - his tilted his head, recalling:
"Commander Darred, how nice of you to come out into the cold to welcome me." The tall man bowed to him as it if was not required that he did. Scorpius's nostrils flared slightly as he nodded in return. The taller man smelled slightly of sickness. Of dark, red places and cold obsession.
"Welcome to Earth, Preklate. Perhaps if we retire inside, I might show you your quarters? I know you must be tired."
A fool, then. Perhaps not as bad a fool as High Command Kregga was, but then, most of the PK Occupation forces on Earth were idiots. High Command did not want to waste anyone of quality on a primitive mining outpost like Earth.
It was the first time the half-Scarran had set foot on the planet that had won him his title. He flicked his eyes around again, taking in the homeworld of the alien who had caused him so much ire and had eventually propelled him to such heights.
"I think I would like to walk about the shipyard first, Commander. Perhaps you could explain the state of your fleet to me."
There was a flicker of rage in the Commander's eyes that fluttered on the verge of unstable, one Scorpius recognized well. It was not directed at him, it could be directed at only one universal nuisance. A smile stretched his features. He took a small amount of pleasure in seeing the trials that others suffered on behalf of John Crichton. And he had no doubt that John Crichton *was* the cause. The reports he had read indicated as such, that the human had been spotted in this region and that it was thought he had his base near Denver.
It was, of course, why Scorpius had chosen this particular drenheap to visit over the others.
Darred led him obediently around the yard, trying to explain the damage to his ships without admitting that a primitive human had orchestrated it, trying to describe his hardships without telling a direct lie to a Preklate. Scorpius took some small amusement in watching the man struggle with his explanations before finally letting him off the hook.
"John Crichton. You know of this man?"
The name affected Darred like a slap in the face and he turned towards Scorpius with a look of mixed horror and icy rage pasted on his face.
"I ... do, Preklate. If I may ask, how do you?"
Scorpius smiled again, folding his hands peacefully behind his back as they stood in the falling snow, the tour forgotten.
"I've had some dealings with him the past. Do not underestimate him, Commander. That is the first thing you must learn."
Darred's mouth twisted sourly.
"He eludes us." The voice was tight with humiliated anger. "We haven't been able to get anything on him. His supporters are invisible. We've never captured a one of them, which is part of the problem."
"He will have kept his efforts small for that very reason, Commander. He understands how the Peacekeepers work better than you might imagine. We also believe, through reports from a Disrupter who was on the planet before the attack, that he has at least one Sebacean working with him."
Darred's eyes narrowed, his upper lip lifting in an unconscious sneer. This man, thought Scorpius, was only a few steps from the edge. Not the best possible adversary to pit against Crichton.
"That would explain some things, sir. Why was I not given this information before now?" The Commander was stiff as a board, his eyes pointing at a distant spot over Scorpius' shoulder.
The Preklate shrugged.
"I doubt that anyone bothered to put any thought into it, Commander. After all, you have not really been specific about your "pest problem" out here, have you? Many bases are suffering the same consequences as you are, but they are not my concern. Those compounds are not directly within John Crichton's sphere of influence."
A light flashed in the other man's eyes.
"You have come here for Crichton, sir?"
Scorpius nodded ever so slightly, his head tilting again. The man was dull, but he caught on eventually. Of course, Darred would never guess the extent of the shared past between Scorpius and the human. And he would not know that the Wormhole research was not going as well as Scorpius had hoped it would 5 cycles ago. No matter what he did, every wormhole he created only ended up here. At this useless, dead-end of the galaxy. He could not change the original matrix that he had developed with Crichton's neural clone information.
In Scorpius' mind, there was only one place to turn after beating his head against a virtual wall for 5 cycles. The only mind who understood wormholes perhaps better than he did himself.
"Yes, Commander. Yes I have. And I will get him. I always have."
Aeryn had gotten little sleep, tossing and turning on her thin mattress, twisting from a light doze to uneasy dreams. Nightmares of Commander Darred touching her with cold, hard hands ... trailing his fingertips along her skin and peeling her flesh away like she might peel fruit. Dreams of lying still and allowing her slow mutilation, of John standing over her and just watching. Dreams of the woman she had replaced. Lora Kreeg, a willowy woman with short dark hair who had apparently abandoned the Base and gone native. Only in her nightmare, Kreeg stood over her with Darred and John. A gruesome gallery of faces splattered with her own blood. Just watching her die...
She finally forced herself to the surface of consciousness, gasping awake with a sound that was nearly a sob. She curled over her bent legs for a long moment, pressing her forehead into her knees while she fumbled for a calmer heart rate. One hand came up between damp breasts to clutch at her new talisman, the little piece of wood pressing into her palm. It was not the first dream she had had of Darred. Ever since she had determined the only route to getting the codes was through him, by getting close to him, she'd been hard pressed to get a full night's sleep.
Aeryn stayed that way, with head hung, for a long span of microts before she raked sweaty hair back from her face and swung bare legs out from the blankets onto the floor.
A quick glance at her chrono showed that she still had enough time to get to the Mess and eat something before she was expected on duty in the AgSec. She quickly gathered up her underclothing, pulling it on rapidly and then stepping into a clean gray jump. She paused for a moment, picking up the mud stained jump from the night before, lifting it to her nose to see if still retained any lingering scent of her brief contact with John. It only smelled of cold fabric. She tossed it into the corner almost angrily. Angry at her useless sentimentality and at the fact that it did not prove that he really had been there at all.
One hand climbed up to the wooden carving again. No dream, she reminded herself. Dylan had been real. So had John. She stood with hanging head for a long moment, and then tucked the thong inside her undershirt. It would not do to have it found, as personal decor was not regulation. And she was theoretically the perfect soldier. But she couldn't bring herself to part with it.
She stamped into her cold boots, gritting her teeth at the dampness in the toes before clomping out of her room and up the narrow staircase. The sky was pale with clear dawn when she walked outside into the crisp air. The snowfall had stopped sometime in the night. The area between the buildings was a clean white blanket of snow, glittering blue in the early light. A transitory beauty, of course. When the rest of the base woke, she knew that frosty shroud would transform into a muddy slop.
Steam billowed out of the moisture processors on the roof of AgSec as she walked, kicking through miniature drifts. Her mind would not stop swinging back to John's haunted face in the darkness of the tunnel, and she had to force herself to stop dwelling on her mate. She needed to stay sharp, had to keep her mind on where she was. Directly in the Kraak's Nest. One wrong step would end, not only her life, but her family's and her friends'.
The huge doors to her domain hissed open before her and the rich, muggy smell of dirt and growth engulfed her. When they had intercepted the new personnel orders for BaseOp 43 half a cycle ago, they had simply taken the first semi-decent ranking female officer that had come along. Aeryn had been skeptical about the specialty, claiming that she didn't know anything about farming, but now she was glad for it. To her surprise, she'd loved the loamy, earthen scents surrounding her, the sight of row after row of lush greenery. And it hadn't been that hard. Melissa had brought her some books she'd smuggled out of Denver and she'd spent a weeken with John's sister, struggling over the Earth text, learning what she could of growing cycles and plant species. It had been flimsy, but it turned out to apply extremely well to the alien plants the PKs had transported in for food supply.
And her new, limited knowledge of earth growing patterns and methods had only made her seem to be smart and proactive to the Commander. Something that she'd needed to get him to notice her. It was a fact that John perhaps knew on some level was necessary, but he wouldn't think about it directly. To him, it would be a matter of spying and snooping... but she knew better. She would have to get *close* to the Commander in order to get what they needed from him. There was no other way she would ever get the docking codes to the Carrier that floated above them in orbit. The Carrier that was the only reason the Earthers could never succeed in any real revolt against the occupation. And of course, the Wormhole itself.
Remove both Carrier and Wormhole from the equation and the PKs on Earth would be stranded among a sea of enemies. Remove the threat of further bombardment, and those downtrodden primitives would no longer have any reason to hold back.
They needed to destroy both things. And John had figured out a way to do it, but it had needed one thing that they hadn't had. A stealthy way onto the Carrier itself. That was why she was here, she reminded herself as she walked down the aisles in Sec 7, eyeing the wilting Hennoc Root. Not to be a farmer.
Darred. Her regular meetings with the Commander were something she had worked hard for. He had been staring at her with his cold eyes for some time after she'd first arrived, but it had only been a weeken ago that she became certain he desired her. She knew part of his attraction to her was from simple respect. But her decisions to wear jumps that were one size too small for real comfort, accentuating her curves, would help it along the rest of the way. It had taken time to come under his eye, to make herself indispensable, but things were finally paying off.
By tomorrow, she could get the frell off the Base for good and leave the unsettling stare of the Commander behind.
It certainly didn't hurt that it was easy to shine when everyone around her seemed as dull and stupid as herdbeasts. She frowned suddenly, snapping her fingers at a worker who was supposed to be on the lookout for root rot. The man walked over to her with enough alacrity but it was all a farce. She pointed to the row he had just theoretically 'inspected'.
"Torrim. Do you see these spots? Do you remember what exactly it was that you were looking for here?"
He stared down at the wilted leaves of the Hennoc, his face expressionless.
"Yes, Chief Gevvis. I'm sorry, sir. I must have missed it."
Aeryn yanked the plant up by its stalk, dangling the rotten root in front of the boy's face.
"Would you want to eat this, Tor?" She did not snap at him. Part of her goal had been to get her crew to like her. She knew that happy workers would make it easier for her to do what she had come for if they all trusted her. Any pangs of conscience she might have betraying them later would have to be dealt with at the time.
He looked down at his feet and shook his head, but to his credit, he did look embarrassed.
"I'll go back over this line, sir. It won't happen again."
"All right then." She tossed the root over into one of the waste bins and then slapped the man on his shoulder as she passed.
"Chief Gevvis! Myla!" Yena, her Op Second, appeared from a side door, lifting one hand over her head. Aeryn turned and put on a smile for the older woman. It wasn't hard. She honestly liked her assistant, even if she was about as imaginative as a post.
"Good morn, Yen. Do you have my morning stats already?" Yena smoothed her hands down her soiled jump. She looked like she'd already been down in the fertilizer bins. A strong sniff confirmed it. The woman shook her head, strands of graying hair falling around her round cheeks.
"Not yet, sir. I was instructed to bring you to the Commander, he wanted to talk to you about something." Yen's face expressed more than mild distaste. The woman made no secret of the fact that she was afraid of Darred. She had stated outright that she thought it was a mistake for Aeryn to attract his eye. Aeryn agreed with her, but of course, could never tell her the real reason for cultivating the man.
She raised her eyebrows at her aide. A meeting now? That was unusual. She was seeing him tonight. In his quarters. Finally. A twinge of unease shot through her but she showed no sign of it on her face. Something was wrong. Had she been discovered?
"Maybe it has something to do with the Preklate that came in last night," Yen speculated cautiously, turning to walk with her Chief as she picked up a brisk pace to the doors. Aeryn stopped just as suddenly, fixing the woman with a stare.
"Preklate?" Yena nodded, meeting her superior's eyes.
"He must have come in after you retired last night. A Class I Reaver brought him in. It would have to be a Preklate, that sort of ship. And it has High Command sigils."
High Command. What could that mean? Couldn't be Kregga. The old vulture never left his icy fortress on the northern continent. Had someone come through the wormhole? New postings? New men? Impossible to speculate, but she couldn't stop herself. What did it mean? Would plans have to change with the end just in sight? Her heart was racing.
"Are you all right, sir? You look a little flushed." Yena sounded honestly concerned and Aeryn shook her head, putting her hand on the smaller woman's shoulder. Sometimes Yen reminded her of Zhaan a little. She would never be as sharp as the Delvian Priestess had been, but her compassion was well equal. Likely it was the very thing that had gotten the woman posted on this distant outpost.
"No, no, I'm fine, Yen. Just thinking about what High Command might be doing here."
Her Second shrugged again, a common gesture from the smaller woman.
"Maybe it's finally an inspection of the work we do here."
Naive peacekeeper, Aeryn thought a little sadly. There would be no inspection on Earth. This was essentially a PK exile. A dismal outpost. A mining territory. High Command did not care a whit about anything here, or how it was run. They only cared if the Cargo ships ran on time. And if anything, they were doing just that. John had not wanted to disturb the mining, had not wanted to incur a revisitation of the full PK might until he was ready to strike first.
"I suppose I shall go and see what he wants then. Perhaps I'll discover why High Command has come." She looked back at Yena. "Please compile the morning report and let's get detailed estimates of how much Earth fertilizer we will need for the lacking sectors. I intend to send out the cargo vessel today for collection. I know of a place we can find what we need."
Yena nodded, straightening and saluting. But she hesitated, her lips twisting with the need to say something more. Aeryn raised her eyebrows.
"Is there something else, Yen?"
"I..." She started dry washing her hands in front of her, and Aeryn reached out and squeezed her shoulder again.
"Just tell me. What is it?"
"I don't think you should be... spending time... with the Commander, sir."
Aeryn sighed internally. Me neither, Yen, she thought silently. But the woman's concern touched her, no matter how repetitive. She smiled softly and shook her head.
"It never hurts to cultivate good relationships with Command." It was a standard PK line, but Yena was still shaking her head. Her voice dropped to a whisper.
"No. You don't understand, sir. You haven't been here long enough, but there are rumors about Chief Kreeg. That she didn't abandon us."
Aeryn frowned slightly at the mention of the woman she had replaced. Her dream of the night before tickled the edges of her memory. Odd enough that she would dream of someone she had never met, moreso that her name would be brought up in an unrelated conversation.
"What kind of rumors?"
Yena looked back and forth down the aisle, but it was only them standing in a sea of waist-high greenery. Far over their heads, the grinding moan of the compressors started up. The water cycle would start soon, and unless they wanted to get soaked, they needed to leave. Aeryn folded her arms, trying to convey impatience, though she found herself oddly anxious to hear about her predecessor. It was very unusual, almost unheard of, for a PK to 'go AWOL' as John said. But it was impossible to deny that the Denver base had a very high rate of defectors.
"That she didn't defect. That she would have *never* defected. That something happened to her." Yen swallowed, her voice dipping so low that Aeryn had to strain to hear her. "That the Commander had her *killed*."
Aeryn stared down at the woman for a long moment, her lips thinned in thought.
Darred was just walking the edge of unstable, it was true. The man had been frustrated and humiliated by John for four straight cycles. He was a laughingstock among the other Earth Base Commanders, not to mention the insult of being posted on a mining planet in the first place. But she did not think that he would go about killing his officers. Warm bodies, especially competent ones like Kreeg had apparently been, were too hard to come by out here. He knew that as well as anyone. But Aeryn also knew that enough Sebaceans had defected from the Base here that it wasn't too unusual that Kreeg had too. Though she was, as yet, the only rank officer to have slipped away. The rest had been minor workers and functionaries.
She shook her head gently, smiling at Yena.
"Thank you for your concern, Yen. But I'll be fine. Darred has no reason to go killing his own officers. That's just a foolish rumor." Yena opened her mouth once and then shut it again, nodding resignedly. Her brow remained creased.
"Yes, sir. Well, I will have your morning reports ready when you return." She saluted once more before turning and moving off to her duty, the little round form navigating the greenery easily.
Aeryn stood among the Hennoc root for a long moment, breathing in the rich, lightly spicy scent of the plants' leaves and listening to the clunk and then distant hiss of Sec 18 being watered. Her Sec would be next. She moved to the exit, dismissing thoughts of Darred killing Kreeg. What would he gain? And if the woman had made some transgression, it would only make sense to execute her officially. No, it was just a silly rumor. The Preklate was the bigger concern now.
With any luck, the Preklate himself would be in Darred's chambers and she would find out for herself why he had come.
She headed back out into the blinding white morning.
I knew as soon as I saw her. It wasn't just the scar, though Gary had told us to look for it. It was more of how she looked at things, how she walked and carried herself. She had purpose and determination. No one else around her had that and it made her stand out like a candle in the dark. She probably didn't even realize how different she was, probably thought she was blending in. I didn't think that the Peeks would be able to tell the difference either. Good thing.
She wasn't giving me the time of day. That was cool. Pretty much expected that, but she did tell me something. John Crichton is real. Did you hear her? Real. Somehow I felt light as air, like I could run screaming through the Gather, howling that everything was going to be all right.
Not that it would be. Crichton was real, sure, but he couldn't bring back my folks or my sister. Things weren't going to just get better now. But I had my hope back, and it seemed to make a world of difference.
I'd gone straight back to Gary and the others with the news. Turns out that Gary had never doubted that Crichton was real. But the fact that one of Crichton's people was in town, *that* interested him.
"Find her again," he'd said to me after all the speculation had died down and he'd pulled me into a quiet corner. "But just watch her. She was right, you shouldn't have talked to her, but I want to know what she's doing here."
"You think something's going down?" I asked, whispering.
"I don't know. But I want to keep up. Crichton's got reasons for not talking to us, any of us, and they're good ones. But that doesn't mean that I can't be ready to do my part when the time comes." He clapped me on the shoulder and smiled.
"Just watch her, and let me know what she's doing."
I could do that.
There had been no time to bury him, to throw a wake, to do any of those things that help with closure. Not that any of it would have mattered. Closure was not possible when you were a murderer. They had just taken him away, God knew where, and the Peacekeepers had bombed the surface a few days later.
He was standing over the bloodstained spot on Gregory Wurlitz's Persian carpet in Washington DC. The weave had soaked up most of the crimson fluid, but it still seemed to glow with sullen blame as he stared at it.
The enormous house was empty, no sounds of traffic from the street or birdsong from the garden. He was all alone with the bloodstain.
Crichton clenched his teeth and closed his eyes in barely restrained fury.
"How you doin', Harv? How's the wife and kids?" His words belied the frustrated rage that coiled beneath them. The clone did not answer him, instead leaning closer over the ruined carpet, as if appraising it for cleaning.
John did not look at the creature. Over the years on Earth, the clone had quit the waking dreams and had instead been making the occasional appearance in his sleep. John didn't understand the creature's motives any better now than he had in the beginning. All he knew was that the clone seemed to delight in taunting him, in casting a darkness across each thought and memory. To bury John in the darkest, most despairing memories of the past years.
"You still don't get it, do you, John?" Harvey's voice was soft now, almost kind. John finally turned his head, looking straight at the clone. Harvey was wearing the blue chambray shirt and jeans that DK had worn that day. It made John want to hit something. To *kill* someone. Oblivious to Crichton's fury, or maybe in spite of it, the spitting image of Scorpius turned and walked along the length of the room, trailing his gloved hand along art-covered walls. "I suppose you probably never will at this point."
"What, exactly, am I supposed to get?" His throat was tight. Harvey looked back at him then, over his shoulder, his expression sly as ever.
"You've changed, my friend. No joke? No inexplicable earth-euphemism? So angry, John. So bereft. Why is that?"
"You know why, you bastard."
"Maybe *I* do, but do you?" Harvey smirked softly.
He wanted to hit something. Hard.
"My world is a graveyard and it's my fault." He gnashed the words out like he was chewing broken glass.
"Ah, but that's not it."
John was startled out of his rage for a moment, his head jerking up from where he had let his gaze drop back down to the spot where his friend had died.
"I'm not in the mood for a mind-fuck, pal. Get the hell away from me."
"What about DK?"
He hauled back and sent his fist smashing into the Halloween mask that was Harvey's face. The clone went flying, crashing into mahogany sideboard with an explosion of petals, shattering glass and splintering wood. The room remained silent and empty of anything but him, the bloodstain and the abomination. Harvey remained where he was, sprawled in the wreckage. The smile was unchanged, a snaky oily thing.
"Touchy? Don't like to think about that?"
"I killed him. My fault." John rasped, shaking out his now-throbbing fingers. "Is that what you want to hear me admit? I *know* it. Everyone knows it. He's just another one to add to the list."
Harvey did stand then, delicately brushing debris off black leather. At least he no longer wore DK's clothing. John's heart was pounding. He was terrified for some reason he couldn't name all of a sudden. The clone only looked at him, pale eyes boring into blue.
"Who's next, John? Your father? Aeryn?" His head tilted, "Dylan?"
Crichton opened his eyes with a snap, sucking in a deep breath as he broke the surface of sleep. He was shaking like a palsy victim. Fighting to remain calm, he forced his breathing to slow and after a moment of struggle, his heart stopped pounding against his throat. He turned his stiff neck, surveying his surroundings.
Most of his people were asleep around him in the Skim's darkened compartment. Dylan slumbered on peacefully, a dead weight on his chest. The tingling in his right arm told him that it had gone to sleep. He let his head fall back onto the hard bench with a soft thud.
He shut his eyes again, the lessened rocking of the Skim telling him that they were well into the mountains. Soon they would be approaching Alva. Dylan stirred slightly, making a small noise and then bringing one hand up to curl next to his cheek. John tried to resettle his stiff limbs as best he could without waking the boy. Trying to sort out his jumbled thoughts did not prove any easier.
