By Jess Pallas.
Disclaimer; I don't own Farscape or any of its characters. Please don't sue me!
Feedback; Go on then! E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Archiving; If you like it, take it. But please, let me know first.
Category; Episode Addition, Drama, Adventure.
Spoilers; Premiere, TWWW, MTC, CDM, DR.
Timeframe; Various. Season Two – just before TWWW (intro) and after MTC with
pre Premiere flashback.
Summary: The discovery of a holotape forces Pilot to reveal some hidden truths about Moya's escape from the Peacekeepers.
Note: Yes, I know. Just thought I'd get that said before somebody else does. I didn't rewatch Premiere until I was half way through writing this thing and I had forgotten that it was supposed to be a "maintenance drone" not a guard that Rygel bribed. I considered changing it but the need for the concealment of the face of Rygel's benefactor overrode my need for precision. For the length of this story, I would ask you suspend your picky detail radar and just enjoy it. In all but that one thing, I like to think I've got it how it could have happened. There have always been things about the Premiere that bugged me, little unanswered questions such as "Why did a ship the size of Moya have only three prisoners?" "What happened to the guards? "How did Rygel bribe a PK in the first place?" "Why did Crichton's shipboard computer blow up like that?" I've taken a shot at answering those questions and added a twist for the Hell of it. See what you think!
The chamber was a shadowed vault but that was not surprising. This was a place where shadows danced and the corporeal were loath to tread, for fear of being lost. A shroud like layer of dust, thick and heavy, added a silvery sheen to the absence of light and a low, faintly musty smell tickled the senses and taunted the nose towards sneezing. Even the gold of Moya's walls, the gentle half-dome of her highest tier, could not alleviate the pressing shades, half concealed as they were behind menacing, unruly piles of boxes and crates, that seemed themselves to form an abyss in the oblivion, captured into reality only by the sharp peacekeeper emblem emblazoned on their light-eating sides. They were fastened firmly, heavy-duty peacekeeper locks protecting their contents from the unclean enemy – or even the unclean friends. Only one defied this sealed existence – a single crate, hurled from it's moorings, it's lock smashed apart, it's contents a scatter of debris, a victim, no doubt, of one of Moya's more exciting encounters in the cycle or so since reclaiming her freedom. Much of what had lain within had been shattered by the impact, beyond salvage, beyond even recognition, bent, twisted and ripped to shards of indecipherable metal. But two items alone had survived the impact, cushioned, it seemed, by a pile of fibres bundled on the floor – a small, sturdy, black box, compact and locked tight in defiance of it's predecessor's fate, and a silver, grey holoimager. Loose by it's side was a small recording chip.
Chiana surveyed the carnage with sharp eyes. This was not
the first time she had ventured to Moya's highest tiers in her ongoing
exploration of her current home but this was the first time she had wandered to
this lonely chamber. She liked to poke around in dusty corners, hunting through
the remnants of the peacekeeper occupation for items that could be of value.
But more than acquisitiveness lay behind her journey on this day. A combination
of factors had driven her to explore this most dim and distant of the
leviathan's recesses; boredom and – in the aftermath of the unpleasant events
involving the arrival of Traltixx – a fervent desire to avoid her shipmates.
Slinky, cat-like, her shadow flitting like a wrath before her, the Nebari picked her way forward, feeling her way through the debris as she ran her gaze across her findings. There was nothing much of value here –nothing that could be traded or sold, nothing she cared to own. The peacekeeper locks were beyond even her skill – and she had devoted the best part of a day finding that out, just to be certain – and most of the remains around her were broken beyond any kind of use. But her keen eyes picked out the loose items at once; swiftly she stooped and lifted the dark box into the pool of light that washed through the half open door, examining it carefully. It glistened temptingly, a whisper of curiosity that Chiana couldn't ignore. She turned to leave, already tweaking at the lock with eager fingers, scooping up the holoimager in passing, almost as an afterthought. A gentle crunch beneath her foot drew her attention briefly – she lifted the loose chip without much interest and slotted it casually into the imager's play slot as she strode quickly free of the dark.
Once she stepped out once more into the bright light of the corridor, the Nebari dropped quickly, settling cross-legged on the floor to examine her find in more detail.
She placed the box down on the golden floor with care, a contrast to the thoughtless way she tossed aside the holoimager. It tumbled and rattled to the floor, the holochip worked loose by the impact but Chiana didn't notice, her dark eyed gaze to intent upon her prize. Just what could this be then? Something valuable perhaps? They said the best things came in small packages, an assessment she had long applied to herself. Finding something worth having might just put a shine on what had thus far been an unrewarding day.
A flick of her wrist freed a small metal tool from a hidden recess of her clothing; armed, she set to work, the precision thief blessed with the experience of practice. It was the work of microts to spring the lock – on one hand a credit to her skill, but on the other a gentle hint of potential disappointment. The peacekeepers had not gone to a lot of trouble to protect what lay inside – that did not bode well for the prospect of valuable contents. But then with peacekeepers you never knew. There minds were a mystery to any sane species.