He hadn't had the dream for almost a cycle. Why had it resurfaced now? Grimacing, he ran one hand through his hair, rubbing tiredly at his stubbled face. He felt old. Not just physically, but mentally. The burden of guilt that he bore every minute of every day was getting heavier. Cracking and creaking his bones with its weight. And it was impossible to escape from. Every time he looked at the faces around him, every time he saw a ruined landmark or a pile of rubble where a mountain had been, he remembered that it was his fault. That the destruction of his homeworld could be blamed squarely on him.
His efforts, what he did now, his pathetic attempts to fight were never going to be enough. Even *if* he finally drove the Peacekeepers away, it would change nothing. His world would still be a ruin. Billions slaughtered. Jenn and her family would still be dead. Melissa's husband. DK - .
He shook his head angrily and brutally forced his mind to other topics.
"Let me take him, son. Give you a break." His dad's voice startled him and he peered through the half-light to see Jack sitting up with his arms out. Almost gratefully, John passed the child across the aisle like a sack of potatoes, not surprised when Dylan made a small noise of protest and woke up.
"Go back to sleep, kiddo," John whispered, kissing the warm temple, not wanting to wake the others. Dylan blinked sleepily at him, craning his neck up to see his grandfather above him. One giant yawn later and he was lying against Jack's shoulder, his eyes falling inexorably shut once more. The kid had insisted on walking on his own for the return trip out of the tunnels, and he was out of gas. It had made for a nice quiet hike back to the skim.
Crichton pushed to his feet and moved towards the cockpit, hanging on to the roof rails for support in the swaying interior. Tynan had switched places with Val at some point in the night and now she maneuvered the Skim through a dry riverbed. Tynan snored faintly, his feet up on the console, his chin tucked down on his chest. Dawn streaked the sky and John craned his neck upward to see the walls of a deep valley surrounding them. They were almost to the lake.
"Everything good?" his voice was low. She nodded, glancing up at him.
"Yeah. Almost there. No sign that anyone's been here since we last came through."
It was partly luck and partly the fact that the PKs couldn't find their own asses out here in the mountains. The invaders continued to look mindlessly on roads for traces of John's people and continued to find nothing. He knew they thought he was some kind of ghost or mastermind, but all he had was something they didn't. Actual knowledge of the planet they stood on. Not a one of them had ever thought to check dry riverbeds, and there were plenty of them since the Bombardment. Many of the waterways had dried up with the massive change in the Earth's weather systems after the debris clouds. Avalanche rubble had diverted many of the courses that still ran.
It was the first thing he had set up when they had chosen Colorado for their base. His sister had gone to Boulder for college, and she'd stayed when she finished. He and his dad had come out more than once for fly fishing and it had been then that he had learned of the myriad aquifer tunnels that dotted the Rockies. Tunnels that carried water from one side of the continental divide to the other. Tunnels that could hide people.
It had taken some doing to find those tunnels, but one had been ideal. Alva B. Adams Tunnel, Alva Camp, as they called their base, connected Shadow Lake to Grand Lake. And both lakes had gone nearly dry after the Bombardment. Perfect. They'd set up a movable base on either side of the 13 mile tunnel. At the drop of a hat they could hide in the tunnel and no aerial scanner could detect them.
Let the old government cronies huddle in NORAD and Mount Weather with their long-term plans. They were of no help, and John had wanted nothing to do with them after he'd discovered that they would not listen to his advice. Hell with them. Let them run their ultimately useless raids against the Bases. He might need them later, but for now he let them distract the PKs from the real threat.
Bitter? Not him. He glanced out the narrow viewport, watching the tops of the pines edging with gold as the sun slowly came up. All around them, fresh drifts of snow piled in a pristine ivory blanket, outlined by icy blue shadows and glittering stripes of new sunshine. The beauty did not touch him as it once had. Nothing seemed to touch him anymore.
John let himself fall into the jump seat, rubbing at his face again as if he could rid himself of his eternal weariness. For just a moment, he wished that Aeryn was there, and just as quickly squelched the thought that he was glad she wasn't. God. What was wrong with him? Was he that fucked up that he couldn't bear the thought of Aeryn even looking at him? It had been easy in the dark, in that tunnel where shapes and features were outlined only in memory and the scant light of a tiny flashlight. Easier to let her rest her eyes on him, easier when he couldn't really see her beautiful face or the expression of pity and disgust that he knew would mar her expression if she really *saw* him.
Stupid, he shook his head angrily. So stupid. Of course he wanted her back with him, it was all he thought about. But what if she didn't want to come back? What if she preferred the cool discipline of her own people to the empty shell of a man he had become? Was that why she had volunteered in the first place? He folded his arms tightly and stared blankly out the viewport, forcing his mind to other topics.
The Reaver. Who had been on it? He feared that he already knew. Grimacing, he pulled the comm out of the Skim's panel compartment and stared at it for a long, long moment.
To hell with communication restrictions. Time to check with Melissa again.
"SK-1 to Posting 12-6."
Melissa grumbled to herself as she yanked her gloves off, blowing on her fingertips before pulling the comm out of her pocket. For a guy who went on and on if you used the comm more than twice in a month, he certainly was chatty cathy.
She was huddled in the stairwell of the high-rise, shivering quietly as the cold concrete seeped up through the seat of her Gore-Tex shell pants. It had been a long, long night. Dawn streaked the now-clear skies and she had set herself to counting the minutes before the sun hit. From her vantage she couldn't see much of the shipyard, she would have to crawl back out to the edge, and that was dangerous now that it was light out again.
"Any news?" Her brother's voice was tight with tension and she bit back the sarcastic comment she had been about to impart.
"No uniforms that I could see. The Big Cheese was talking to some Death Metal reject, that was it. I'm gonna wait here until our mystery Preklate comes back out." She pursed her lips, peering up at the trailing cloud remnants that still clung to the very tops of the buildings around her. John was silent for such a long time, she stared back down at her comm, shaking it slightly. "SK-1?"
"I'm...here." His voice sounded choked, hoarse.
"What is it? Is something wrong?" Her pulse picked up slightly, her eyes darting around as if there was a threat somewhere near.
"Death Metal? All black leather? Hood?"
"How'd you know?" Unease crept up her spine. John's voice was scaring her.
"You have to warn her. Send up the pre-arranged abort signal." He was growling, his Sebacean almost too fast to understand. She shook her head as if he could see her.
"What? We can't pull her out before she completes..."
"Did you not hear me?" She had to hold the comm away from her ear. John had shouted and feedback squealed briefly from the device. Her eyes widened in shock.
"Christ, J-" she stopped herself before she said his name over the comm, swallowing nervously. "I'll send up the signal," she said finally. "But I can't make her leave if she won't come. You know that."
"Do whatever you have to do. She'll be *recognized*. She has to get out. Now."
Mel was nodding, even though she still didn't understand.
"All right. All right..."
"No more contact between us. He's smart. Smarter then the sack of doorknobs we've dealt with so far. And if I know him...and I do...he's here for me."
John was hissing his words and Melissa felt a chill that had nothing to do with the icy morning creeping up and down her spine with a million cold feet.
"I'll try. 12-6 out."
She couldn't shut off contact fast enough, shoving the comm back into her pocket like it was diseased. She'd never heard such naked obsession in her brother before, so much hate and fear intertwined that it made her queasy. There were things, of course, that he never talked about with anyone but Aeryn. Things that he would not speak of.
The man in black leather must be one of those things. Maybe even *the* thing.
She gathered herself up and prepared for the long trek back down the dark stairwell. The abort signal. Christ. It would be a bit of hike to the place they'd agreed on. She might get there before noon if she hustled. And she would. John's grip was loose enough as it was. If anything happened to Aeryn at this point...
She refused to contemplate it. Instead she began her descent into the darkness.
"Come." Darred's voice was muffled through the wooden door. She pushed her way into the inner chamber, nodding at the young Lieutenant as she passed. Already the girl seemed a little improved, as if she had taken Aeryn's last advice to heart. Peller managed a smile at her. She would be a good one to cultivate if things took a turn for the worse with the Commander. Allowing, of course, that Aeryn wasn't about to be shot for treason in the next few moments.
She shut the double doors and stepped towards the big desk before she saluted the older man. Darred smiled at her, an expression that she supposed passed for his version of charm. She let herself return the smile.
"At ease, Myla. Have a seat, won't you?" He gestured at one of the large chairs he had set in his office. She chose one wide enough for two that was just close enough to where he stood that he would notice. "Grenit?"
She let her smile grow a little wider, sitting back against the leather.
"No thank you, sir. May I ask why you've called me here? I don't recall that we had a meeting scheduled." Under her calm exterior, her heart was pounding. Was he just toying with her?
He faced away from her as he moved over to the refreshment bar, glass chinking softly against glass as he readied the disgusting supplement drink he seemed to favor.
"A Preklate arrived last night and he brings news that I think will end up being quite good. For both of us." He turned, carrying the brimming flute.
"A Preklate, sir? Why?" She knew she was being forward, but it was good to start somewhere. Darred sat next to her and raised his flute to her before he sipped. She nodded in return, watching his throat bob as he swallowed the musky-smelling liquid. A delicacy, he'd told her. For some reason, the smell made her feel sick.
"He says he's come for Crichton. He talks as if he has had dealings with the pestilent creature before, but I don't really see how that's possible. Still," he swirled the thick, gray liquid in the glass and cast a sideways glance at Aeryn, "if he is telling the truth and he *can* get rid of our nuisance, then it could spell very good things for me in the future. Possibly for you, too."
Darred hadn't noticed her reaction, the whitening of her fingers as they clasped each other or her lips pressing tightly together. She collected herself just as quickly, trying to determine what Preklate had ever had contact with Crichton. Her mate had managed to make an alarming number of enemies, but none so high-ranking. At least that she knew about.
"Me, sir?" She was proud of how cool her voice was. She even managed to glance rather coyly at him over the rim of her glass. It seemed impossible that Darred didn't hear the racket her heart was making.
"Yes, you, Myla." She felt dizzy. If it was true, that someone had come in last night specifically for Crichton ... well, they *had* known he was down here all this time. The murderous Disrupter she and John had encountered before the invasion would have made sure of that. But why wait till now? It had to have something to do with Scorpius. Somehow. But no Preklate would ever involve himself with the half-Scarran. It was a puzzle.
Darred was still crooning to her and she forced herself to listen. "If I were to be able to leave this rock, I could bring someone with me." His voice was insinuating, she supposed he thought it was sexy. Hezmana. She had to warn John.
The Commander was suffocating her, pressing too close, his hand sliding up her leg.
"You have beautiful bone structure, Myla. Has anyone ever told you that?"
It was his actual caress that shocked her. Not because it was unexpected, but because she was suddenly struck by the astounding fact that she wasn't sure she could actually suffer his touch. It was more than startling, more than surprising. Using your body was a commonplace tactic among the regiments. You did what you needed to do to get ahead. It was easy to distance yourself from it. When had she lost that?
She pushed to her feet and walked to the window before she could stop herself. It was only once she was there, the chill from the window brushing her skin, that she even realized she had moved. She forced a light laugh, as if she were only playing hard to get. Inside, she was panicking. It wasn't just that John was in sudden and real danger, it was the very real shock that she was almost positive she was not going to be able to carry out the part of her mission that she had taken for granted would be the easiest. She actually felt nauseous.
Aeryn took a deep, quiet breath and closed her eyes. If she thought about things like what would eventually happen to the small group of fighters in the nearby mountains if she failed. If she reminded herself what Dylan's future would be like as a hunted animal. If she did all these things she might be able to get through this. She *had* to.
Her skin was still crawling from the brief, chilling touch. She felt like hyperventilating. What the frell was wrong with her? She looked down to where her hands rested on the sill and was suddenly struck with a flash of inspiration. Perhaps there was another, better way...
"Is something wrong, Chief?" He was suddenly suspicious now, his voice cool and hard. Damage control.
She turned around, leaning on the windowsill and putting on her best coy look.
"Nothing at all, Sallo. I was just ... surprised ... by your suggestion. I didn't know that you ..." She trailed off, raising her eyebrows at him.
"Found you attractive? Admired your competence? Yes, Myla, indeed I do." He stood, apparently swallowing her lame attempts to repair her blunder. He was taller than John, she thought almost hysterically as he came closer to her, penning her against the windowsill. His neck was thinner and she could see tendons outlined sharply against his pale skin, tiny brown hairs peeking from the top of his uniform's neck. He smelled of Grenit and his breath was moist with it against her cheek. She tried not to gag.
Her fingers ached from where she clutched the wood windowsill at her back and she forced herself to loosen her grip as he bent his mouth to hers. Her eyes fluttered shut and she tried for a split microt to imagine that it was John before the comparison became too creepy to handle. Better to simply disconnect. It was another battle to get her arms to move up and around the back of his neck.
When Peller's gentle knock cut through the ghastly whistle of Darred breathing through his nose, she could have collapsed with grateful relief. Aeryn was more certain than ever that she would not be able to couple with the man, not if she could barely muster up enough will to put her arms around him.
He turned from her and she immediately took the opportunity to spin and fix her gaze out the window again, trying to control the shuddering that had started up in her limbs. She fought the urge to scrub at her lips. He had tasted like cold stone.
"What is it, you fool?" Darred's voice was all acid and contempt. The door creaked open slightly and the young, nervous voice echoed in the room.
"The Preklate asked me to inform you that he wishes to see you in his quarters."
Darred's sharp and rather lengthy cursing chased the young woman out, but not a one of the three present had any doubt that the Commander would soon be scurrying to the Preklate's call.
"I apologize for the interruption, Myla." She nodded her head, still looking out the window. Let the man think she was recovering from denied passions. "But I will see you tonight?"
Taking a deep and silent breath, she turned around then, plastering a smile across her face.
"Most certainly, sir." With that, she saluted and stalked out of the room as fast as she could without running. She should have known. Just because she was pretending to be a PK didn't mean she was one. Not anymore. Not for a long time. Not since sex had become an act that actually *meant* something.
Half-running down the wide staircase, she burst back out into the cold morning air and took a deep gasping breath. She felt ill. Too much to handle. A Preklate had come for John, and now she would have to make a rapid change of plans. His foul drink had given her the idea. There was a way for her to avoid the nasty business of recreating with Darred once she got into his quarters.
She would just have to drug him. It was a lot more risky, but a lot more palatable. In the meantime, she needed to bathe.
Her long strides took her past the training facility and the shipyard, back towards AgSec. So focused was she on her dilemma that she failed to see the single column of black smoke rising into the clear blue sky. And that the smoke was trailing up from the very spot they had designated 6 monens ago would be an emergency signal.
"Don't be a fool, John!" Tynan wove after his friend through the organized clutter of the camp, trying to keep up with the younger man's rapid pace. John's canvas-clad back kept disappearing between tents and crates. "We can't abort this close to completion! You said she'd have the codes by *tonight*-" He stopped short as John rounded on him, a look on the human's face that Ty had never seen before. Something raw and feral gleamed in his blue eyes. His words died in his throat.
"I won't lose her, too. Do you hear me?" It was a hiss. And then John was off again, boots crunching through the trodden snow, heading towards the supply sheds, men and women instinctively jumping out of his way. The Sebacean had a sudden vision of his friend riding into Denver at the head of his tiny army, guns blazing. The ex-pilot's stomach did a queasy roll. He stopped dead, planting his feet, his hands hanging limply at his sides.
"John." His voice was quiet, but firm. He put nothing behind the words but a plea for logic.
For a miracle, it worked. John stopped, but did not turn around. His shoulders were stiff. Ty wasn't even sure what to say, he only knew he had to say something. "You know this is wrong. You aren't acting rationally, and I hate to say it, but you knew that she was in a dangerous position when you sent her. What is different now? Can't you say that much? Give up a little of the burden?"
John didn't move for a long space of time, and Tynan could only hold his breath, waiting for the moment when John would decide to listen or decide to disregard. This man was not the man he had first come to know: thinking, thoughtful, compassionate. This man was a stranger. But he had to believe that the human who had pulled him out of his burning prowler, who had risked his own life for his enemy, that he was still there under the ice.
"You don't understand." The voice, when it came, was tight with emotion. Ty glanced around for a moment, glad to see that the few members of the camp who had been working nearby had made themselves conspicuously absent. It afforded them some small privacy. The sharp reek of camp smoke and coffee drifted idly between the dirty canvas tents, the breeze that brought it flapping the fabric in a lazy rhythm.
"Make me understand. Tell me why this one Preklate is important. Important enough to throw away all we've worked for in the past year this close to the end. Everything that Aeryn's accomplished in there. Everything she's sacrificed to do this." He kept his voice firm and blunt, put no edge of pleading into it. He had to appeal to the part of John that still instinctively listened to rational logic.
"There's too much, Ty." At least he had finally called him by his name, that seemed a small victory. John turned, and he had to fight not to wince at the storm of raw fear and fury roiling in his friend's eyes. "I can't ... tell you everything."
"Just make me understand." Tynan risked taking a step forward, relieved when John reached up to rub at his eyes. He only looked tired now, not cracked.
"It was Scorpius that came in last night. He's hunting me. He's been hunting me pretty much since I left Earth all those years ago. He's done things to me, Ty. Things I can't really get into, but I can't forget. Worse, worst of all, he put a part of himself in my brain and I've never been rid of him. I never will be. Ever."
The Sebacean was speechless for a moment, not sure what to believe, what John even meant. Was he talking about schizophrenia? He risked reaching out and taking his friend's arm, leading him to a nearby crate and sitting him down on it. Forcing him when he resisted. Best to start on the concrete things, the things he *could* grasp.
"Scorpius is here for you? He knows you are here? And you think he will recognize Aeryn?" There was a cold dread building in Tynan's stomach, and he thought he could understand the human's panic. No mad ravings after all. Scorpius was known throughout the Peacekeepers for being coldly ruthless in achieving the things he wanted. For being brilliant and dangerous.
"If he sees Aeryn, not only will it be bad for her, but for all of us. He has ways of getting secrets out of you that you don't even know you know. Worse ways than the PKs here use. And he's also fully aware of how to use her as a hostage to get what he wants."
"And you're sure he wants you?"
"Why?" his question was soft, timid, as if he were afraid of the answer. Scorpius seemed the sort to always have a frightening reason.
John shook his head and laughed, an ugly sound that contained no shred of humor. Bending over his folded arms, he hung his head and sighed. The rising breeze played through his son's hair. A cold wind.
"Knowledge, I guess. He wants what I have in my brain. He always has. It's why he stole a part of it. Why he gave me his shadow. Wormholes, Ty. It's always been about wormholes."
The big Sebacean had nothing to say to that, frowning at the sudden and naked vulnerability etched in the line of John's shoulders. He'd never seen him like this. So crumpled. Crushed.
"But he made the wormhole here. What more can he want from you?"
"I wish I knew, pal. But make no mistake. He didn't come to Denver by *accident*. He's here for me. And even if he isn't, his presence puts Aeryn in incredible danger. Plan or no plan, we get her out."
Tynan grimaced, nodding.
"You're right, of course. We can always start over. There will be other opportunities to get to the Carrier."
John looked up at him like a startled deer and Ty ached briefly to think that his friend might have ever thought for a moment that any one of them didn't understand what Aeryn meant to him. That any one of them might not understand the kind of fear that was written on his face now.
He forced a small smile to his lips. It was colder now, a sharp wind blowing down from the sides of the valley bringing a stinging cloud of frozen snow-dust with it. The sky was an icy morning blue. The new snowfall would not be melting any time soon, not in this frigid wind.
"We'll get her out. We will. But we do it together. No mad, heroic rushes. No solitary, John Crichton-action." He crouched down in front of his friend, putting his hands on John's knees. "But we have to work off the assumption that the plan is still going forward. Aeryn might not know about any of this. She might not see the abort signal. We have to be there to back her up." It was cool logic. It was what John needed to hear to pull himself back together. Don't shatter, my friend. You hold us all together. He said the last silently, looking up into John's winter eyes.
He looked down at Tynan then, those eyes dark with fear and devoid of hope. But a ghastly, forced smile stretched his lips anyway, out of habit more than anything else.
"Of course, Ty. You're right."
It was the best that any of them were going to get. So he took it.
Melissa waited by the burning car, huddled in the shadows of a ruined Walgreen's stoop, watching every direction at once. Her palms itched with fear, her nerves burning in skittish paranoia. This was the sort of thing that could easily end with her capture. Sending up smoke from the corner of Broadway and Alameda was the emergency signal to tell Aeryn something was wrong. To abort the plans.
But it was also a fabulous way to attract everyone else's attention too.
Any means necessary, she told herself, her eyes flicking left and right like a cat in a dog pound. John knew what he was doing, he had gotten them all this far. He wanted Aeryn out, Mel would do what he asked.
Black smoke billowed in lazy bulges and streamers up into the morning sky, the fire leaping and guttering in a rising wind. Aeryn couldn't miss it, could she? Of course she might be indoors, she might already be captured. So many things that Melissa could not foretell. All she could do was set the signal and hope at this point.
Once the fire was going well enough that she was sure it wouldn't go out, she prepared to vacate the area as fast as she could, but, too late, a low humming sound announced an approaching ship.
Heart pounding, she pressed deeper back into the doorway as a PK Stinger came swooping down out of nowhere, parting the column of smoke into a hundred tiny swirling eddies. It emitted a shrieking, repulsor whine as it settled itself onto the unbroken white of the intersection, blowing up loose snow.
She flattened herself against the glass, swallowing thickly. A yellow, cartoon dog gaped a toothless, vapid smile at her from behind the cracked glass of the display window. 'New Trading Cards Available NOW!' the creature screamed soundlessly. She was a sitting duck, her and the freakish yellow canine.
Maybe they wouldn't see her.
Sure, and maybe the yellow cardboard dog would bust through the glass and fly her to safety on his magic sled.
Nine black, beetle-shelled soldiers poured from the opening ramp of the Stinger, boots tramping the white snow as they descended upon the smoking ex-Honda.
"Put it out, and be quick!" One of the black-suited men gestured to the others and two of them separated from the troop and quickly set to spraying some sort of chemical on the car. In only moments, her signal was doused. She had to hope that Aeryn had seen it in time. "Careful!" The man shouted again, "it could be another frelling trap!" He uttered another word that she did not understand, but gathered that it was just a curse. She began to look around her stoop. She could break the glass of the drugstore door and escape inside if she needed to, but the sound would certainly draw them. Stay still, Mel, she told herself.
"Search the area! There must be tracks in the snow. I want to find who did this. The Commander wants no sign of unrest while the Preklate is here!"
She rubbed her elbow briefly as if getting ready to drive it through the glass behind her on short notice. The troops broke up into ragged threes, spreading out, one trio heading straight for her. There was *no* chance, barring an act of yellow dog, that they wouldn't see her. One hand found her knife tucked into the pocket of her jacket and she loosened it from its sheath.
She'd always thought of the weapon as a quick out to keep her dangerous secrets, but now that the real possibility of suicide was at hand, she wasn't entirely sure she would have the guts to go through with it.
Well, that was quicker than she'd thought. She felt an icy calm rush through her as all three of them brought their pulse rifles down to bear on her. She could see three sets of herself reflected in the shiny faceplates. Terrifying, those black visors. Same idea as mirrored cop sunglasses, she thought with a slight edge of hysterical humor.
"I was just sitting here!" She did not put her hands up, her right fingers clenching tightly around the knife handle in her jacket. "I wasn't doing anything!" She couldn't be captured. It wasn't an option. And if she couldn't drive her own knife through her own throat, she was just going to have to get away. Simple enough logic.
"I think we'll be the ones to decide what you were doing." The one in the middle took a step forward, gesturing at her with his rifle. She stood up slowly. A quick sweep of the area behind them told her that there was no one to help her, even if anyone in their right minds would attack three armed Peeks. Swallowing, she moved two steps towards her captors. The middle one stopped advancing, nodding to her.
"That's it, human pest. Come along."
All at once, Melissa turned, took one step, and plunged through the glass door of the drugstore - trying futilely to shield her face. She fell, crashing through a rain of glass splinters and two racks of dusty sunglasses, splaying to the floor in an ungainly heap of plastic frames and razor-sharp shards. She felt a wetness on her face and lips and the shivery arcs of pain in her knees and hands that she knew meant impalement. No time for inspection. She staggered to her feet and ran.
Heavy footfalls behind her and the guttural shouts of Sebacean that she knew indicated the call for reinforcements rang out. The Walgreen's would be surrounded soon enough. She had to get *out*.
Dim, darkened racks of colorful, cheap summer clothing, the candy bar aisle. Racks of film and makeup, walls of aspirin and assorted hair products. It really was quite a find, a drugstore that hadn't been ransacked. She might be pleased if she hadn't been running for her life. She dashed blood from her eyes, blinking at the metallic sting, knowing that she was staving off shock by adrenaline alone.
"Over here! Follow the blood! Cut her off!"
It was good, she thought, in a distant sort of way, that they didn't think she understood them. A small advantage. Any advantage was what you made of it, John had always said. Or was that dad? Hard to say when it all started blurring together. When John had turned into the authority figure that Dad had always been.
She plunged through the swinging back doors into the guts of the drugstore, faltering to a stop only briefly as she was engulfed by darkness. No windows, no lights back here, only what little sunlight filtered from the main store through the tiny plastic windows in the doors. Swallowing thickly, afraid to stop too long, afraid the pain of her wounds would catch up with her, she took a right and started running again.
Breath harsh and raw in her throat, Melissa slammed into a wall and nearly fell to her knees. Her pursuers were in the back room with her now, she could hear them, but the darkness did not seem to slow them down. Feeling against the wall of crates, she broke into a more careful trot, trying to keep her footsteps from echoing. Spiderwebs caught in her face, dust scattering down on her with her passage. A door, a loading dock. She needed out. Before they surrounded the building.
A crack of light ahead tripped her heart in her chest and she picked up her staggering pace. She could feel the sticky wetness of her pants clinging to her legs, and dizziness told her she was losing a lot of blood. Out. She needed out. A long hallway, offices to either side, and a windowed door at the end. She didn't hesitate.
Her knees were getting weak and rubbery, and she feared that her adrenaline was finally wearing off, shock was setting in. Shaking her head in mute protest she stopped herself just before she slammed her way through the back door. Cracking it open cautiously instead and peering out, she nearly sobbed in relief as she saw a parking lot, empty of anything but long abandoned cars and rubble.
No time to wait any longer, she stepped out into the unbroken field of white, knowing that she had to make it to a place where a blind man couldn't follow her trail.
The voice came from above and she instinctively froze, her whole body twanging with startled fear. Damndamndamndamn. Trembling with shock, she raised her arms and turned. Looking up.
A Peek stood on the roof of the Walgreen's, just over the door she had come out of. Silhouetted against the too-blue sky, his black uniform made him look like a video game figure. He seemed to be alone, but she didn't believe it. Turning, she could see the garish crimson trail she had tracked across the snow. She was bleeding like a stuck pig. The sunlight showed shards of glass protruding from her thighs and her right knee. Her torn gloves were painted red.
"Just hold still there, little human." The PK jerked his head and two more men appeared at his side, jumping down from the roof onto the lid of a nearby dumpster. The first one kept his rifle trained on her from above.
She was too numb to rail at her own stupidity. The pair reached her at the same time, one wrenching her hands together and clapping magnetic cuffs on her, the other patting her down and pulling out her knife and her ... oh god, no.
Her fear overcame all her sanity and she lunged for the one who had picked the comm up, holding it up to look at it more closely. She could almost *feel* the shock emanating from both of them. No human would be carrying a Peek issue comm.
They had not expected to catch one of the resistance. In five years, not one of the resistance had been captured alive.
Fuck if she was going to be the first.
Her head dove into the man's armored midsection with a ferocity that nearly knocked her unconscious with the effort. He flew backwards, landing on his back with a spray of new snow and dropping both the comm and his rifle. Her knife went skittering into a drift, lost from sight.
And then several things happened at once. The Peek on the roof fired, the blast exploding a miniature drift of snow right near her head. The one who had put the cuffs on her began to shout and wave his arms, screaming not to kill her, to take her *alive* at all costs. The one on the ground struggled awkwardly to get up from the thick snow like a bug on its back.
Mel staggered to her feet just as a good old-fashioned gunshot echoed through the empty parking lot and the man on the roof suddenly went still as a statue. She watched, hypnotized as he toppled in slow motion, the rifle dropping from his grip as he fell. He landed almost soundlessly in the snow near the door and did not move again.
Both she and the other standing Peek were frozen in time for a moment, stunned and confused by the sudden, waterless, 10 point dive the soldier had just taken. And then, before either of them could react further, another shot rang out and her captor simply dropped with little more than a gasp of surprise.
This time she didn't hesitate. She scooped up the pulse rifle from his nerveless fingers and before she could waste time doing battle with her conscience, shot the third man who still struggled to get up before he could shoot her first.
She stood in the snowy parking lot, her heavy breath like a smokestack in the cold air, the pulse rifle held in her bloody, gloved hands. There was a shaking starting up somewhere in her bones. She had seen plenty of combat since the invasion, but she had never come so close to blowing the whole thing for everyone.
Before she could look around for her savior, whoever it was with the ass-saving gun, she took two steps forward and smashed the comm into unrecognizable junk with the butt of the rifle. Then she scattered the parts into the snow. It was something she should have done the moment she'd set fire to the Honda. No one would have a direct line back to her brother now. No matter that she couldn't contact him any more. She would have to find another way.
And then she did something that she hadn't done since she tried her first crash diet before the junior prom in high school.
"The resistance got three more. One of them was Rolla."
Yen's voice seemed to come out of nowhere and Aeryn looked up, her arms buried in a bag of Earther fertilizer. She pulled her hands out of the bag nonchalantly, giving no clue to the nature of the object she had just verified was hidden inside.
The round woman squatted down and helped her Chief tie the bag off, nodding eagerly with the air of someone who has something to say that no one else has heard yet. Yena's fearful apprehension from the morning seemed to have vanished. Nice woman, attention span of a drannit.
"It's true. They almost caught one of the resistance, they thought. Someone had set a vehicle on fire, some kind of weird protest. They chased her around and then I guess she killed three men before escaping. Who would have thought humans would ever be so dangerous? I mean, you've seen this city, right? So low-tech."
Yena looked like she was about to go on further but Aeryn stopped her, her heart thudding painfully.
"Someone set a vehicle on fire? When?" She tried to sound casual.
Yena tipped her head, frowning slightly.
"Not long ago. The patrol only just got back. Too bad about Rolla. He was adorable. A little naive, too sweet to be a foot soldier. Should have been a tech."
Aeryn's mind was spinning in a blur of thought. That was the signal. It was only a matter of where. Hezmana, did this have something to do with the Reaver? What else could it be if John had ordered her out? Assuming that the fire was indeed the pre-arranged signal. Not long ago?
"Could you set this bag over with that group, Yen?" She pointed to the stack that she had set aside. The 'special' stack. "I'm going up to the roof for a microt, I'll be right back."
Yen nodded and Aeryn stood up, brushing the clinging remnants of dirt from her forearms and hands on her jump. She forced herself not to run. There weren't many brains on the Base, but it was possible someone might realize that the fire was a signal. Best not to be seen running to look at it.
She didn't push out the main doors, instead she loped up the long scaffold staircase to the roof of AgSec 7 and stepped out onto the catwalks. Mostly a giant series of greenhouses, the buildings did allow for some limited roof maintenance. It was windy up top, an icy buffeting series of gusts that seemed to get stronger the closer she got to the edge. She finally found a place to brace herself, hands gripping an icy cold metal rail, looking out over the ruins of Denver.
There was no column of smoke, but there was a remnant of it. A streaky smear of blue-black against the clear sky. Holding her breath, already knowing the answer, she did a quick match to the street map in her head. Tall gray building with a single broken flagpole, squat beige building with large script red letters on the front. Hezmana, no. Her skin was crawling.
John wanted her out.
It was too soon, just one more day. The cargo vessel had already been sent out, had already returned with the bags John had planted a few weekens before. She was just about to set them in place. It was all down to her evening with Darred.
She sank down in a stiff-spined cross-legged seat. Tails of her hair tugged loose in the cold wind. She'd been here six monens. More. She'd sacrificed six monens of her son's life for this. She'd left John alone with his guilt for this. She was not going to leave now.
Her brow had come down in a stubborn thundercloud. Frell that. Maybe it was a mistake to stay, maybe she was putting everyone and everything in danger by staying, but they had all come too far for her to quit now.
Not yet. Tomorrow. She would get the codes tonight, no matter what she had to do to get them. And *then* she would go. Everything was set pretty much to work without her after that. Barring the unforeseen.
She'd been trained to caution, certainly, but there were times when one had to take a risk past the rational. She would get the codes first.
Then she would go.
The man's name had been Gregory Wurlitz. He was the man who ran FEMA and he was the one they'd had to convince of the coming danger. Why the Federal Emergency Management Agency? It was easier to contact Wurlitz, easier to talk to him on short notice, than any other key figure in the government. And FEMA had power in national emergencies. More power than anyone save the President. It had taken every one of his Dad's connections to get the meeting, and one August afternoon had found them standing across from him in his Salon. If they could get Wurlitz to understand that the Peacekeepers were coming it was the fastest way to save the largest number of people.
He could still see the elegant room that they had gathered in, high ceilings, Persian carpets, antique furniture. Wurlitz himself had been an affable, elderly man with expensive taste. He had eyed the motley group before him with suspicion. DK was standing with his dad by the doorway while he and Aeryn tried to show the man the pulse weapons they had. Tried to get him to realize they were telling the truth.
It was harder than it should have been, it always was. They had had a week at most after he and Aeryn had left Moya and fled through the newborn wormhole to warn Earth, the wormhole that Scorpy had successfully opened. A week before the PK Carrier Groups that massed on the other side came through. Wurlitz had demanded to know why an alien race would want to destroy them. An example, John said, was what he would give him.
'Imagine that these aliens have the same sort of politics that we have, only on a galactic scale. Think of the A-bomb for a sec,' he'd said through impatient, clenched teeth. 'The US dropped the bomb on Japan to end the war, yeah, but it was also for other reasons. They wanted to show the world that we had it, and they wanted to test it, flex their muscles. Same thing here. This wormhole tech is new and they need to prove that it can be used to expand and conquer.'
Wurlitz had looked down at the satellite pictures of the gaping maw of the wormhole with growing fear. Then he had looked at the pulse weapons. Then he had looked at Aeryn. There had been a dawning understanding. An acceptance of the *possibility*.
It was enough to instill doubt, and Wurlitz's agency was designed to be paranoid. They were the same folks who had built Mt. Weather for god's sake. A self-contained compound designed to harbor an enormous number of people under a mountain in the event of a cataclysm.
No one had been on the lookout in that quiet, sunlit room, though he *should* have been. None of them had thought that the PKs might have sent scouts through... and a Disrupter with them.
The Disrupter who was there for one reason only. A single task to set the stage for easy invasion. That meant surprise attack, that meant no resistance. He had followed John through the wormhole, listened to John make his plans, and determined that John needed to die.
Too bad the bastard hadn't counted on DK.
John closed his eyes with the memory, unable to keep from reliving the moment when he'd first seen the Disrupter - hidden among Wurlitz's men - pointing the pulse pistol at him. He had seen it seconds *after* DK had, and whatever his friend had thought about in those last moments, he'd clearly decided that John's life was worth throwing his own away on.
The worst of it was, he *could* have done something. He could have shoved his friend aside, could have saved his life. But he *hadn't*. He'd been frozen. And DK had taken the bolt meant for him.
"Murderer." Harvey's voice was the echo of a whisper.
Crichton blinked, staring out the front flap of the tent, watching without seeing as Tynan and Quent supervised packing the Skims full of weapons. His dad stood to one side, checking things off a list. The wind had picked up even more, whipping through the camp and ripping ropes and hair and clothing awry. Snow billowed and curled off the mountaintops around them, pluming into the blue sky like pennants.
A storm system was coming in. It would give them good cover that night.
He let the flap fall shut and gazed dully around to where Dylan sprawled on an old Bart Simpson beach towel. The boy was concentrating intently on filling in Piglet's head with a purple crayon. Young Peter Ridell looked on, keeping one eye on the child and the other on a worn, torn copy of 'One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' that had been making its way around camp.
The little boy had his mother's hair, dark and glossy, spilling across his forehead as he colored. John looked away, back to where his fingers clenched the canvas tent flap. She would be fine. If there was anyone in this entire place that could take care of herself, it was Aeryn. His dad's words echoed back at him. He *had* known very well what he was letting her walk into. He hadn't put up much of an argument at the time. Just as when Melissa volunteered to be a Base Scout. Did he not care anymore? Would he throw the bodies of his loved ones onto the fires of his cause like cordwood? Would he feel anything when the corpse piled up? He swallowed down the lump that threatened.
Christ. His life would be a void without Aeryn.
If Scorpius saw her, what would he do? John's mind chugged through various scenarios and always ended up on the same one. He would take her hostage. He would find a way to inform John that he had her. He would offer a trade. John would make the trade. It always ended the same way, there were no other options. He would never let that creature kill her and he would not allow himself to be taken again.
Impasse. He waited for Harvey to pipe up with the inevitable comment, but the clone was strangely silent.
"Crichton?" The voice was low, rough, familiar. Not Harvey. He looked to one side and saw Jackson standing there, worn and haggard. He wore a dirty canvas jacket, sweater and jeans and there was a watchman's cap pulled low on his forehead. John started a little. It had been almost a month, but he had not forgotten. He gestured to his old friend, suffering a nostalgic flash of the inquisitive, quiet scientist that had worked so hard on the Farscape theory with him. Jackson had been the physicist. Quent the mathematician. This was a different man, they were all different.
"Come on in, Jackson." He glanced at Peter who was looking at him over the pages of his book, waiting for orders. "Go on, Pete. I need to talk to Jackson for a minute. I'll watch the rugrat." The young man unfolded himself from the tattered lawn chair and sauntered out of the tent. Jackson secured the flap behind him and sank into the vacant chair.
"You ok, pal? You wanna drink?"
Jackson nodded, rubbing tiredly at his unshaven jaw. John snagged a fifth of Wild Turkey from a nearby box and filled a dixie cup that was incongruously printed with 'congratulations!' in purple letters. He took a swig of his own straight from the bottle and then pulled up a second chair. It was his unofficial 'office' tent. A scattering of mismatched aluminum lawn furniture, a table and a cluster of cardboard boxes filled with food, drink, weapons and Dylan's toys.
There were no parental watch-dog groups to frown at the fact that Mr. Potato Head lay dismembered next to two pulse pistols and a thermal grenade.
"How did everything go?" John waited a few minutes before asking, letting Jackson down half the cup first. The man nodded, tired eyes meeting Crichton's.
"Everything is in place just like you wanted." He reached into his dirty jacket and pulled out a battered kid's walkie talkie. "It's set on the frequency. Be fucking careful with that."
John took the thing almost reverently, tucking it into his inside pocket without taking his eyes off his friend.
"Thanks, Jackson. You know that if this works ..."
"Don't say it, John. Don't jinx it." The faintest smile from the man who used to live and breath by the unfailing logic of science. Crichton chuckled softly, lifting the bottle he still cradled in silent salute.
"Just wanted to let you know how important this is, but you already know. And of course, you know not to say anything anyone. I hate to stress that, but ..."
"Yeah," he held up one hand, the other crushing the now-empty paper cup, "yeah, I know, John. The less who know, the better. I understand what's at stake as well as you do." He leaned forward in the chair then, his expression suddenly serious and almost accusing. "I also know that you think you're the only one of us to shoulder responsibility around here. I don't know your reasons, none of us do, but I have to hope they're valid."
John sat back in his chair, his face going still and hard. He had his reasons. How could he tell Jackson, any of them, that it was his fault? All of it? That it was his burden to carry for that reason and that he would not allow anyone else to suffer it? He said nothing and Jackson, after staring at him for a long moment, sat back himself, sighing.
"Fine, John. Fine. I won't say anything more. But I don't think it's fair to any of us, much less yourself, to do it this way. I'm not the only one who thinks that this situation could go a lot easier if you shared the load."
Still John said nothing, his eyes traveling down to where Dylan splayed artlessly on the beachtowel, coloring obliviously in his Winnie The Pooh coloring book. He heard Jackson sigh and then the creak of the lawn chair as he stood. He continued to watch his son, unable to look at his old friend nor even offer an explanation. He jumped slightly when a hand dropped on his shoulder and squeezed.
He waited for more words, but none came. Then the hand vanished. And a moment later the rustle of the tent flap lifting and falling shut announced Jackson's departure.
John sat in his chair for a long time, the open bottle of bourbon loosely clutched in his hand, staring without seeing. And then he tipped his head back and took a long swallow, welcoming the fierce burn. Inviting the numbness.
Outside, the wind was rising.
Tiah moved down the long hallway to where the Commander's rooms were. In between coordinating the visiting Preklate's special needs and requests and dealing with Darred's chores, she was feeling rather competent. She had determined that very morning, after seeing Chief Gevvis again, that there was no reason she could not follow the woman's example.
Be strong, she told herself. Showing fear to Darred would not make him go easier on her.