Gently, Chiana cracked the lid, opening the floodgates of light into the dark interior. Her face fell at once. Laid out before her were row upon row of grey holochips, recordings identical the one she'd found loose on the floor. No jewels, no weapons, nothing of value to anyone! Worthless peacekeeper dren!
She should have been more careful.
She felt sharp contact against her finger; the holographic imager tumbled away, clattering against the grate. The chip, already loosened, was hurled free in a lightning bolt of silver hurtling into the vent to vanish into the abyss beneath.
"Dren!" Chiana scrambled to her knees and pulled the vent free, peering down into the darkness. She had cared little for the chip until that point, but that was when she had a chance of finding out what was on it. To loose it with curiosity unsatisfied was frustration itself. But no glimpse was to be seen, her search vain. The chute was a drop of near vertical proportions and the only trace of it was the distant echoes of bouncing metal.
The Nebari squinted into the hole for a microt longer then abruptly lost interest. What did it matter? It was only a frelling holochip. There had probably been nothing on it of any interest anyway.
With a sigh, Chiana rose to her feet, snatching up the holographic imager in one hand and the box of tapes in the other, hefting them thoughtfully as she considered what to do. Oh, what the Frell; she was bored with exploring now and maybe these recordings would contain something of value or interest. If nothing else, watching them would help pass the time.
Tucking the imager under one arm, Chiana started down the passageway, flicking an idle finger through the rows of recordings. One glance told her that they appeared to be arranged in some kind of order, probably chronological, although there were no specific dates. At a guess then, the one she'd lost had probably been a more recent addition – it had looked slightly shinier somehow. It was a bit of a shame in the way – the recent ones would probably have proved the most interesting. Ah, well, it didn't matter really. After all, there looked to be a good two cycles worth of stuff to see here!
Humming quietly to herself, Chiana strolled away towards her quarters. Perhaps this trip hadn't been a total waste of time after all!
Rygel the sixteenth, Dominar to six hundred billion loyal subjects, was hungry. That was not unusual. Rygel was hungry on a pretty much permanent basis. What was less than normal was the little Hynerian's reluctance to journey to his usual eating haunt in the centre chamber. After the incident concerning Traltixx, Rygel was still very uncomfortable socialising with his fellow shipmates - not that he particular revelled in their company at other times. In particular, he had a strong desire to avoid both D'Argo and Aeryn Sun and since he knew for a fact that they were currently seated together in his favourite spot, he decided to forgo the pleasures of company and visit one of his secret hoards instead.
This particular cache was one of his most favoured, a well ventilated junction of chutes and vents deep within Moya's labyrinthine interior, perfect for keeping food fresh. And what food! Although the stash of dried food rectangles – or crackers as that impossible creature Crichton insisted on calling them – were nothing special, they concealed beneath them a treasure; two dozen Hynerian marjuls, traded for a great cost at a commerce planet nearly a quarter cycle before. Rygel had worried about keeping his valuable delicacy fresh whilst at the same time concealing it from his greedy shipmates but fortune had favoured him when he stumbled across the junction. He normally reserved this place for special occasions but since he was feeling more than a little sorry for himself, visiting his favourite store seemed a fine way to cheer himself up.
The marjuls were slightly on the fragrant side by now, but to Rygel that simply added to their flavour. Settling down comfortably, the Hynerian raised the first marjul to his lips, sucking on its slimy texture with a deep and abiding pleasure. Ah! This was more like it! Peace, quiet and food! No Crichton with his annoying incoherent blatherings, or Chiana with her high pitched whining! No D'Argo with his temper tantrums or Zhaan with her incessant chanting! Just himself, two dozen marjuls, three score crackers and…
And a noise.
Rygel paused in irritation. What the yotz? He could hear it more clearly now, a metallic clanging from somewhere above, bouncing, changing pitch, growing louder and louder, closer and closer. The Dominar paused in apprehension. He didn't like the approach of unexplained objects. The last unexplained object that had come too close had contained Durka! But this didn't sound much like a threat. Despite it's imminent arrival, the Dominar dismissed it a microt later. It was probably nothing, a DRD or a misaligned conduit. He would speak to Pilot about it. But there was no reason to let it spoil a good meal!
Turning his attention back to his food, Rygel selected a particularly plump marjul and raised it languorously to his lips.
The blow to his head was small and sudden: something bright and silver clattered to a stop in a hail of cracker crumbs. Irritated beyond all measure at the intrusion on his meal, but curious too, Rygel lifted the little object free of the crumbled debris, shaking it clean, examining it for potential value. But one look wrote it off as nothing more than a worthless peacekeeper chip. Hardly worth breaking his meal for! With a huff of annoyance, the Hynerian picked up the tape and hurled it away down the dark vent to his left. He interrupted consumption of his precious marjuls for that!
With a humph, Rygel turned and lifted the substantial marjul once more. This time, nothing would interrupt him!