She checked the datapad once more, frowning at the details. Provide the Preklate with every arrest record. Bring the Head of Security in for questioning. Deliver all current mapping graphs of the area as well as all patrol patterns and encounter reports. Her fingertip tapped on the last entry: 'Remind Commander that he is nearly out of Grenit powder'. She was on her way to Command Tower, she could stop and get this out of the way.
Peller stood in front of his door, taking a deep breath. Oddly, she did not feel her usual unease. She straightened her shoulders, taking to heart what Chief Gevvis had told her, and tapped the beckon button beside the wooden door. It was, she told herself, only a matter of being strong. She had only been Darred's aide for a monen, but she could do it. She knew she could do it.
No one answered her beckon. She frowned and tapped the access panel on her datapad, ash blonde hair falling across her cheek. According to Central, Darred was in his chambers. She looked up and pressed the beckon again.
"Command?" She tapped her comm, tilting her head to the side as she waited for a response.
"Yes, Peller?" That sounded like Lidrew. She let her lips quirk slightly. The boy had a crush on her.
"Can you identify the location of Commander Darred for me?" There was a silence, but only for a moment.
"Sure Tiah, he's in his chambers." She frowned at the voice, pursing her lips.
"Thank you, Command."
She continued to stand in front of the door, her spine tingling for no reason she could identify. Strong, Tiah. Time to take some initiative. She twisted the metal earther knob and the door opened with a slight creak.
"Commander?" She called into the spacious rooms with only the slightest squeak to her voice. Her feet perched delicately just outside the doorway, as if the threshold represented some barrier not to be broken.
The large chamber was a series of interconnected rooms that served as the Commander's living, eating and sleeping areas. It was clustered with earther furniture and decor, all very rich looking. There was no sign of Darred.
She hesitated, debating whether or not to call back to Command, but she knew what Lidrew would say. He was here. What if he was injured? What if he needed help?
What if he was in there with Chief Gevvis? The thought made her shiver slightly.
But no, she had seen the Chief earlier out on the AgSec roof. He was likely in there alone. Swallowing, she finally put one foot onto the rich woven carpets that skinned the wooden floors.
"Commander? It's Peller. Are you alright?"
Still nothing. She risked another step. And then another, until she was standing in the center of the living area, bright snow-tinted light streaming through cracks in dark drapery. Shadows stretched in dark swathes across carpets and walls, hiding details from sight.
A noise. The sound of metal on ... stone? There was a doorway, incongruous among the earther architecture, a modern mechanized doorway. It sat against a far wall in another room, only half-hidden in shadow. Another sound, this time pinpointing the door as the source. She moved towards it, holding her datapad up like it was a shield.
"Commander Darred? Are you in there?" Her voice was still too nervous to be loud enough and she cleared her throat once she reached the door. One hand lifted up to rap on the poly surface as she opened her mouth to call out yet again. But the movement of her knuckled fist triggered the door lock and it swished soundlessly open.
The query died on her lips as she looked into the room, her mouth hanging open in frozen shock at what she saw.
"Lieutenant Peller." His voice was smooth and oh-so cool. "Won't you come in?"
She never got the chance to run.
Sometimes, when she woke from a deep sleep, it was easy to think it had all been a dream. That she was curled up in her cozy four poster with Eric's heavy arm a dead weight over her hip and Misha curled in a tight ball of fur against her stomach. She would start to laugh at herself for getting so caught up in a stupid nightmare and she would thank god that it hadn't been real.
And then she would open her eyes.
This time, she wasn't in a dark, icy stairwell at the top of an old hotel. Nor was she in her sleeping bag in a drafty tent up in Alva Camp. Her brow crinkled as she sat up - and just as quickly lay back down as the room started to spin. Moaning softly, she brought one hand up to her head and found it thickly bandaged. Seeing the soft, white gauze was enough to jar her back into reality. The Walgreens. The glass shattering all around her in a sparkling storm. Right.
Melissa sat up again, this time more carefully. She did a quick examination of herself, pushing back the thin covers of the narrow bed she lay on. She had been stripped to her underwear. Knees and right thigh were wrapped like her hands and she could feel the tightness on her face that spoke of bandaids. Other than that, she noted, she seemed fine.
Frowning, she looked around the room, trying to remember how she had gotten there. It was completely unrecognizable and it was definitely not the Scout Base House over on Washington. It looked like an old hotel room. Like a Super 8 or a Motel 6. On a hunch she slid open the nightstand drawer and found a copy of the bible sitting neatly inside.
Her clothes were no where to be seen, but a pile of what looked like replacements lay folded on top of the dresser next to the defunct TV set. Her Gore-Tex jacket hung over the back of a chair and her boots sat on the floor beneath. Her knife seemed to be missing, and her comm... well, she recalled that all too well. She had nearly blown the whole taco stand.
Moving carefully, she pulled on a pair of jeans that were a size or so too big, grateful for that fact when they slid easily over her bandaged knees. T-shirt and sweater followed. She'd already made the deduction that whoever had shot the two Peeks must have also brought her here.
She walked into the bathroom. There was no plumbing, of course. Nor power, but the light from the window let in enough illumination for her to see her reflection in the mirror. She had changed. Sometimes she wondered if anyone realized it. Maybe her Dad, she didn't think John took notice of such things anymore. Her face was thinner, dark smudges under her eyes and tiny stress lines stretching around her mouth. She used to laugh a lot. She couldn't recall the last time she'd even giggled.
The ponytail she normally kept her dark blond hair pulled back in had come unraveled. It hung in thick, unkempt strands, curling lazily near the ends. God, she looked like the pictures you would see of war refugees on CNN. Hard to imagine that she had once been a sleek, professional career gal. That she would drive down into Boulder on weekdays and immerse herself in such far-gone concepts as graphic design. That she had not spent each hour of each day plotting and planning and surviving and hiding. No more cafe lattes in the mornings or a quick lunch at Sophie's. No more hikes in the Flatirons or sitting on her deck with her feet tucked into fluffy slippers and her cat in her lap.
One hand came up of its own volition, as if to touch the stranger in her reflection. A gentle knock on the door interrupted her and she snapped her hand back, ashamed to be caught doing something so self-indulgent.
Melissa walked the three steps to the door, opened it, and found herself looking down at the same boy who had so jarred her the day before. He wore the same dirty red parka, but his wool cap was gone. She blinked. He grinned.
"You're up. Good. Gary wants to talk to you."
She was speechless for a moment and then nodded like a dimwit, following the kid out into the hallway without a word. It was indeed a motel, she realized somewhat dazedly as she walked behind the boy. And it looked well-kept. People walked the halls talking cheerfully to each other, cracking actual jokes and laughing. Some rooms were open and she could see a group gathered around two women playing chess, hooting and hollering like they were watching a sporting event. A group of kids ranging from 7 up ran by shooting each other with squirt guns.
The dichotomy between this place and her brother's grim camp in the mountains was not lost on her. But these people were not fighters. She could tell that at a glance.
"What's your name?" It was something she should have asked already. The boy turned and smiled at her.
"Jamal. Who brought me here? Who shot those Peacekeepers?" He didn't turn to look at her, instead leading her down a set of stairs and out into the parking lot. It looked like any small settlement post-Bombardment. Clusters of long-abandoned vans had been converted into 'shops' of sorts, and groups of warmly dressed people clustered around bonfires. More comfortable companionship, these people sitting in semi-circles of lawn chairs, dogs cavorting with kids. She was reminded of the way the 4th of July had been. Before.
"Gary can answer everything. Mind if I ask your name, Ms. Bond? Or is that top secret?" She could hear the underlying humor in the young voice. He was actually teasing her. They were walking along the lower level of rooms towards the old motel restaurant. Despite his mild mockery, she still hesitated before telling him her name. The indoctrination of fear and survival was not easy to toss aside.
"Melissa." What was the harm? She continued to eye the odd community she passed through. Clearly this 'Gary' had some kind of organizational skills. Unlike the other small Denver communities she had seen, most of these folks looked fed and clothed.
"Ok, Melissa. Here we are." Jamal pushed open the door into the dim restaurant and she walked inside. Typical '50s architecture though some of the retro ambience was lost by the fact that many of the windows were boarded up. It was rare to find an unbroken pane of glass in this day and age.
All the more ironic that she had found one of the few left standing to fling her body through. Her cuts ached in chorus.
The restaurant was mostly empty but for the big circular corner booth, which was occupied by a rangy man in his mid-forties and two others. Burnished skin and glossy dark hair spoke of Latino descent, but other than that, there was nothing different about him than any other man on the street. Nothing different except for the fact that she could *feel* his leadership. He had what John had. That natural charisma that made others follow when he led. Even the boy, Jamal, had a look of near-worship in his eyes when he pressed her forward.
"Gary? This here is Melissa. She's the one I told you about." Gary stood up, the two others remaining seated, only staring at her.
"Melissa. I trust you are better after your brush with our black-clad friends?"
He took her hand and she felt a little shiver travel down her arm. He had extraordinary eyes. She smiled a little tremulously and immediately gave herself a mental slap. She was acting like a moron.
"I am. I trust I have you to thank for that little piece of rescue work?" She was regaining her foothold and she felt the world settling back onto its foundation. It was, she thought, amazing to meet someone who didn't have a crushed, beaten look about them. Who seemed to bring back, so strongly, a sense of what it was like *before*. When people did not look like hunted animals. Gary was in charge. He made those around him feel both grounded and hopeful at the same time. It made her feel ... strong.
"Hmm. Jamal, actually. I told him to keep an eye on you after his first little encounter yesterday." Gary smiled and gestured for her to sit in the red-vinyl booth. "Maybe you could get her something to eat, Krissy?" Melissa hadn't had someone wait on her for five years. It was almost surreal. But Krissy stood and walked back behind the Denny's style counter top, glassware clinking. Mel half-expected her to appear with a Grand Slam Breakfast and a cup of coffee.
"Jamal shot those Peeks?" She looked at the boy a little more carefully. He was leaning almost arrogantly against a booth across the aisle.
"He's a very good shot. Good at a lot of things actually. Best eyes I have." Jamal actually seemed to flush under the praise. Gary turned his attention back to Mel and folded his arms before him on the table. "You're safe here for now. At least as safe as any of us can be. Jamal thinks you're with Crichton." He reached up to touch the base of his throat in the same spot her scar was. How had he known? "Is that true? You can be certain that your secrets are safe here." He added the last as if reading the mixed fear and suspicion in her face. She couldn't help but glance around in paranoia, biting her lower lip.
Krissy took the opportunity to put a cup of steaming instant coffee in front of her and she took it in her bandaged hands eagerly. Instant or no, it tasted like the best thing she'd ever had in her life. They had coffee up at Alva, but somehow it was different sitting in a red booth at a diner.
"Look, Gary." She glanced up at him over the lip of her chipped mug. "I can't do this. I can't let you in. I can see that you have a great system going here, and I'm happy for your people. But it's for your own good."
Gary sat back against the padded bench and looked at her coolly. It was enough to make her lower her eyes. The man was making her feel all squiggy, like he was pulling some kind of 'Jedi Mind Trick' on her.
"We've been waiting here for a while now, Melissa. When I say waiting, I mean that we have been biding our time until we can lend our hand towards a goal that, I think, we all want." He tilted his head and Mel saw strands of gray mixed in with the black. His eyes were the color of mahogany.
"Be that as it may, it puts us all in danger. The more people I talk to, the more chance that the Peeks learn everything."
"There comes a time, Melissa, when you have to lay all the cards on the table. There's no going back from that point, but it does have to be done. I'm all for caution, certainly I live by it as I'm sure you and yours do. But I can tell that things are coming to a head. I can smell it. Can't you?"
Smell it? She looked back down into the murky depths of her coffee. Coming to a head. Aeryn. She ground her teeth together and tried to think.
"Can I ask you something?" She looked back up, not just at Gary, but at all of them. "Has there been anything strange at the Base? I assume you have people watching it? While I've been out or asleep this morning. Has anyone seen anything at all?" Aeryn might have tried to signal her back somehow.
They all stared at her for a long, silent moment and then Gary turned to the other man.
"Willis, can you go and ask around? The smallest thing, anything anyone might have seen they thought was odd." Willis hopped up and stalked out of the restaurant, the door letting in the cold before swinging shut again. He turned back to Mel. "I myself have heard nothing, nor seen anything."
Christ. If Aeryn hadn't sent back any sort of signal, even something simple, then it was highly likely that one of two things had happened. She either hadn't seen the signal, or she was already captured. No, no, there was a third option. She pressed her lips together. Aeryn might have seen the signal and ignored it. That would not be a far stretch for the stubborn Sebacean. She tended to only take orders when she agreed with them.
One hand came up to rub at the bridge of her nose, ignoring the pinch of her injured fingers. A hand laying on her forearm made her jump slightly and she looked up into eyes that seemed to divine every trouble she had ever had.
She swallowed and took a deep breath, straightening her spine. No matter what the situation inside the Base was, John wanted Aeryn out. She didn't want the responsibility of what would happen if she failed and something did happen to the woman. Not just because she adored Aeryn, or because the dark-haired woman was key to getting Earth back... but because Melissa knew what would happen to John if Aeryn died.
She lifted her chin as she met Gary's eyes squarely. She'd made her own decision. The consequences would have to be on her shoulders.
"Ok, pal. You want to know what's going on? It's got a price tag. And it means you're jumping into the pool with us ... head first."
The sun was sinking below the jagged teeth of the Rockies when Aeryn stopped outside the Base Commander's door. Her heart was beating hard enough to rattle her teeth and she felt like she was on the verge of shaking out of her boots. One hand reached to her pocket to touch the reassuring shape of the vial of Somium she'd taken from the AgSec lab. Used for processing Hennoc, it was also a strong sedative. She was pinning all her hopes on it.
Taking a deep breath, gathering every strength and defense she had, she knocked on the wood portal. This was it.
When Darred opened the door, she had successfully beaten back the gibbering lunatic of the person she had become in the past 8 arns. She was a cool, calm Peacekeeper through and through. She had never met John Crichton, had never had a son named Dylan. She had never been aboard Moya or met the extraordinary beings who had become her friends. She was all discipline and straight lines. Logic and hard will.
"Myla." The way he said her name, even her false name, made her shiver. There was an underlying thread of hunger and obsession laced in the word that she had only heard hints of before. It set off internal alarms and for the first time she reconsidered Yena's words from that morning. The door shut behind her, and she knew it was far too late to back out now. Even if so much wasn't already on the line.
He drew her into the main chambers, staring at her with his cold eyes. She supposed that, back before, she might have once thought him decently attractive. She managed to smile in return. Forget everything and remember that there was no time left. She *would* get the codes.
One hand out, she ran a finger up his arm as she passed. A drink. She needed one. He needed one. His Grenit, he was sure to be drinking it.
His quarters were in the Earther capital building. He had converted the top floors into a large series of apartments that he occupied in the most grandeur he could arrange for. Plenty of furniture, she thought as she walked inside. It was a far cry from what they lived in up in the mountains.
Aeryn forced herself away from such thoughts. That she wished more than anything that she was there now in the drafty, canvas contraption she shared with John and Dylan.
She could see his private terminal over against the far wall. It was her ultimate goal for the evening, but she concentrated on keeping her eyes on Darred.
"Would you like some Grenit?" The magic words, she thought, nodding. She perched herself on the arm of a chair, trying to act as natural as possible with her heart pounding like a compression plant. One hand fell over the pocket that contained the drug when he turned towards the refreshment cabinet. "You know, Myla," he said, glasses clinking as he mixed and stirred and poured, "you are really quite extraordinary. You remind me a great deal of your predecessor, Lora Kreeg."
Kreeg again. It was getting unnerving.
"How so?" She kept her voice casual as he handed her a slim flute of the musky sludge. It would be impossible to get the Somium in his drink when he was fixing them. She would have to distract him in order to put it in the Grenit.
He was very close to her, close enough that she could see his pores, smell an unpleasant mix of sweat and something else - something familiar - that she couldn't pin down. His eyes were burning with an unhealthy excitement. A thrill of fear shot straight up her spine out of nowhere and she had to fight every instinct to remain still and let him touch her face.
"You have her bone structure. Very beautiful." One finger slipped up the line of her cheekbone to curl around her eyebrow ridge. She swallowed thickly, bringing her drink up and sipping it so she could pull away from his touch. The gritty, musky taste slid thickly across her tongue and she tried not to choke. He smiled, a smile of triumph, a smile of unadulterated glee.
"It's so wonderful to have you alone at last, Myla. I've been looking forward to this. To us." He sipped his drink again, hooding his eyes in pleasure. She could feel his leg pressed against hers, his fingers sliding up her arm. "I've been looking for someone like you. Someone strong enough. Strong enough to help." He sighed, his eyes tracing her features with uncomfortable familiarity.
"Help with what, sir?" She was pleased that her voice was firm. She managed another sip of the foul drink.
"With the weight, of course. Can't you feel it?" He whispered the last line, his voice turning intimate.
And then, suddenly, it felt like the bottom had dropped out of the shallow pool she had thought she was wading in. There was something very wrong with Commander Sallo Darred. There was something wrong entirely.
There had been a training exercise on a moon near her training base when she'd been in her teens. The air had been very thin there, part of the high stress training conditions. But now she recalled. Her team-partner, Krynis Lokk was his name, had not done well at all. In fact, now she recalled the smell. The odor that now emmanated from the Commander. It was metallic, almost. Sort of biting and sharp. Kryn had not reacted well to the thin air. Not at all. She had momentary flashes of shouting, of panic as Kryn had gone after Trainer with his knife. A reaction, she had been told later, that ocurred among rare Sebaceans with low levels of a brain chemical called Yuric. Kryn had essentially gone mad when the scarcity of oxygen had caused an imbalance in his brain chemistry.
She could still remember Trainer shooting Kryn in the head.
Her eyes flicked back to Darred's face, her nostrils flaring involuntarily at that same scent. The air was thin in Denver. Much thinner than most Sebaceans were used to. She swallowed thickly, trying to think fast.
"You know how hard it is?" he asked, still only inches from her face, his hand moving to cup her jaw firmly. "Bone, I mean." His little smile did not reassure her. In fact, her whole body was crawling with terror. He had gone mad and no one had noticed.
Not even her.
"W... what about it?" She was trying to keep her voice light. His hand was tightening on her jaw. The notion that she was going to have to break her charade flashed again and again through her mind like a warning light.
"It's strong. Porous, but strong. Light, but strong. It carries the load. The heavy, heavy load. You have very nice bones, my dear."
Yes. Time to do something now. Time to end this. The memory of Krynis lying with a pulse-hole in his forehead overlaid her view of the Commander. Sallo Darred was long past the point of help. The facade of normality that he wore day by day had come off, and it had exposed something she had not even come close to guessing at. Madness boiled in those eyes. Just for her. Only now. That could not be good.
She wrenched herself away from him before he could tighten his grip further. It was going to have to be quick, no time for subtlety. She swung her glass at his head in the same movement, feeling it smash against his temple as she staggered a few feet to one side.
But something was wrong. The floor spun alarmingly fast and she found that her feet were numb. One leg buckled under her and she crashed to the carpets, managing to crank her body enough so that she didn't land on the vial she carried.
Ironic, she thought with hollow terror.
He had drugged her first.
Gary didn't want me to go with them. I'm not sure I can forgive him for that. I mean, I've done a whole lotta shit for the guy over the years now. And he's said it himself, he thinks I'm one of the best men he has. That he couldn't have done half of what he's done without me.
If that's true, and Gary has never lied to me, then why is he leaving me behind like this? I think maybe it's because he wants to go be with Melissa. I may only be 14, but I'm no idiot. He was all over her skinny, blond butt. Don't get me wrong. She's cool and all, but if Gary's gonna go off through some secret tunnel system into the Peek base itself, I think I gotta right to go. I really think I do.
But no. He says no. He says I gotta do this other thing, this messenger boy thing. Gary went off and talked to blondie in private for a long time before he came out and told us all how it's gonna be. He was going in with her. But not me.
Me, I have to go and wait over on hwy 6 at Kermit's by the interstate. It's a bit of a stretch along Clear Creek, but he let me take the snowmobile, let me use some of the precious gas. That was pretty kickass in itself. We don't get to use gas for just anything. So I gotta trust him, gotta do what he says no matter how much I want to go with them into the tunnels.
It's started snowing again by the time I get to Kermit's. It's this old restaurant that wasn't even in operation *before* the Bombardment. We use it as a lookout sometimes and a sort of scout post/resupply station for the few times we've gone into the mountains. See, it sits pretty much on I-70 right before it starts to really climb up to the top of Loveland Pass. It's like the last call.
Totally dark out, a little creepy and a lot cold. Maybe some kid who hadn't lived through the end of the world might have been scared. Not me. I'm sitting in an upper window, trying to read an old Wolverine comic by the light of my flashlight when I see head lights.
First thought, of course, is that it's the Peeks. I switch off my light and stare out the dirty window. Part of the reason that Gary trusts me like he does is because I remember *everything*. I got some kind of photo-genic memory or something. I always remember stuff. But my first sight of them, even though they were in a PK Skim, is that they weren't the Peeks.
Gary gave me an envelope when I went. Said that if someone came by, like a group, that that was who I was looking for. I'm no high school grad, but I knew what that meant. Resistance. I was supposed to meet them and give them the envelope. Probably a message from Melissa. I was also supposed to stick with 'em and contact Freddy when the time came. What time? How the hell should I know?
I didn't peek at the note, by the way. I was sure tempted though. If they hadn't come by, I'm not ashamed to say that I woulda looked.
So they were coming down. And it wasn't on the freeway. Four or so Skimmers were moving down the Clear Creek bed itself, and that was how I knew they weren't Peeks.
I jump to my feet and run down the rickety stairs of Kermit's out into the icy cold of the night air. The wind has picked up a lot, even since I came in, and the snow is whirling around my head stinging my cheeks. I see the headlights coming in and, swallowing my paranoia, I run out there and wave my arms. God knows I hope they really aren't PKs.
The Skim stops, the headlights refracting and reflecting into a hundred rainbow arcs in my squinting eyes, the snow swirling around us. I stand there, trying not to shiver, trying to be confident.
The side door opens silently, yawning like a waking monster, dark figures pour out. I'm only slightly relieved that they are not Peeks, because they are all pointing their pulse weapons at me. I swallow and say the line that Gary told me to say:
"I have a message for John Crichton."
God knows, I never in a million years actually expected John Crichton to be on the Skim. I thought that someone would simply take the message back with them or radio it or something. Gary was not specific. But then this guy detaches from the group, his weapon the only one not pointed at me. He's flanked by two other dudes, one big and wide like a football player - both hover protectively. Hopefully they can see I'm just a kid. This is a serious buncha guys.
He's tall, taller than Gary, but not like a pro-wrestler or anything like I sorta imagined. Good looking in that white-guy, ken-doll kinda way. He looks down at me and says:
That was a shocker for me. Even watching him walk up to me, feeling all goosebumpy, I still never thought that this was John Crichton. I mean, seriously, up to yesterday, I didn't even think this guy was real. Not deep down.
I couldn't speak at first. Here he was, the guy we'd all pinned our hopes on sight-unseen. And he did look like a hero. Like Dirty Harry or something.
"I - I have a message for you." I held up the envelope. Maybe in my more rational moments, I would have asked him to prove that he was who he said he was. But I didn't have to. That was the thing. I'd read enough comics. I could just *tell*.
He took the envelope and slit it open with his thumb. The two men flanking him never took their eyes off me. Scary world when a skinny kid is that much of a threat. He was still backlit by the Skim's lights, long dark coat flapping around his ankles in the buffeting winds, but I could see his expression. It was a mix of apprehension and steely terror. He held the paper in hands that were only a hair from trembling. I wish now that I had read it. God, I wanted to know what made his whole body tense up and his jaw clench.
Can't get it back now. That's what I get for being honorable.
He looks at me and then jerks his head towards the Skim.
"You ride up here on something, son? Get it and put it in the Skim. You're coming with us."
He didn't need a libretto to tell him what had happened. Aeryn had decided to ignore the signal. There was the chance that she was already captured, of course, or that she hadn't seen it, but he didn't believe either of those scenarios.
She had seen the signal and determined to stick it out. Whether she knew Scorpius was in the Base with her or not, she had decided that the mission would not be aborted. His eyes ground over the scribbled words again. That was Mel's thought too, and he knew it was the most realistic. After all, he grimaced, it was really only one more day. Maybe she thought she could avoid the half-breed. Maybe she thought she could still carry out her objective. He should have *known* she wouldn't back out so close to the end.
Ty had known. It was why they were still going through with the plan. Neat piece of maneuvering, pal.
The Skim rocked as it navigated a turn in the creek bed and he looked up and over at the kid that Mel had sent to fill him in. The boy seemed unfazed by any of it. He wished he could be so untouchable. His sister was going into the base to see if Aeryn really had been captured, to get her out if she could. In the meantime, because of Aeryn's stubbornness, he would have move ahead on schedule. He could do nothing else. If she was still going along with the mission as they had plotted it, then he would be abandoning her to do any less. She would have already sent out her people to pick up the 'special' fertilizer bags. She would have already had them placed. That meant that Tynan's team was going to have to be ready to go in when the sun rose.
Finally, wordlessly, he passed Melissa's note over to Tynan, meeting his friend's eyes in the dim interior. The big man dropped his gaze to the paper, already smeared with dampness from the snow. Tynan could read English well enough to get the gist. He nodded to himself and looked back up at John.
"This is good, John. Whether you believe it or not. Assuming Aeryn's not captured, that is. And if I know her, she's not. We are so close to our objective, it would be a crime to pull back now."
John said nothing. Tynan's hand closed over his shoulder and for once, he allowed himself to take silent comfort from the man. Of them all, Tynan seemed the most unshakable in his faith that Crichton would succeed. It was galling most of the time, but every once in a while, it seemed to help.
"Who is this Gary that my sister is talking about?" He directed the question at the kid... Jamal, according to the note.
The boy was sitting across the aisle from him, arms folded, staring at him like a Buddha. Expressionless and somehow calming.
"Gary Ramirez. He runs the Underground in Denver now that Wanda got herself killed. He's ready to help you."
John frowned and rubbed at his forehead. He had not allowed anyone to join his group in almost 4 years now. Keeping it small kept it powerful. But now... well, as Mel had shown him, perhaps it was time to branch out a bit. Things were coming to a head.
Jamal was still staring at him and John leaned forward, uncomfortable under the scrutiny.
"Thanks for bringing me the message, kid. As soon as we get into the city, we'll drop you off."
Jamal simply shook his head.
"Nope. Gary told me to stick with you. When the time comes, I'm supposed to hook you up with Freddy. You're going to need us. Deal with it."
John actually laughed, a short sharp sound. No one had spoken to him like that in years, much less a half-grown kid. It was actually refreshing.
"You could be right, pal. I just might. But I don't take kids into a war zone, and that's what we're goin' to have in 24 hours. Assuming all goes well."
Jamal just shrugged and pulled out what looked like a walkie talkie, holding it up like Exhibit A.
"I'm the one with the frequency to talk to Freddy. I stay with you. That's what Gary wants. That's what I do. Sorry."
John's eyes had widened without even realizing it. A muffled chuckle from somewhere in the darkness of the skim interior had him snapping his head around to glare towards the offender. Karie? Ginny?
"I think he's got you, son." That was his Dad, who sat next to Jamal, a repressed smile tugging at the edges of his mouth. John returned his gaze to the stubborn kid, his eyes narrowing.
He opened his mouth to say something and then abruptly closed it again. He knew when to shut up. If there was anything he *did* know, it was to quit while he was ahead.
The skim rocked again and he caught a distant glimpse of lights through the front viewport. They were coming out of the canyon. Denver lay below them. Denver and the future, good or bad.
"You know about the genetic scanners, don't you?" Melissa's words echoed softly in the cold darkness of the sewer tunnel. She could hear the quiet footfalls of her companion, scuffling, rustling sounds as they hiked.
"Of course." Gary's deep voice came from just behind her and she refrained from shivering. It was a nuisance, her reaction to the underground leader. Far from the time for such things. God, it was like she had a crush on him or something. She was in her mid 30s. Ridiculous. "Wanda's people learned about them the hard way when they were installed. Luckily, none of them allowed themselves to be captured."
Mel heard the sadness in his voice and her heart twisted a little in empathy. They had all lost people. There wasn't a man, woman or child on the face of the Earth who had not.
"It's not much further. We are going to come up under Aeryn's bed in her room. The barracks are upstairs. This time of night, they will be occupied." She had already drawn a rough map for him, but it was not very accurate. She was going off old, oral descriptions from Aeryn. She didn't know where the genetic scanners were located and that would be problematic.
Her light bounced off the rusted, corrugated metal walls, flicking back and forth as she searched for the ladder she knew was coming up. A shadow leaped and she swept her beam upwards, seeing the unobtrusive metal rungs leading up into a dark hole.
"Here." She whispered, knowing that they were now under the Base Barracks. Aeryn had mentioned once that the pipes sometimes carried sound. They would have to be very quiet.
Gary nodded, reaching down to check his pulse pistol. They were both dressed in black Peek uniforms. A bonus that Melissa had been thrilled to see. Gary told her that they had been saving them for some time now. 'Never know when you might need something like that,' he'd said. It was almost too fortuitous. She didn't trust good fortune. It made her nervous when things seemed to be going smoothly.
She put one hand on the first rung and stopped when Gary touched her arm, shaking his head. Before she could protest, he had pushed her aside very gently and took the lead, climbing up the ladder. Lovely. Nice to know that chivalry was not dead. Frowning in irritation, she followed him up.
It took him a minute once he reached the top, fumbling around for a lever or a latch and she hung beneath him, breathless with dread, waiting. When dim light split the darkness she shielded her eyes and reached for her weapon. They were sitting ducks if someone was in Aeryn's room.
There was a grinding sound, like someone dragging metal across wood, and then Gary pulled himself up and out. Following, she found herself climbing through a trapdoor that was set under the bed. The bed had been pushed away from the wall, allowing them to emerge into the dingy room. Faint illumination from the hall streamed across the floorboards.
She pressed against the wall, waiting while Gary pushed the bed back against the wall, carefully re-concealing the trap door. Then he stopped to look at her, pointing silently to the empty bed. Empty. At this time of night. It spoke volumes. Aeryn was either a late worker or she was indeed captured. It made their mission all the more clear-cut. An information gathering mission had just turned into a rescue mission. Then, staring at her meaningfully, urging quiet, he led the way out the door and up a narrow staircase.
The sounds of heavy breathing and soft snoring greeted them as they entered the common barracks. Rows of beds lined the walls, gear lockers at the foot of each cot. At the very end of the room, the main doors mocked them with freedom. Of course, freedom was a relative term. They would have to avoid the scanners and somehow discover where Aeryn was being kept.
It was more like out of the frying pan and into the fire.
It had been Atinex. She recognized the flavor of it, bitter and oily. All PKs were trained to know the smell and taste and effect of the drugs that might be used against them. Or for them. Atinex was odorless, and the Grenit must have masked the taste. Hard to say how long she had been out.
Aeryn cracked open bleary eyes.
The room was dimly lit, and four blank walls told her she was no longer in the main chamber. She struggled briefly and found that she was tied down to a metal chair. Another fit of wrenched limbs, and she realized the chair was bolted to the floor.
What was that reek?
Her whole body went still and cold when she finally realized what it was. The metallic scent of blood.
Her breathing quickened as she blinked her eyes and tried to force her vision to adapt to the dim light. Only one small fixture in the corner was not enough to illuminate the room. There were no windows. She took a deep breath to calm herself, closed her eyes, counted down slowly and opened them again.
This time she could make out shapes and faded colors. A neat stack of pale tubes. A bin of some kind in the corner. A long skinny table against the wall across from the tubes. She sat in the center of it. A single door directly before her. She could not see what was at her back.
Aeryn tested her bonds once more, less frantically. Tight. But there was a tiny bit of room to work with. She began to methodically twist her wrists back and forth. Her eyes skimmed the room again, stopping on the table, taking note of several shiny tools laid out. She didn't need to work her imagination any further. She could see them clearly. Knives. Several sorts. It was not too great of a shock, she'd seen death in Darred's eyes and heard it in his voice just before she'd smashed her glass over his head.
Yena had been right.
It was a thought that actually made her want to giggle. Her simple, unimaginative aide had warned her. She'd been too focused on her goal to really stop and think about it. Lora Kreeg, she thought, had most surely suffered the fate that was planned for her now. On the tail of that notion, she looked over to her right again and this time, the shock actually made her gasp.
Not tubes. Frelling bones.
'You have beautiful bone structure, Myla.'
Her heart had started to knock against her teeth again, and she put more effort into her struggle. A lot of bones. Enough, she realized as her breath shortened in panic, to make up for all the defections from the Denver Base. Hezmana. She had even thought it herself, how strange it was that so many PKs had fled the Base. PKs didn't defect. No one knew that better than her.
All this time. How long had Darred been plucking his own people out of the general populace and doing... this... to them? She swallowed sickly. This was not happening. Not now. She needed to look at a chrono, needed to know how much time she had left. Ty would be entering the base just after dawn and the codes had to be there for him.
Her wrists were sticky and burning, and she knew that she was scraping her own skin off. No help for it. There was no way she was going to die like this. She simply wouldn't allow it. Gritting her teeth, she set her mind to her task, ignoring the pain as best she could.
There were sounds of movement outside the door and she caught her lip between her teeth, wrenching at her own limbs almost frantically. Her movements stilled the moment that the door swung open, backlighting Darred's figure in the opening. She couldn't see his features, but she could almost *feel* his anticipation.
Aeryn was suddenly and quite brutally reminded of Namtar. She had not felt so helpless or exposed since her brush with the insane genetic scientist. But she was a different person now, she reminded herself firmly. And there was no one to help her this time.
"Beautiful Myla." He said it in a voice that was as close to normal as anything he had uttered since she'd walked into his chambers. Then the door was shutting out the light - the sight of freedom - and he was walking towards her.
There was a gash on the side of his face that he had sprayed sealer on. The only sign she had inured him at all. He reached up to touch the cut even as she looked at it, smiling faintly.
"Fighting spirit, Chief Gevvis. Your bones will be strong. Maybe strong enough."
"Strong enough for what?" She continued to twist her wrists as unobtrusively as possible, feeling blood dripping down her fingers. The synthetic he had bound her with... slipped just a hair. She forced herself not to react.
"Can't you feel it, Myla?" He walked over to the table, pushing up his shirtsleeves as he picked up first one knife and then another. "The weight? The pressure? Suffocating. Hard to even breath sometimes. I know you can feel it." The words were conversational, as if he were discussing the weather.
The synth slipped a little more. She almost had the first knuckle of her thumb free.
"It's this world, you know. These *people*. Suffocating." He lifted up a knife with a hooked and serrated blade, examining it. The metal flashed bright menace in the single light. "Need help to hold it up. Keep it back, keep breathing," he murmured softly, preoccupied with the blade. "No one person is strong enough on their own, my dear."
Aeryn didn't take her eyes off him while she twisted her wrists, keeping her torso as still as possible. He turned to face her, and she shivered slightly to think that he was the same man she had spent so many hours cultivating. Had she been that preoccupied that she had failed to notice his madness?
Darred tilted his head at her, looking below her chair with a small frown just as her thumb slipped all the way free. She didn't need anyone to tell her he was seeing the splashes of her own blood on the grating. She wouldn't wait until he asked what she was doing.
The Commander lifted the knife and stepped forward with a protest on his lips just as she yanked her right hand free, swinging it around and smashing her fist into his face with all her strength. She felt nose cartilage crack under the force, her own blood spattering against his cheeks.
He literally shrieked in pain, staggering back and crashing into his table of tools. The knife clattered to the metal flooring just as she bent to rip at the bonds holding her ankles. Her fingers were crimson-slick and she couldn't get a good hold on the slippery synthetic. Panting with fear and adrenaline, she tore at it frantically, knowing she only had microts before...
...he grabbed her by her hair and wrenched her head back, exposing her throat. One hand wrapped itself around the slender bones of her neck, squeezing just hard enough that she saw stars. Her hands came up to grasp at his wrists.
"Not very professional, Myla. I knew you were more than just a weed-puller. You've got a fighter in you." His nose was streaming red and the sharp acrid odor of the blood filled her senses. "What's this?"
He tugged at the thong around her neck and she remembered the little wooden carving Dylan had made for her - too late. He pulled it out, frowning at it.
"What's this? Personal decor is not allowed. The perfect soldier is not so perfect?" He sounded disconnected. She could see him studying the bit of wood. "What is it supposed to be? Good luck charm?" He chuckled as he let go of her neck only to take up the thong.
And he started to twist it.
Black spots danced and bubbled at the fringe of her sight-lines and she dug her nails into the soft flesh of his wrists. He didn't flinch, though she could just see a flash of white teeth as he grimaced in pain.
The synthetic around her right ankle snapped as she forced every ounce of effort into yanking her leg free. Up it swung, connecting solidly between his legs. The pressure around her throat let up with a jerking snap as the thong broke and he collapsed into a soundless ball on the metal floor, wheezing in pain and shock. She took a great gasping breath of air and wrenched herself up and out of the chair, one ankle still tied to the left leg.
She took no time to think, she just flung herself on top of him, one hand scooping up the first thing that came to her fingers. Sharp, smooth wood. 'For protection,' he had said. There was no time to smile at the irony. She positioned the wooden carving in her blood-wet palm and drove it down into the cradle of his throat. It was not long enough or heavy enough to kill him, but she chose the exact bundle of Quinapheral nerves that would knock him out.
With a wheeze and a shuddering seizure, he subsided into unconsciousness.
Gasping with shock and pain, Aeryn pushed herself up to her knees, hanging her head while she collected her wits. Her arms were trembling, and she was still tethered to the chair by her left leg.
Darred lay twitching before her, her son's gift sticking out of the juncture between neck and shoulder like an undriven nail. Sick to her stomach, she stretched out one shaking hand and scooped up the knife that Darred had been holding before she'd broken his nose.
One slice later, and she was free of her remaining binding.
Single-minded, John had called her once or twice. She just called it focus. She had come here to do a job. Frell Darred, frell the Peacekeepers, frell them all if she wasn't going to finish it.
Standing on rubbery legs, she found herself looking inexorably to the wall where her back had been. A low, wide trough lay against the last wall, the neatly folded remains of a lieutenant's uniform hanging over the lip. Inside the trough itself, a clear fluid contained what looked like a set of new bones. It was the uniform that only the aide to the Commander wore.
No, not Peller. That timid young assistant of Darred's. She had not fared as well against her Commander. Aeryn forced herself to look, to acknowledge the girl's fate, vowing that she had been the last. Her eyes moved further on, grim in determination to see it all.
There was a collection of vials containing Randerin powder, a medication that helped the Yuric imbalance in the brain. Most of them were full. Untouched. But there were other things on the small countertop. A strange, grinding machine. An ornate box full of gray powder. She swallowed, her stomach turning queasily.
A step forward, despite her urgent schedule. Another. She had a sinking suspicion about what the machine was for. A glance inside it confirmed. Darred's 'Grenit', she realized, was not actually Grenit. It was the powdered bones of his victims. Hezmana. She had tasted ...
Shaking her head violently, she forced her suddenly heaving stomach into submission and evacuated the room. She stumbled over the Commander's prone body, opening the door out into the main chamber and hobbling quickly over to Darred's personal terminal. Her hands were still bloody and she wiped them, shaking, off on her pants as best she could. He had been ingesting the bones of his victims all this time. The numbers of them, the ease with which he had disabled her - he had been doing this for some time. Possibly cycles. He had been getting steadily worse and *no one had noticed*.
Ghosts seemed to whisper around her ears as she forced herself into the chair at his terminal, forced herself away from the horrifying discovery. The codes first. The frelling codes. Swallowing thickly, she tapped her way into Darred's access.
So simple from his own terminal. Virtually impossible from anywhere else. Turtouak. 'Weight of the world'. The Carrier in orbit had an apt name, she thought, her mouth pressed into a stressed white line. The urge to flee was strong enough that she had to force herself to remain seated.
She quickly wormed her way through the file structure and, just like that, there they were. A simple string of Kinterac codes that would allow a ship to transmit docking codes to an orbiting Carrier. She withdrew the tiny chip she'd stowed in the waistband of her pants, and popped it into the data slot. Another tap with her rust-stained finger and the codes were hers.
The entire situation was made all the more surreal by the ease with which she had stolen the codes. A single event, that if taken by itself, had spanned all of 15 microts. Looked at as a whole, it had eaten over 7 monens of her life and had nearly ended it very recently.
She switched off the terminal and pushed unsteadily to her feet, moving over to the window and peering down at the shipyard. Dark and quiet. The snow was blowing in harder now, but it would give her more cover. She only had to get the chip into the cargo vessel.
And she could leave this pit of sickness. She would tell Kasser, the head of security, before she escaped. Tell him about the monster who was their Commander.
Aeryn had only just started to turn away from the window when a flash of light and shadow moving in the reflection caught her attention.
She quickly jammed the chip into the space between the window casement and the sill before spinning around. She brought her hand up just in time to stop the knife from sinking into her back, the blade slicing open her palm as it bit down. Her breath hissed through her teeth at the pain, her eyes narrowing with the effort of holding Darred back. Dylan's talisman was still protruding in a ghastly spike from his neck.
There were no more words between them, only the struggle for survival on both parts. He could not let her leave with her new knowledge. She would not let him take her life.
Darred's mass was greater, but he was still rubbery from the paralysis. She managed to twist awkwardly out from his grasp, ducking under one arm and pushing him against the wall. But her hands were slick with new blood and he slipped away from her easily, capturing her limbs and flinging her roughly to the floor.
The impact knocked her senseless for a moment, and that was enough for him to raise up the knife and bring it down. The blade sank into her shoulder, and a shock quaked through her body, all the air leaving her in a rush. Her mouth worked soundlessly, black and red fluttering at the edges of her vision. The distant clicking sound, she realized, was her throat as she tried to catch her breath. Darred wrenched the knife back up, smiling as he panted, pleased that he finally had her subdued.
The blade was set to her throat, his expression going almost dreamy. It was over, she realized with sudden clarity. And in a few arns John and the others would walk into their deaths.
The pulse blast made her start, expecting the knife to bite into the soft flesh of her throat.
Instead, Darred looked down at her with newly blank eyes, his own jaw dropping in shock. They both looked down to see the smoky hole directly in the center of his chest. And then he simply toppled off of her to lie, staring sightlessly, across the floor.
Aeryn tried to push herself up, fighting unconsciousness as pain thrummed and pulsed under her skin. Blood coursed freely down her arm and torso. One hand came up to press at the wound. It was bad. Her head twisted around to see her savior.
There, under the main archway out to the foyer of the apartments, three dark figures stood silhouetted by the hall light sconces.
The one in the middle looked frighteningly familiar.
"Officer Sun. This is quite a surprise." The silken voice was one she still heard in her nightmares. Even through her shock, every single hair on her arms stood up and her remaining adrenaline flooded her veins.
*This* was why John wanted her out.
Aeryn could not see the half-Scarran's features in the dark room, but she knew it was him. He stepped into the room all the way then, looking down at her as she floundered helplessly on the carpets. She could almost *feel* his smile of triumph.
"Nice to see you again, my dear. It never occurred to me that perhaps you came through with Crichton. Fascinating. And how long have you been in the Base? What were you hoping to get out of our friend, the Commander?" His head tilted to one side and then the other, looking at the corpse of the former Base Commander. One booted foot came out and nudged the unmoving body. "Why was he trying to kill you? Had he found you out? Rooted out your little game?"
She didn't move, didn't speak. She was still too stunned by her failure and the loss of blood was making her fade little by little. It was hard to think. Scorpius waved one hand and the two black-clad men at his sides moved forward to take up her lank arms and drag her to her feet. She struggled against them for a moment, succeeding in pulling one arm away only to snatch up her son's bloodstained talisman from Darred's cooling corpse. They wrenched her to her feet a microt later.
"I suppose none of it matters. All that matters is you, sweet lady. I certainly didn't expect to find you here, but trust me that I will take the opportunity where it is offered."
If only she'd had just a little more time. It would be dawn in a few arns. Her mind raced through possibilities. John would be near now, Tynan's group would be waiting to enter the base soon. She'd been saved from one monster by the hands of another, but none of it mattered. Without the codes, the whole thing was useless. The wooden carving pressed painfully into her palm.
"I'm sure you know, Scorpius, that if you think I'm going to help you get John, you're sadly mistaken." Her voice was slurred and soft. "Which begs the question, just what are *you* doing here? Slumming? Or do you need John to figure out something else for you?"
Score one for the PK traitor, she thought, watching his face harden with fury. The flash of the half-breed's teeth in the dark spoke of anger barely contained. He looked about to say something more, but a shout of mixed disgust and surprise interrupted him.
One of the men had found Darred's charnel house.
"Preklate! You should come and look at this, sir."
Preklate? Had High Command lost their minds, making this Scarran freak part of the upper echelon of PK society? She could hear the murmur of Scorpius's cultured voice, the gagging sounds of one of the guards losing his last meal, but it was all getting softer and softer.
Until everything slipped quietly into the dark.
Tynan Rydarr had lived for 48 cycles. He had flown in two regiments and served well and ably for most of his life. He followed orders to the last punctuation mark and he'd risen in the ranks. The day that Captain Crais had lost his brother to a freak accident had changed more lives than just the immediate participants. It had changed lives because John Crichton had been brought into his universe.
There had been one particular shore leave in a nameless port when he had been younger. He and his two wingmen had visited a soothsayer on a bet. A fortune teller. She'd been old and worn, living in squalor for the PKs would not suffer her to do her business legitimately. Word had passed in his regiment, quietly, furtively, that this woman was a real kick. She'd predicted that Gayrett would break his arm before he'd fallen down the refreshment house stairs, it was said. She'd told Regga that he was going to die six monens before his prowler had crashed into a stray asteroid.
Not that he had cared about the future at the time. He was still young then and who cared about the future? As long as he could fly. But it was a bet, and he wasn't the type to throw currency away. Especially not to a lowlife like Gerdin. Pressing a credit into her withered palm, he had settled down before her, the buzzing of insects and the reek of garbage strong all around him.
She had looked at him and told him that he would crack his shell one day and open his eyes into a new world. She told him he was different than his companions. She told him that his actions would make him powerful.
There were certain people and places in the universe, she'd said then, that rupture order. That draw others to them and warp the very weave of structure. You, she said, are *not* one of these people. You are an ordinary soldier who will live an ordinary life. But you will do one extraordinary thing.
One extraordinary thing.
He reflected on that often. Especially in the days since he had taken up behind John Crichton. He and Aeryn had had this discussion before. What was it that had so inexorably bound him to the human? It was not just that Crichton had saved his life those five cycles ago. It was not even that John was a good person, an honorable person. The kind of person that you might want to *be* if you only knew how. The reason, he suspected, was that John Crichton made things *matter*. And that had become very important to the ex-peacekeeper. He had lost the only thing that mattered to him, flying, and he did not miss it.
He glanced back around at his small team. Good men and women. They would do what Crichton wished in the same way that he did, and with the same purpose. There was a greater cause, of course. The world's freedom. And that was the goal they all sought after. But Tynan was not an earthman. He did these things out of love for John Crichton and for the things that the human stood for. Things that Ty could never be on his own.
The words the soothsayer had spoken all those years ago were about this very thing. About people who warped structure and drew in matter. He had not really believed anything that old woman had said then. He knew better now.
"There it is." He said, trudging to a halt and lifting up an arm. The snowstorm was getting worse, but the new half-light told him that it was almost dawn regardless of the obscured sky. His group gathered around him, 6 men and women who had been picked for this, and had trained for it.
Hard to believe the day had come at last. Hopefully Aeryn had accomplished everything she had needed to. Otherwise they were all walking into their death. He was not afraid. Quite the opposite, he was calm and clear.
He looked around their surroundings and nodded to himself. The Base Gate was 50 yards distant, and they were the first ones there. That was good. He ran another critical eye over his companions. They all looked appropriately scruffy and harmless. Not that the Peacekeepers who would call them in would look that hard, but it was best to be thorough.
"You all know what to do?" It was almost hard to hear himself in the wailing wind. Hezmana but it was cold. The blizzard was probably why there was no one else out here. Hopefully no one else would come. It would minimize civilian casualties, a thing that was probably unavoidable.
No one spoke, they just nodded.
As if on cue, the small door set into the bigger gate swung open and a woman bundled in a PK issue low-temp jacket ran out through the snow, two soldiers following her disinterestedly.
"You need work?" Her English was terrible, but good enough to understand. The group of them nodded.
"We'll work for food," Jenna spoke. Tynan hadn't wanted to risk his Seb accent by talking to the PK.
"Of course, yes. You come now. You work." She gestured at them and they followed her inside the gate. Into the Base itself at last.
One extraordinary thing.
He hoped this was it.
An interesting turn of events, actually. Intriguing. He found himself drawn into the reasons and the actions almost against his will. After all, uncovering the security leaks of a minor outpost on a minor planet was not why he had come. But, as with all that Crichton's sphere of influence touched, things had become a bit more interesting.
A turn of luck that he had found himself in Darred's rooms. One of his men had discovered an explosive in the ship-yard. Buried in a bag of fertilizer, of all things. It was the sort of mischief that Scorpius had felt could be connected to Crichton's group. A bit of mischief, that, after careful and deep questioning of the AgSec Chief's aide, they had determined was the work of the Chief herself.
'Where,' he had asked the round, trembling little woman, 'might I find your Chief?'
A new intrigue, to discover John Crichton's shipmate herself in Darred's quarters, fighting for her life against the Commander himself. When given the opportunity to make a decision, there was only one option available. Sun was far more valuable to him than the expendable and useless Commander. And the foolish man had been about to kill her.
Her presence showed him that Crichton was most obviously hard at work with his little plans and machinations. Always entertaining. Not why he had come, but he was smart enough to understand that the key to getting Crichton would be to gain a clear picture of what he was doing here.
Equally entertaining, the discovery of Commander Darred's gruesome little hobby. Again, not what he had come for. He would not speak of it to High Command. Not yet.
He would not waste his time telling anyone his reasons for that reticence. That he wanted no part of PK politics or any of the nonsense that would surely rope him in if he were to report Darred's indiscretions. He had no time to bother with ordering minions about. The deaths of a few handfuls of nameless exiles, whom no one had even missed, was not worth the delay. Once he was safely on his way back to his Gammak base - hopefully with the key to why the wormhole matrix was resisting change - he would report it then.
Darred's former sanity notwithstanding, he was far more interested in the new and lovely advantage he had suddenly gained with the capture of Aeryn Sun. How fortuitous, and how ironic, that *he* should be the one to have saved her from the mindless lunatic Darred had proved to be. Providence that it should be her of all people. He knew from firsthand experience that John would not suffer his friends to be hostages. The human was predictably honorable in that way.
He stood at the wide windows of the Command Tower that overlooked the shipyard, peering out into the dark, swirling night. Crichton was out there somewhere. Probably close if Aeryn Sun was here. He glanced over at the nearest tech at the control panels.
"You *can* find the frequency I ask for, can't you, Lieutenant?" The man he asked was young, like most of the soldiers and techs on the Base. A truly pathetic place. No wonder, he thought with dark humor, that Darred had gone mad.
"Yes, sir. Of course. But I don't understand why you think that frequency will be successful. We've tried for five cycles to find their communications lines." His voice was as thin and hard as a knife-blade, trembling almost imperceptibly on the edges. Scorpius could smell the boy's fear. It reeked of uncertainty and a clear understanding of what would happen to him if he failed.
"I know the mind of this man." Scorpius said simply. He turned to one of his men and jerked his chin slightly. "Bring up Ms. Sun, we'll need her here soon enough."
"Only a moment more now, sir. You were right about the lower band frequencies," another of the young things at the panel said with a touch of uncomfortable awe, glancing uneasily over her shoulder. He smiled. A moment later and they all heard the pop and crackle of amplified sound. He stepped forward. If only he could see Crichton's face...
"Excellent. Where do I speak?"
I'd watched Crichton talk quietly with the big football-player guy for a little while, heads bent close together in the swirling snow. I watched when they shook hands and then embraced each other for a long moment, watched as the big man took a small group of people off towards the Base's North Gate. The gate where the Peeks would sometimes pull in willing humans to do any odd jobs they didn't want to do themselves. It usually meant a hot meal and a few supplies. I'd never done it myself. No one in Gary's group would risk it just in case the Peeks decided to drag someone off for random questioning.
It was one way in though. Obviously that was the idea. I wondered briefly, as I perched, huddled in my jacket on the front grill of the Skim, how Gary and Melissa were doing. Hadn't known that gal was Crichton's sister. Guess now that I knew, I could see the family resemblance.
"You warm enough, son?" I looked to my side and saw an older man with a silver beard standing there, leaning on the skim alongside me. I nodded, not saying anything.
Crichton himself was standing among a second group of people huddled in an old gas station garage. They looked like they were setting up some kind of equipment in the relative shelter. The wind and snow howled down around us and I tucked my chin into my collar. It was getting lighter, despite the storm. Morning had finally come. I wasn't sleepy, despite the fact that I hadn't slept since the night before. There was an odd energy in the air, a mix of hope and fear and anticipation. Gary had been right again. Something was most certainly coming down to the wire.
I ignored the man at my side and concentrated on watching Crichton himself. He was kinda freaking me out a little. I mean, there was something missing. Something hard and hollow about him. I could see it in his eyes. Some of the folks I'd been with in Colorado Springs had that look. Those were the people who had given up. The world was too heavy, and they simply couldn't carry it anymore. They'd stopped caring. I could tell that Crichton was like that too. But in a different way. Couldn't put my finger on it.
Even as I watched him, Crichton went abruptly still, as if he had heard something. The other four men with him froze when he did, their work seemingly forgotten. I didn't need anything more to tease my curiosity. The older man at my side had already started forward. The sound was like faint popping or static.
Suddenly Crichton was grabbing his com out of his inner pocket and staring at it like it was a piece of excrement. I broke into a trot.
"Who is this?" It was the first thing I heard when I approached. Crichton's voice was an angry growl. The others around him had taken an almost instinctive step backwards.
"I think you know, my resourceful friend."
The voice that came out of the com was oily smooth. It sent a shiver up my spine. I halted just inside the overhang of the old garage. The older man, who I knew was his dad, walked all the way up Crichton, arms loose at his sides as if he was ready to either comfort or restrain.
"Tell me what you want, pal. No wait. Let me guess. You have some more hard math problems? Aren't you getting a little old to need help with your homework like this?"
There was a poisonous silence on the line, but John's face remained expressionless. He could have been carved from granite.
"I don't think you want to waste your time with banter, John. I found something here that you misplaced."
"Yeah, yeah. I know the drill. You want to make an exchange. You just don't learn, do you, Scorpy?"
"Regardless of what you think, or what you want, I suggest that you come and retrieve your little spy. In person. You have an arn, no longer.
The tiny click signaled the end of the conversation.
I watched John Crichton, as did everyone else who gathered at that long-dead Mobil station. And I swear I could see something in him break as surely as I could see the snow gathering in his hair. All of his men, everyone underneath the ruined canopy of the Mobil station, we waited to see what John Crichton would do. A frozen tableau in the falling snow.
There was something pinching my heart, something that hurt. I dimly recognized it as horror as I witnessed what came next. The last of his humanity, his optimism... if he had had any hope left ... flared out like a snuffed candle.
"John..." The older man at my side took one step forward, but Crichton held up a hand. His face was icy.
"No." The word cut through the wind like it was amplified. He turned, his black coat patterned with clinging white, and stared at his men. "All of you," he grated, "get back to what you were doing! We've got one - count it - one hour!"
There wasn't a soul present who couldn't tell that John Crichton had settled that last brick into his armor.
And walled himself in.
Aeryn woke up on the cold floor a detention cell. Her shoulder was stiff and throbbing, but she recognized the sensation of a sealant spray. She was weak, but she could tell she would be fine. Not that it mattered. Her failure tasted bitter in the back of her throat. The chit was still jammed, useless, against the window of Darred's quarters. It might as well be on the moon for all the good it would do any of them now.
Glancing around, she knew where she was within microts. Aeryn had been in the lower levels of the capital building before. She'd even had one of her people thrown in here for drinking on duty. Leaning back against the wall, she drew her knees up to her chest and hugged them for warmth. A small sound caught her attention and she saw the wooden necklace, now brown with dried blood, had fallen to the floor. She had folded it into her sleeve before she'd fainted in Darred's chambers. She picked it up and tried to rub some of the discoloration off before giving up and simply looping it around her neck.
Protection, she thought. In a way, it had saved her.
Closing her eyes in defeat she quickly ran through a mental checklist of everything that was wrong. Her capture was the least of it, though that would balloon into something worse once Scorpius told John that he had her. John would be in the city by now, possibly Ty was already in the shipyard. Tynan could not complete his most-important portion of the mission without her codes. The only hope now was that everyone could retreat safely.
That could still occur if several things happened. If Tynan discovered that the codes were not going to arrive while they were onboard the cargo vessel and he left before anything else happened. And if John did not allow Scorpius to use her as a hostage.
The first one was possible. The second one was not.
Aeryn pushed slowly to her feet and scanned the small cell. An old human detention facility, the walls were brick. Three of the four walls were solid with no breaks, the fourth was a set of spaced metal bars.
She paced once, twice and then three times the length of her space before coming to a halt in front of the bars, shaking at them experimentally. Hezmana, if only she had just had the time to plant the codes in the ship. She gritted her teeth and slammed her fist weakly into the metal with a clang, ignoring the pain in her scabbed and blood-streaked hands and the sharp agony of her shoulder.
"Aeryn?" The voice was a whisper, but she heard it clearly. Her eyes flicked up to the security cameras, her heart picking up its pace. Knowing what she knew of the Base operations, she was reassured to know that the cameras were not operational. And she knew that voice.
"Melissa?! What the frell are you doing in here?" She hissed the reply, pressing her face to the bars in an attempt to see John's sister in the corridor.
"We've come to get you out." Mel appeared, dressed in a black PK uniform, another man behind her that she didn't recognize. Her heart leaped with foolish hope before she could stop herself. John's sister's eyes widened as she took in Aeryn's disheveled, bloody appearance.
Aeryn shook her head to forestall the inevitable distressed comments.
"You *can't* get me out, Melissa. Not without making a big scene, and we need to keep things quiet until Tynan can either escape or..." She hissed as it occurred to her. "But there *is* something you can do." She was almost breathless. "You have to get the dock codes to Ty as quick as you can. He must be in the ship-yard by now. The codes are on a chit that I jammed between the window casing and the sill in Darred's rooms. The window by the terminal. You have to hurry!" She spoke in a rush, unable to believe that Mel was even real, but willing to take any risk.
But Mel was shaking her head.
"We have to get you out of there. We can't leave you..." She stopped as Aeryn reached through the bars and grabbed Mel's shoulder, ignoring the blood she smeared there. The knife cut in her palm had reopened when she'd hit the bars.
Distractions. Hezmana, she wanted to slap the girl silly.
"NO! Forget that, forget me." Her eyes snapped to the stranger next to Melissa, sure that she looked like a wild thing. "Go! Whoever you are. Everything depends on that frelling chit. Get Tynan the codes! GO!" She poured every ounce of desperation into her voice, shaking impotently at Mel's shoulder and for a miracle, it worked. The stranger had to yank Mel away (damned honorable Crichton clan) and they vanished down the hall, Melissa's pretty face turning repeatedly back to look at her.
Aeryn pressed her red-stained fist to her mouth, fighting back a sound that was half-shout and half-sob. There was a chance now. A real frelling chance. The cinderblock wall was at her back and she sank slowly down to the floor, feeling renewed hope surging through her.
She had done all she could, it would have to be enough.
A sound clattered at the opposite end of the hall, a door slamming. Footfalls. Her skin prickled.
Time for Scorpius.
A toy, as it winds, makes tiny, grunting sounds of effort. The stretching, ever-tightening stress of rubber bands wrapping around plastic parts, the tick-tick of the key as it turns in the back of mouse/car/tin soldier. It twists and it vibrates with stress as it is wound further and further towards the breaking point.
Tynan Rydarr, former PK Scout and fighter pilot, tries to look as non-threatening as possible, carefully watching his men as they meticulously clean out the rank interior of the Cargo vessel. Clouds of vapor curl from their mouths in the cold air as they work, shoveling and bagging the mess that Aeryn's people left when they hauled loads of fertilizer to the AgSec complex. An uninterested pair of soldiers watch from a protected booth nearby, safe behind their Plexiglas. Ty has not found the chit that Aeryn said would contain the docking codes. They are almost halfway done with cleaning the vessel and time is running out.
He waits and he fears.
Jamal, boy of fourteen, stands with John Crichton on the roof of the skim, 2 miles distant from the PK Base. Jamal, once a mediocre soccer player and aspiring comic book writer, has called in to the motel 6 that is Gary Ramirez's base. He has been told by Freddy that they will be ready.
The group of them watch through oculars, watch the base, wait for the signal that will indicate it is time. John Crichton stands alone in his cold world and mourns his mate. He has forgotten how to hope.
Aeryn Sun is dragged into Command. She flinches as if slapped when she sees the mix of delight and anticipation on Scorpius's face. She can see that he thinks he has already won.
She speaks silent to whatever powers there are that Melissa succeeds.
Melissa Crichton, widow, ex-graphic designer, futuristic freedom fighter, creeps inside Sallo Darred's private apartments. She and Gary Ramirez, ex-restaurateur, divorced and once father of three girls, is at her back. The pair of them, regretfully and with no small amount of struggle, kill the young Peacekeeper who surprises them there. His blood still pooling on the floorboards, Melissa finds the chit where she was told it would be.
Palming it, she and her companion run.
Tynan tries to get them to work slower. The woman in the AgSec uniform will be back soon. She will give him and the others food, and then she will make them leave.
He is hoping that someone will still come with the chit. He is hoping that they can still do it but he silently believes that Aeryn has been captured. He does not tell this to his men as they work. Inside, he thinks that they will not make it.
Scorpius, once-outcast, still-scientist, now-Preklate, stands and looks out into the snow. He can feel his quarry nearing in the same way that a predator senses prey. He refuses to dwell on the secret shame, the deepest of humiliations, that he *needs* John Crichton. That he cannot crack the mystery of the wormhole without him.
Scorpius despises John Crichton all the more because of it. And in his obsessive mix of hate and anticipation, continues to neglect to ponder on just *what* Aeryn Sun had been after in Commander Darred's chambers.
John Crichton, ex-explorer, ex-adventurer, ex-test pilot, stands with the people who have followed him for five years and waits. He has only a half an hour left before Scorpius will expect him.
He is numb through and through. No emotion flares in his eyes.
He thinks that he will fail.
Melissa Crichton-Meyer moves as openly and nonchalantly as she can down the corridors. Gary Ramirez at her side. They try to carry their pulse rifles like soldiers. They are only partially successful, but no one stops them. The ship yard looms ahead. Gary is thinking that they will not survive this.
The flakes swirls around them as they move out into and across the yard, the snow already ankle deep. No one challenges them, though it is suspicious for two soldiers to be approaching a cargo vessel. Any moment the two real soldiers in the watch-booth will notice them. They try to move as quickly as they can.
Melissa sees Tynan's big form on the ship's ramp just as a challenge shout rings out. She breaks into a run ...
And all hell breaks loose.
Ty wanted to shout his frustration, he wanted to hit something. They were finished, and the mission was over. Failed. They had lost their chance, and it looked like they had lost Aeryn too. She should have gotten out when she had the chance.
"Ok, I guess that's it." His voice was hoarse with disappointment. They'll be coming to clear us out of here in a minute."
"Should one of us try and stow away?" That was Quent. The skinny ex-scientist was covered with filth, both grimy hands clasping the handle of his shovel. His eyes spoke volumes worth. They had all pinned their hopes on this. Worked for it for so long. Ty shook his head.
"We have to get out while we can. If Aeryn -" he stopped for a moment, clearing his throat, "if Aeryn really is captured, then they are sure to have put her to the question. They'll find us out. They'll shut the base down and we'll all be trapped. No, it's time to go. We'll have other chances."
None as good as this one, though, he thought grimly. Tynan moved to the top of the ramp and started down it. Already, two PKs were trotting across the field towards them. Their escort out, he thought with a sigh.
At least, until the shouts.
He paused halfway down the ramp, staring through the swirling snowflakes. The two soldiers had started running towards them and Tynan felt his heart rate pick up.
Not soldiers. They ran like - like humans. He swallowed and waved his hand sharply at the others.
"Back in! I think we might have something here." It would be close. The two duty soldiers in the booth had noticed the pair, and they had been the ones who shouted. The whole base would be up in arms soon. He had to make a decision. Fast.
He did. Not knowing if he was signing his own death warrant, he reached into his jacket and pulled out the flare that had been stowed beforehand on the cargo vessel. And he fired it straight up.
The PK soldiers who had emerged from their booth hadn't really known anything except that what looked like two unauthorized soldiers were approaching the ships. They had come out of their booth, yelled for ID, and the flare had shot into the sky. Perhaps not the quickest thinkers, both of them knew that meant bad things.
They opened fire.
Melissa felt burning heat sear into the muscle and bone of her left calf and she did an ungraceful face-dive right into the snow, icy cold packing down the neck of her suit, grit burning into her cheek. Pain sizzled up and down her body, setting her nerves on fire and she bit down into her own lip to keep from screaming.
"The chip!" Gary yelled at her. She had enough of her faculties to toss it to him. The tiny thing flew up towards him, and he snagged it out of the snow-speckled air, continuing his run towards the cargo vessel unabated.
That was when the explosions rocked the yard.
Geysers of rock, snow and ice burst up from the sides of the yard, raining debris down in a fiery hail. Gasping into the ground, she covered her head just as another pulse bolt whizzing over her and hissing into the snow mere feet from her face. Three ships away, a Stinger went up with an ear-splitting roar and a wave of heat rolled over her with the shock wave. She couldn't see in the blowing snow and the firestorm all around her, couldn't see if Gary had made it. If he had gotten to Ty in time. The Base alarm had started to shriek in rapid intervals, rousing the PKs like a nest of angry fire ants.
She staggered to her feet, falling down twice on her injured and immobile leg before successfully standing with the aid of her pulse rifle as a crutch. The whole yard was choked with smoke and debris and she coughed violently, her eyes tearing and burning as she tried to move towards where the cargo vessel ought to have been.
The next thing she knew, someone had her arm and was literally dragging her back through the yard towards the wall. That was when Melissa heard the unmistakable sound of retros firing and the high pitched whine of a starship's engines.
It was almost too much to comprehend. Had Gary made it in time? Tynan still had to get off the ground, but John had said that part was under control.
None of this seemed under control to her.
The flare had gone up in a perfect arc of heat and blazing incandescence. It startled him, he had not expected to see it.
But it was his signal. He pressed the button on the remote detonator he held in one gloved hand.
"Holeee SHIT!" Jamal's appreciative shout was echoed by the men outside the Mobil station below them, as fire bloomed and boomed inside the Base. Huge clouds of smoke and snow and debris plumed out above the black walls, painted in hues of red and orange. The shock waves rattled the windows of the gas station.
John grabbed Jamal by the shoulders and, twisting him so that he was pointed away from the base and looking up into the foothills, he produced a battered walkie-talkie from his inner pocket.
"Watch this, kid." He pressed a series of numbers into the handset.
Jamal winced slightly at the blinding flash of light that strobed the morning air, cutting through the snowstorm in a blaze of searing yellow. The boom hit them a second later as the enormous PK base-communications array on top of the nearest mountain went up in a column of flame that seemed to tickle the clouds themselves.
"Oh my god ..." Jamal could only gape.
"Hell YES," John shouted, his face transformed by icy anger. "Nothing like the smell of Plastique in the morning! Now let those fuckers try to tell the Carrier that we're coming!"
His men were cheering below like banshees, but he would not celebrate. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
"Come on! Jamal," he growled to the boy, "Get your people on the line. We're going in!"
The kid was grinning like a predator.
"Here we come, you Peek bastards!" Jamal yelled.
Space. Hezmana. It had only been five years, but it felt like a lifetime. Ty watched the blue haze of the planet below drop away, watched the starfield go from indigo to black. He was grinning like a fool and realized that he had been an idiot to think that he hadn't missed this. He was flying. It was essentially a bucket with the propulsion of a garbage scow, but he was flying.
He glanced back once at his men. Each of them were staring out the front viewscreen with their mouths open. Of course. None of them had been in space before. Hard to imagine. So hard to imagine.
"Won't the Base just call up to the Carrier to shoot us down?" That was Quent, and it was a question that they had all had. John had told them not to worry about that part. No one had argued with him. No one ever argued with John these days. But they did trust him.
And now, checking the scanners and the readouts, Crichton appeared to have been as good at his word. No prowlers moved to intercept, no threatening transmissions arrived. It was only the cargo vessel and ... there it was.
"Oh my god." Raoul's whisper echoed everyone's silent awe as they came in sight of the Carrier. Easy to forget how big Command Carriers were. And there, just beyond it. The wormhole itself, a queasy frozen spiral of color and light. He had seen it when he'd come through, of course, but the others had only seen the old satellite shots.
"It's... it's the size of Texas..." Howie whispered.
Ty didn't know how big Texas was, but the Carrier was definitely large. Carrying a compliment of over 250 prowlers, two Pantak class Vigilantes, four Reavers and sixteen destroyers, it was a city in space. A war base. The carrier itself was capable of hurling massive bolts of energy through space, bolts that could and had obliterated large chunks of the planet below.
"How's it coming back there?" Tynan asked without turning around. Only now that they were actually in space, did he feel safe enough to even wonder if they had everything they were supposed to.
"We found all the parts. Almost ready." Quent's voice was hollow with apprehension. All of them had done a great number of things to survive in the time since the PKs had come, but nothing like this. Tynan looked back then, his eyes skimming over the newly assembled object on the floor. It was still clumped with chunks of dirt and manure, but it was unmistakable in its purpose.
It was called a nuclear warhead. John had assured him that it could do the job.
He faced forward to the carrier and took a deep breath. In a way, the hardest part was behind them, but they weren't in the clear yet.
The carrier loomed before them, blocking out the stars. Leaning forward, he snapped the chit Aeryn had gotten him into the console and quickly transmitted the information that would allow them to dock automatically.
"Hello there, friends," Ty whispered to himself as the precious codes transmitted. "We're just an unarmed crate that's of no interest to you."
They were a simple cargo vessel, they were no threat. The massive warship barely took notice of them.
Tynan maneuvered the ship into the enormous docking bay, everyone on board silent as if the carrier itself might suddenly snap shut its jaws and devour them whole. He'd been inside the docks of the beast before. He knew what to do. A moment later, they were clamped securely down. Several security men looked down at them dismissively from the heights of their observation booth.
"Ok, gang." Tynan stood up from the pilot chair and looked carefully at everyone. "Let's change into those jumps that Aeryn stowed for us. Remember. Don't talk to anyone for any reason unless you absolutely have to. No one should bother us. We have the map memorized, yes?"
They all nodded at him.
He rubbed his hands together.
One extraordinary thing.
The gate crumpled before them with one well-aimed missile.
It was a scene of chaos unlike anything John had ever witnessed, and he'd witnessed a great deal. Smoke and snow boiled together in a mix of storm and savage explosions. Fire whipped and guttered inside the newly exposed ship yard and he could see the scene of destruction inside. Aeryn had placed the explosives with the eye of an expert. Any of the stingers that could have been a threat had been gutted on the ground.
A flood of humanity, more people than he had ever imagined, streamed into the gap in the wall, many carrying no more of a weapon than a stick or a baseball bat. Jamal's people, he knew, were there. But others too. The general populace of the Denver ruins. Folks who had been awoken by the explosions and were taking spontaneous action.
They flowed into the base amidst a smattering of pulse weapons fire from the walls. The PKs inside were still armed, but they were hopelessly outnumbered.
"Come on, let's go." John thumped the roof of the Skim and it jerked forward, his Dad at the helm, Kevin his co-pilot. He checked his watch and saw with a numb grimace that Aeryn's hour was almost up.
He glanced around, eyes narrowed in the smoke and snow, as the Skim he perched on lurched across the yard and stopped. Beneath his dangling foot, the door hissed open and 6 of his people poured out, pulse rifles in hand. To either side, the other four skims in his group halted as well.
He didn't stop to talk, shout orders or explain. He jumped off the roof, landing in the chopped, dirty snow-pack of the yard, and took off towards the Command tower. It was where Scorpy would be.
The sound of pulse fire rattled and screamed in the air, black-suited PKs pouring into the yard. He put his head down and went.
Aeryn stood between her four-guard escort calmly. She supposed that she should be afraid, but she was only triumphant. No matter what happened to her, or even to John at this point, they had won. She loved winning. Ty had taken off, she'd seen the Cargo vessel lift gracefully out of the yard under his expert guidance. The Base would fall. Best of all, Scorpius still did not seem to understand what had just happened.
That the Carrier and his precious wormhole were about to become extinct.
She could thank obsession for that. The half-breed was too fixated on John to realize this was more than just a localized uprising or to have put together the pieces of the puzzle that was unfolding around him. It was almost appropriate. Scorpius claimed to understand John. He didn't understand anything.
Outside the command tower below, it was a scene of chaos as the gates suddenly blew inwards. Hundreds of humans began streaming through the new ragged hole in what seemed a never-ending flow. It had not been part of John's plan, all those people. But sheer numbers alone would overwhelm the PKs.
"Lock the damned door! Don't let anyone in!" The soldier's voice behind her was high with shock and disbelief behind her. Scorpius looked unsure for the first time since he'd taken her captive. She relished every crack in his demeanor. Reveled in watching his face as he began to realize that this was more than a pathetic attack by a pathetic bunch of primitives.
He was staring at the empty spot where the cargo vessel had been sitting with a frown. Was he finally understanding what its absence meant? That, with the right docking codes, it was the only vessel in the ship-yard that was capable of approaching a Command Carrier with no questions asked?
The hiss of the door at her back seemed to be only appropriate. She closed her eyes for a microt at the perfection of the moment.
"Hey Scorpy," her mate's voice was so cold, "Welcome to Earth."
Tynan stood guard at the doorway of the CCC, trying not to tap his foot with nervousness. He glanced inside for the tenth time, seeing that Quent and Raoul were still bent over the device, working quickly.
They had found the Core easily, but keeping the wide room free of maintenance workers while they planted the bomb and reset the ship's internal guidance array was another story. Already, two bodies lay cooling against the far wall. Men who had come into the Core just as they were unloading the warhead.
Howie and Ginny worked rapidly over the system panels, biting their lips and whispering to each other over the unfamiliar controls. It was key, of course, entering the new coordinates into the tracking system. It was also what had given John the idea for this whole mess to begin with. The communications officer they had captured three years earlier had started it all. John had spent days with the wounded man, using every technique he could think of to coax information from the man, turning his charm on full force.
Few folks could turn down Crichton when he cranked up the charisma, but it had taken a long time to get the man to admit that what John asked could be done. It was all they got out of the man. He had died of his wounds several days later despite their attempts to save him.
But it was the push that got the ball rolling. The object has always been to take both the Carrier and the wormhole out at the same time. Anything else would be pointless. How does one accomplish this thing? Blow up the ship *in* the wormhole, of course.
"Done. I think." Howie looked up from the console and nodded. "I think it's working. We should be drifting towards it even now." He looked back down at the nav numbers. "If what you and Aeryn explained to us is right, then it worked."
Tynan gave up his post momentarily and glanced at what the two had done. Indeed, he thought with a small thrill, the Carrier *was* drifting. They had disabled the automatic orbit stabilizers. The gravity of the wormhole, John had said, would win out over the Earth's on an object without its own relative motion. Like the Carrier was.
"And the bomb?" He asked. Quent looked up, swallowing.
"I think it's ready. Goddamn, but I think it is."
"Everyone back to the cargo vessel. I've programmed re-entry on it. Rachel watched me fly up. She knows what to do. It's easier than driving the Skim."
Five pairs of eyes stared at him, uncomprehending.
"What are you talking about, Ty?" Quent took half a step forward, his hand half raising up. It was all finally dawning on them and Ginny was shaking her head almost imperceptibly.
He smiled at them.
"You know that someone has to stay here and make sure that it all happens like it's supposed to. Come on, you guys. We haven't worked on this for as long as we have to just *hope* that it goes to plan." He smiled at them, and found that it was easy to do. He was filled with calm purpose. It was what he was supposed to do. He wanted them to understand.
It was Rachel who nodded first, her voice thin.
"He's right. Anything could happen. Someone has to stay behind and make sure."
Raoul had already known, or at least guessed. The chubby ex-construction worker looked down at his feet.
"I... I'll stay. It shouldn't be you, Ty. John needs you more than he needs me."
Tynan only chuckled. He put a hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"Do you know anything about this Command Carrier except what you've been told? What's been drilled into your head? I grew up on a Carrier, Raoul. I'm a Peacekeeper. It has to be this way." He looked at them all. "Come on, time to get moving. You all still have some work to do down there. But without this Carrier, without that Wormhole, you can have your planet back." It was the reminder they needed, the reminder of why they were there.
Ginny flung her arms around him first. One by one, they embraced him like he was one of them, a kinship he had never had as the PK he had been. Quent was last and he had to wipe tears from his eyes before he looked up at Tynan.
"Is there anything you want me to tell John?"
Tynan shook his head.
"We've already talked."
"Of course he did, son."
"How could he ask you do this?" Quent's voice was hard, his eyes wet.
"He didn't. He never would. But if he had asked you, would you have said no?"
Quent caught his breath and then shook his head. Once and then a second time more firmly. He did understand.
If only John could.
He took the man's hand and shook it in the earther custom.
"It's been a privilege." Quent said, looking at him one last time before joining the others where they waited at the door.
And then, without another backwards glance from any of them, they left him standing alone in the CCC.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath before he walked to the door and sealed it shut. Command would have noticed by now that the wormhole seemed to be looming much closer. They would have the navigators check their position in the NavCom, and find that it said they had not moved. They would double check. They would discover the NavCom was lying to them.
Hopefully the others would be off the carrier by the time that happened. Hopefully, but even if they hadn't, it would not delay the inevitable. The warhead was set to detonate in another quarter arn. If the cargo vessel was not away by then, nothing could save them.
He settled down in front of the console and watched their position swing further and further out of orbit. John had been right, the wormhole was sucking them towards it. He poised his hands over the panel, waiting for the moment that he would have to forego subtlety and fight for control of the automatic thrusters.
He would wait.
One extraordinary thing.
"Here I am, pal. You know, considering we've never even gone out on a date, you certainly can't seem to take a hint. I don't want to go to the prom with you." He would not look at Aeryn. He was proud that she stood stiff and still and unafraid among her covey of guards. It was the bruises and the blood that he would not look at.
"John Crichton. You have changed, my friend." He smiled again, gesturing with one hand at one of the soldiers. The man moved forward and pulled the gun out of John's hand, then yanked Crichton all the way into the room. Scorpius moved to perch on the edge of the console, comfortably in control again. "It looks like you've been busy here, John. Tell me, do you really think you can destroy a Command Carrier with a cargo vessel?"
The words were mocking, but John could hear the underlying unease. His smile was icy cold.
"I do Scorps." He glanced pointedly at his watch. "And I will." Scorpius lifted his eyebrows and chuckled.
"Thinking highly of our abilities these days, are we?"
"*You* seem to. Why else did you come here? More wormhole crap? Can't you figure this shit out for yourself? You're supposed to be the goddamned brainiac around here. What's the matter? Is it all a facade? What did you do *before* I came along to further your research?"
Scorpius narrowed his eyes in anger, his fists clenching at his sides as if they were aching to wrap themselves around John's throat.
John didn't let him finish.
"Your wormholes are about to become extinct, pal. In fact..." His eyes flicked to his watch again. Any minute now.
Scorpius frowned at the gesture.
Any minute now.
"Officer," Scorpy's voice was casual, "please contact the Command Carrier and have them send down a group of Destroyers. Tell them we have a little rodent problem." He acted nonchalant, but his body was tense. Did he guess?
The woman at the comm panel tapped her controls once, then twice, then a third time. She looked up at the Preklate with wide eyes. John smirked.
"I can't raise them, sir. They aren't responding."
"What?" He walked over to peer over her shoulder. "Try Kregga's compound. They have a large fleet."
Another series of frantic tapping.
"Nothing, sir. Nothing! I can't seem to raise anyone! I think the Comm Array is out!" She looked up at him with a pale face. "We're cut off! What should I do?"
Scorpius had taken a small step backward from the console, his eyes staring back down into the miniature war zone below with dawning realization.
"No." It was a whisper. He spun and looked directly at John who only smiled with icy satisfaction.
"Yes." He said.
"The Command Carrier. The Wormhole." He rounded on one of his attendants. "Quickly! Go and ready the Reaver! We have to get out of here before they take out the Wormhole! We'll be stranded!"
The woman gaped at him for only a microt before turning and vanishing out the door. And then, in a moment that John wanted to inscribe forever into his memory, Scorpius turned to look down at the shipyard again just as his Reaver went up in a glowing ball of flame. An explosion so violent that it actually cracked the windows of the tower.
It didn't get any better than that.
The wormhole loomed closer and closer in his single screen. He glanced behind him at the warhead.
His obsession, he realized in that moment with the perfect clarity that always comes only when it is too late, had undone him. Everything had been laid out before him. All the pieces that he would have seen if he hadn't been paying so much attention to getting his hands on Crichton. The explosives Aeryn had laid were just diversions. Diversions for the cargo vessel that had been stolen. Why would they steal a cargo vessel? To get to the Carrier. How could they get on the Carrier without docking codes? Aeryn had been in that idiot Darred's quarters. She could have accessed the docking codes from *there*.
His mouth was dry. Why would they want to get onto the carrier? It was clear as day, of course. The humans wanted their world back. How to get it? Destroy the wormhole, destroy the carrier. Or destroy them both at the same time.
Full understanding dawned and he met John's eyes.
The command crew tried everything they could, but Tynan had crippled the ship with its own automated security. The techs could have probably found a reroute, but there wasn't time.
Closer now. He could actually feel the stretching, the sense of otherworldly vertigo that meant they were being sucked into the singularity.
And then the whole world went up in an extraordinary flash of white-hot light.
"I can see you put it all together, champ." John took advantage of Scorpius's shock to finally move across the floor to Aeryn. The soldiers lifted their weapons threateningly at him, but he doubted that they would fire without the Boss's go ahead. PKs weren't known for their initiative.
The base was still rocking with small explosions, but then a massive concussion rocked the room, dust and plaster raining down on them all. The guards around Aeryn were unnerved by Scorpius's paralysis. They had likely never seen their boss in such a state before. John struck the release on Aeryn's magnetic cuffs, wincing at the damage to her slender wrists as they were exposed.
No one stopped him. They were sheep without a leader. Scorpius continued to stare at John like a deer in headlights.
"You didn't. You're not capable."
John raised his eyebrows. He could hear the sound of footsteps in the hallway, a clattering of them that spoke of many people. Finally.
"I did. And I am."
"Drop the weapons."
He didn't have to turn around to know that the hard voice belonged to his Dad. He backed up to give his men room to disarm the PKs. He stared at Scorpius and Scorpius stared back. They were the only two in the room for that one moment and Crichton knew what it was to be free of his tormentor at last.
There was no more hatred or vengeance burning in him, no more brutal obsession. Now there was just coldness. He could look upon the creature that had done so much to ruin his life, that had, more than any single soul, been responsible for the devastation on his planet.
John's men did not touch Scorpius, clearly afraid of what looked like a monster to them. He was a monster. Inside and out. But defanged now.
"I see that you think you've won at last, John."
He said nothing, not taking his eyes off his ex-nemesis as he spoke.
"Do you see now, Scorpius?" The cool voice came from his side, where it belonged. Aeryn lifted her chin and stared squarely at his nemesis. "You never understood him. You're not capable of it."
"Oh, I understand, my dear. But I don't think you do." Still, no one had taken him under control.
John started to open his mouth to bring his men forward, but suddenly the creature was a blur of black leather and white skin. A glittering flash streaked through his line of sight and he barely had time to fling his arm up.
Aeryn shouted, a single syllable that seemed to stretch out in slow motion. She moved faster than she had any right to, throwing herself out in front of him. Between him and Scorpius.
No. Not again.
He could move this time, and he did. DK had made a decision when he had died for his friend. But he had choices to make, too.
And, arrogant or not, there was no way he was going to allow Aeryn to die for him.
That was *his* choice.
He moved. He took Aeryn's motion, the force of her body as it flew in front of him and he spun her around him, curling over her form in one fluid arc. The sound of pulse rifle fire screamed through the air in a hail even as the knife slid deep into his back. Bone and muscle severed in one stroke, metal grating against rib and cartilage.
It didn't really hurt that bad.
He looked down at Aeryn as it suddenly became her turn to hold him up, smiling into her beautiful eyes as the shards of his armor smashed and shattered around him. It was like opening his eyes to warm yellow light, the understanding. The incredible freedom of it. The sensation of all the weight of the world lifting from his shoulders. He had saved *her* life, and that was the most perfect act that he could conceive of. The ultimate gesture of love to die for someone else.
There was a smile on his face as the world faded to black and he drifted gently away.
I came upon the room in time to see him lowered gently to the floor, a nightmarish tableau. A body lay motionless nearby, a leather-clad monster the likes of which I had never seen, except in my comics.
There was a woman bent over John, holding him still while Crichton's dad examined what looked like an enormous black knife sticking out of his back. Freddy was there, kneeling down next to him and talking quietly to the dark-haired woman.
There was a whole cluster of people around Crichton, blocking my view, and I pushed my way through, staring down in shock at what I saw.
It wasn't right. He wasn't supposed to die. Not when he'd just won. Everyone outside was cheering and hooting and tearing the base apart piece by piece. The Peeks had surrendered not long after the almost imperceptible blaze of white light through the cloud cover announced success. Only a few people had known what that success meant, but soon enough it would spread around.
The wormhole was gone.
Earth was ours again.
I told you he was a hero.
The woman who knelt next to him was crying softly and silently, her hand stroking his cheek over and over as she whispered his name again and again.
"Please," she said, "Please. Not this."
No one spoke. There was not much blood, but I knew that if someone pulled that damned pigsticker out, there would be plenty. Jack Crichton was crying too, one hand clasped around his son's upper arm in a death grip.
"We need a doctor!" I shouted. The people clustered around John were too caught up in their shock to think clearly. I pointed at Freddy. "You! Go and find someone, make a Peek show you where the infirmary is!" He didn't stop to think that I was just some stupid kid, he actually got up and ran.
Someone touched me on the shoulder. It was Gary. Half his face was bloody and his uniform was pretty burnt, but it was him.
"I think it's too late for that, Jamal." His voice was eternally weary. I shook my head, looking up at him with the cool patience I usually reserved for idiots.
"He's not dead. Not yet, Gary. That's not the way these kinds of stories end."
"John? John, don't you do this." Aeryn's voice was meant only for him, but those of us who were close enough could hear her. I reached out and touched John Crichton's head. She didn't even look at me. He was still warm. I imagined I could feel a pulse beneath the skin.
The clattering of running feet told me that Freddy had found someone to help. I sat back on my heels.
Sometimes, I thought, they don't have to end at all.
"Don't pull the knife out yet!" It was Doc Baines. I knew him. He was one of us. He looked just as dirty and worn as Gary did, blood all over his arms. "I know where the infirmary is. We can get him there. Quickly."
"I don't think he's going to make it that far, Doc."
The voice came from one of the men, but he was ignored. Aeryn had stood, helping the others lift Crichton into a hastily made cradle of jackets and shirts.
I followed the slow group as they bore him off.
But I wasn't scared.
Trust me. Sometimes, just sometimes, stories end how they are supposed to.
Light streamed out from behind the periwinkle-colored clouds in a slanted collection of sparkling rays. Bright minty, summer green lit the leaves it touched, trembling and glittering in the aftermath of the rainfall. He found himself watching the growing sunlight paint the river and the trees in a crayola rainbow: umber, forest, sienna, mint, and yellow.
He was alone on the back porch of the house he grew up in. The rain had stopped but the birds did not start their song. No ducks swam through the gathered thick green foam, no fish leapt and fought for the buzzing mosquitoes just overhead. There was a heavy, evil reek in the air... no fresh loamy earth-small, but a colder odor. The smell of a dead mouse behind the fridge or a week-old woodchuck on the side of the highway.
There were tears on his face.
A board creaked, the weight of a footprint, the announcement of company. He wanted to shout and scream, but knew it would do no good. The new presence seemed to make the sky a little darker, the stench of death just a little stronger.
"So sad." Was that genuine sympathy? Impossible. He let his eyes follow the almost hidden lines of Mrs. Creedy's house in the trees across the river. It seemed dark and gloomy, deserted. A leaf fell from the Sycamore overheard, curling and flipping gently downwards until it came to rest near his foot. He looked at it. Brown and dying. Dead.
A creak of leather, something in his peripheral. Harvey was handing him a beer. Almost more out of shock, he took it in hand before he could stop himself.
"Friends come and go, John Crichton. As you know, as we all do. Things like life are finite and brittle." Another movement, and the clone leaned down to pick up the skeletal leaf. It already looked decayed. He held it up to eye level.
A fine filament of veins held together in a perfectly choreographed series of lines and latticework. It was beautiful in its irregular symmetry. Harvey did not crush it in his fist, as John expected. Instead he flipped it away and they watched it cartwheel back to the ground.
"Becoming some kinda poet, Harv?" John popped the top off the beer and took a deep swallow before rubbing at the moisture on his cheeks. This was the last conversation in the world he wanted to be having. It sounded suspiciously like the clone was comforting him. The thought gave him the creeps.
"No, John. Simply pointing something out."
The silence stretched out for a long moment more, and there was nothing. No birds, no insects, no wind. Only stillness.
"Think you want to go into town tonight?"
John closed his eyes and rested his forehead against the open bottle at the new voice.
"Sure," he said, his words easy and mellow. "Maybe we could see a movie."
Long silence. He finally turned his head. DK leaned back against the step, brown from the summer, torn and dirty AD/DC t-shirt, jeans smudged with oil from tinkering on the old hot rod his dad had gotten for him for his 17th birthday that July.
"We could go out to Rodger's Lake, there might be a bonfire party," he heard himself say.
The beer was warm in his mouth, skunky and flat. Ashes. Dried memories.
He turned his gaze up to the coming clouds, watching the cracks of blue narrow with no sense of dread. No sense of anything. He felt dead inside. Dead as the leaf. It was chilly. A cold wind was coming up off the river now.
"Don't you want to know *why*, John?"
That was not DK. Or was it? He looked over at his friend. Harvey was smiling sadly at him, once more wearing the blood-stained clothing that DK had worn the day he'd died.
"Why.." the word was barely more than a whisper, he tried again. "Why, what?"
"Why DK died? Why all this happened? It's really simple. For a scientist, you don't put things together really easily. And I would think you would finally understand now."
"Because, John, my dearest hypocrite, shit happens. It's called choice. DK made the choice to trade his life for yours. It was *his* decision. Not yours. You made the choice to give your life for Aeryn's. *Your* choice, not hers. What right do you have to assume that you could have taken it from him? I realize that you think of yourself as the center of the known universe, God knows people treat you that way, but it's simply not true. In the end, we all have our own choices to make, and *you* don't get to always hog all the glory. Ever think that maybe he wanted to give up his life for you? Ever think that maybe it wasn't your fault? No, I'm sure you didn't."
John was speechless, staring at the bloody apparition as he shouted. Harvey stood up suddenly, pacing down the wooden stairs to the overgrown back yard. He stopped, looking out over the river before turning back to point a finger at John.
"You, John Crichton, inspire people. You always did. You think that your group could have built Farscape without you? You could have taken any set of science nerds and made it work for you."
Had Harvey just said 'nerd'?
"You inspire everyone you meet and you do it without even trying." He pressed his lips together and tilted his head to one side. "You inspire people to die for you and to try for you. And you never let them share the burdens. It's all on you. And you know what? It's too heavy for one person. Even you."
John pushed the clone away, standing up and shaking his head as he walked away, along the porch to the end where he clasped the rail and looked over. The thing was making sense, too much sense. He could feel something slipping, cracking. Breaking.
"Don't you get it, you grinning corpse? Have you forgotten? Earth is a wasteland because of me!"
The clone only laughed. Was that bastard fucking with him the whole time?!
"Get the hell out of here, Harv! Get out of my goddamn head and leave me alone!"
"No can do, Johnny. Trust me, I'd like to go as much as you'd like me to go, but I can't. You. Won't. Let. Me."
That was a shocker. He blinked. It was a trick.
Harvey smiled softly then, and John squinted at him. He looked... different.
"That's right, John. Look harder. I think you can finally understand now. It's been here all along and you never saw. Too wrapped up in your guilt and your fear. Look at me." The creature was talking with DK's voice.
Swallowing, he took another step forward, looking at the clone, really looking. His breath caught in his throat then, one hand coming up to almost touch Harvey's face.
"Not 'Harvey', John. Harvey has been gone for a *long* time now. He left when the chip was removed."
"Then... who the frell are you?"
"Is it that hard to see?"
John looked again, shaking his head. It wasn't possible that he had been torturing *himself* all this time. That he had been doing it all on his own. That he had possibly, just possibly taken all the hollow emptiness, all the guilt and fear, and had poured it into a familiar mold.
Not Scorpius. He had faced Scorpius at last. And he had won.
No, the face behind the garish features and black hood, were his own.
"Let me go, John. You don't need me anymore."
He opened eyes that felt like they weighed a ton apiece. The world faded in soft and blurred.
"John?" The raw voice was a whisper, a soft syllable against his cheek. He turned his head slightly.
Aeryn knelt by his side. Behind her he could see a cluster of people. A lot of people. His dad crouched just beyond her shoulder and the kid, Jamal had pressed forward. He seemed to be in some kind of medical facility. His whole body felt disconnected. "John, stay with us now." That was his dad. Aeryn was squeezing his hand. He managed a smile for her, she deserved a hell of a lot more. His whole world was sluggish and slow, but he could think.
Wounded and in shock notwithstanding, for the first time he felt like he could really think.
He touched Aeryn's mangled wrists and raised his eyes to her. She shook her head slightly, telling him that now was not the time. Her eyes were wet. Ma, bring me the camera, Aeryn Sun is crying.
"You're going to be fine, you bastard." She whispered to him, kissing his brow. It was an order. He closed his eyes at the sensation of her lips on his skin. God, when was the last time he had really *felt* her touch? Too long. Maybe never. He let himself lie there and revel in the absence of that dark place he had carried with him for so long. Not Harvey. God. It had been him all along.
This time, when he opened his eyes his gaze went past his lover, past his father, past his friends, landing instead on the face of a boy he had known for less than 24 hours. A kid who stared at him with such unadulterated confidence that it tugged at him. He swallowed thickly. There was something else that he had to know in the wake of his epiphany. In the new, clean place he found himself in there still lurked the faintest shadow of a doubt.
"What do you see, kid?" His voice was harsh, low and rusted with long-nurtured pain. "When you look at me? If you knew that it was because of me that the Peeks came here? If you knew that it was my fault? What do you see?"
Jamal didn't hesitate, tucking his hands back into his jacket pockets and meeting John's eyes squarely. A small smile touched his lips.
"I see a hero."
The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile, but that it is indifferent. If we come to terms with this indifference and accept the challenges of life within the boundaries of death - however mutable man may be able to make them - our existence as a species can have genuine meaning and fulfillment.
However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.
---- Stanley Kubrick (1968)
Spring never used to mean much. Sure, winter was over, and that was a good thing. Each day would be a little warmer, the afternoons filled with the musical rain of water dripping from gutters and tree branches alike. Mud everywhere, and the hard, cold crusty snow would turn into a sloppy, brown mush. It meant that summer and green things were coming. It meant you could break out the summer clothes and the inflatable wading pool and the slip n' slide. But other that that, it was just another season.
That spring was different.
We were free and everything seemed brighter.
I ran up the narrow path, through golden afternoon light, bright new grasses and still-bare trees towards a wide meadow at the top of the slope. The flatirons loomed overhead, stark against the blue sky, curls of wispy white clouds painted further up. The air was actually sweet. The spaces filled with birdsong.
Voices ahead, a melange of them, intent, contemplative, even softly sorrowful, but it was all overlaid with that unique sound of joy. It's something that I don't think folks will lose for a while yet. The taste of the cold world we'd just sloughed off is still too fresh.
Coming out of the trees into the open, I could see people, lots of them, spread in groups and clusters all across the field. Men, women, even a few kids. These were Crichton's people. And Gary's. I knew most of them, and I waved as I trotted by. A quick hop over the chuckling creek and up an outcrop of rock, and there it was. White granite from the nearby mountainside, it was a jagged, brand-new tooth of rock thrusting up from the green grass.
Flowers, candles, toys, gifts and bits of food littered the base of the thing and I stopped in front of it, glancing to either side to make sure there wasn't anyone else in the immediate vicinity.
"In Honor Of Those Who Made The Sacrifice, And For Those Who Bore The Weight Without Them." was carved in perfect, new letters across the textured surface of the granite dolmen. "August 23rd, 2003". The day of the Bombardment.
I stood there for a long moment, staring at the words. One hand reached out to touch the sharp edges of the carving, feeling the cold, hard texture of the stone beneath my fingers. I closed my eyes then, feeling all the walls between me and that night dissolving. The sounds of the mountain crumbling down onto the town. The explosions. The cracking, splintering groan of the roof coming down. I could feel a tickling at the edges of my eyes that I knew were the tears that I had refused to shed for so long.
I let them come, quiet, subdued. Cathartic.
Humans are funny animals, I guess. It was just a piece of rock and yet, we make it into a symbol and suddenly I'm crying. I sniffed and wiped at my eyes with the sleeve of my sweatshirt. I missed them. My family. And I wished that they could have been there to see me, to see us all. To know what we were all capable of when called on. And to feel how we all felt now.
When I looked again, I could see smaller letters further down near the grass, "February 13th, 2008". The day the PKs surrendered. At least at this Base. From what I'd heard, it had taken the other outposts a few more weeks to get our gleeful messages that the Carrier was gone.
I sank into a cross-legged position in front of the monument, looking up at it. After another span of heartbeats, I reached into my pocket and pulled out several folded and wrinkled sheets of paper that had been stapled together. The blue ink of my handwriting looked cramped and illegible at a glance, but closer inspection showed actual words. An actual story.
'Remember that movie, Independence Day? It was nothing like that. We didn't see any ships or ray-guns till later...'
I folded the thick sheaf in half, slipped it into a ziploc and set it carefully against the base of the monument, underneath what looked like it had once been a child's soot-streaked teddy bear.
"See what I did?" I whispered.
A hand fell on my shoulder and I quickly scrubbed my eyes dry before looking up. John Crichton sank down next to me, crossing his legs like mine, only with a little more difficulty. He was still a little stiff from his injuries, even months after the surrender.
We both sat there in silence for a long while, listening to the creek, to the quiet murmur of conversation throughout the meadow. Then he reached into his own pocket and pulled out something. I couldn't help but watch as he clasped it tightly in his palm before setting it carefully down in the grass beneath the stone. It was a keychain with a small rocketship attached to it.
I didn't ask him who it was for. That would have been impolite. And everyone had lost someone. Why should Crichton be any different?
"Can I ask you a question, Jamal?"
I nodded, still not trusting my voice to speak. This was the last guy I wanted to know I'd been crying.
He was looking at the inscription with a small smile on his face.
"What would you think if I put Gary in charge of all," he gestured around the field at all the people there, "this?"
I looked up at him, startled. That was not what I was expecting. But I answered without hesitation.
"He's better at this than you. All this peace-stuff."
Crichton laughed, an honest, joyous sound.
"You got that right. I can't be an organizer, kid. I'm a test-pilot. I can't even balance my checkbook." He grinned down at me. "I just wondered if you knew how he would feel about it."
"He's practically doing it already. When he's not off mooning after your sister, anyway." My eyes narrowed then, suspiciously. "Why? You going somewhere?"
Crichton smiled, but said nothing.
I shook my head. Wasn't that what heroes did in the end? Ride off to whatever mysterious land they had come from? I guess they did. It must be in the rulebook.
I would have said something else, but the sound of voices and the rustling of grass alerted me that people were coming. I scampered up to my feet, turning as Aeryn Sun walked slowly up the path. She had never told any of us what had happened to her inside that base, but I know for a fact that she spent a lot of time alone with Crichton's father while John was healing. The scarring on her wrists was still white, but fading now. I sensed the other scars, the ones that I couldn't see, were fading too. The wooden talisman she never went anywhere without swung at her neck. Her hair was loose, only pulled back at the temples as a concession to the blowing breezes. She smiled at both of us, putting a hand down wordlessly to help John up from his seated position.
Then she moved past us both to take her place in front of the monument. She stood there for a moment, quiet, and then she pulled what looked like a PK badge out of her pocket. My brow wrinkled slightly in curiosity. She set it down against the stone and stepped back.
"Ty's flight badge." She said finally in explanation. "He left it with me." She pointed at the metal detailing where it glittered against the grass. "That wedge there is the Peacekeeper insignia, but the swoop and hook is his. It means that he flew with extraordinary valor and bravery within his regiment." Her voice was a little thicker and Crichton put a hand on her shoulder, his head bowed. "It may be something the Peacekeepers gave him," she said softly, "but that didn't take away from the fact that it was true."
We stood there for a long moment. I hadn't known Tynan Rydarr, but he had died to save us all. That was worth everything.
Crichton curled his arm around Aeryn's waist, leaning down and over to whisper something in her ear that I couldn't hear. She nodded, dipping her head and bringing her hand up to rub at her eyes.
"Mama!" The young voice had all three of us turning and watching as Dylan struggled up the hill, panting exaggeratedly. Jack Crichton trudged slowly up after him. Aeryn wiped at her eyes once more before crouching down to pull the boy up into her arms. "Are we leaving now? On the spaceship?"
"Not yet. Tomorrow, Dylan. Tomorrow."
"Why?" She smiled down at him and then glanced over at John.
"Ask your Dad, something about flares."
I didn't say anything, but I gave Crichton the eye. He smiled blandly at me.
"I suppose," I said slowly, "you're looking for Gary, then."
He nodded, not breaking eye contact with me. I wanted to tell him it was ok, that he was only doing what he was supposed to.
I pointed down the hill. I could just make out Mel's light brown head and the white of her leg bandage. The doc said she would walk again, but with a limp. Gary was sitting next to her, gesticulating as he talked.
Crichton looked where I pointed, his expression unreadable, before he returned his gaze to me. Then he stuck his hand out wordlessly. My throat felt tight as I took it, feeling his warm grip engulf mine. Strong. As if he was capable of taking on all the weight of the world onto his shoulders.
He wasn't of course. None of us were. That was the point of the monument we stood in front of.
And then he was turning and following his family down the hill.
Appropriately enough, the sun was setting.
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