It was the clatter that roused John Crichton from the tender recesses of sleep. The human had been napping, savouring a rare moment of quiet, out of the loop, trying to recover some of the energy lost during the recent frantic bout of paranoia induced by Traltixx. But try as he might, he could not escape the world around him; the low hum of Moya's pulse, the whiz of passing DRDs and the whoosh of air vents. Sleep was there, calling to him, beckoning with open arms but grim reality was determined to hold him, trapping him in a frustratingly unrevitalising conscious doze. It was a battle. Going to sleep is much more difficult when you're trying. But at long, long last, after more than an arn, John finally found that his mind was drifting, the sounds, once a major distraction, now nothing more than background noise and he hurried eagerly towards the welcome oblivion of rest.
And then came the clatter.
It wasn't a big noise, but it was enough. More than enough. It was nothing, the sound of something small and metallic tumbling down from a vent to tangle with the grate and freefall to the skinsteel floor. But it captured his conscious and grabbed it viciously, slamming shut the doors of sleep and dragging his mind kicking and screaming back to clarity. Swearing under his breath in frustration – he had been so close! – John reluctantly opened his eyes and glanced around, searching vengently for some sign of the little distraction that had ruined his rest. His anger had thoroughly woken his mind – there would be no sleep now and there was little point in trying – so the human rose groggily from his bed, reaching crankily for his clothes. When he found the whatever that had woken him, he would melt the frelling thing down for scrap!
After a few dozen microts of struggling with leather and boots, John finally got himself into some kind of order. Brushing back his hair, he made his way across the cell to where the high vent glistened innocently. It seemed a logical place to start….
The door to his cell hummed; the latticework jerked back with a whoosh. John turned in surprise to meet the dark eyes of Chiana. She was leaning with one hand against the doorframe, her stance twitchy and uncharacteristically uncertain. Her porcelain face was unusually serious. In her free hand, she held a grey holoimager. A tape was shining in the slot.
"We need to talk." The Nebari's voice was apprehensive, her whole demeanour a mixture of discomfort and anxiety. John was instantly concerned.
"Sure," he replied at once, beckoning her inside. "About what?"
Chiana took one step over the threshold, moving warily towards the table whilst the doors ground shut behind her. Her eyes were a mystery.
She held up the holoimager.
"This," she said.
A QUARTER CYCLE LATER.
John Crichton collapsed in a heap on the bed. He couldn't believe how exhausted he still was. Four solar days had passed now since that damned alien collection device had spliced up his DNA and he still felt as though he hadn't slept in weeks, inexplicably drained of his energy. But worse than that, was the state of his mind. He felt as though his thoughts had taken a leave of absence from his body, a disturbing detachment that tugged at his psyche and made him question his own sanity at times. There were moments, numb, frightening moments, when he wondered if his time in deep space was finally catching up with him, driving him away into insanity and leaving an unknown stranger in command of the shell that had once belonged to him. There were mornings when he had trouble deciding who he was.
The whoosh of the cell doors alerted him to the fact that he had company. Painfully, reluctantly John cocked open an eye. A shadow loomed over him, a vision of black leather and pale skin, dark hair a frame to an indecipherable expression and blue eyes scrutinising his features for something just beyond his grasp. Aeryn. She noticed his half gaze and frowned.
"You look terrible," she said bluntly.
John prised open his other eyelid as he pulled himself up onto one elbow, scowling.
"Thanks Aeryn. Now I feel much better."
Her expression wavered slightly – a flash of concern appeared.
"You still feel strange then?"
John shook his head. "It's nothing. It'll pass."
The Sebacean fixed him with a steely gaze. "Are you sure?"
An irrational corner of John's mind resented the scolding undertone in her voice. He glared in spite of himself. "If I say yes, will it shut you up?"
"Oh, fine then!" Aeryn wheeled indignantly towards the door, her voice clipped and terse. "If that's how you want to be…."
John groaned. Why the Hell had he just said that? What was the matter with him? He didn't really have the energy to carry on with this, but one thing he had learned in his time aboard Moya was to never let Aeryn go away mad.
"Aeryn!" he called out. "Baby, come back! I'm sorry, okay? I'm just feeling kinda low right now. I shouldn't have taken it out on you."
Aeryn turned to face him. Her glacial features were hewn like ice. "No you shouldn't have," he replied coldly. "I only came here out of concern, you know."
John nodded. "I know. And I do appreciate it."
That seemed to do the trick. Aeryn lingered a microt longer in the doorway, scuffling her foot as she considered what to do. Then with a huff, she turned and stepped back inside.
"So how are you?" she asked softly. "Really, I mean."
John sighed as he rose to his feet and wandered absently to the far corner of his cell.
"Honestly?" she said, picking up a small tool and fingering it thoughtfully. "I'm not sure."
He could sense her eyes boring into the back of his neck but he refused to turn and face her, knowing full well that it would lessen his resolve to deal with this strangeness himself. He could almost picture her as she must be now, a sculpture of shadow and light, so strong and yet so vulnerable, a paradox beyond his ability to comprehend. He knew the more he let himself linger on her image, the more he would waver – in a bid to distract himself, he tossed the tool into the air, turning over and over, a spiral of grey overhead. But his distraction showed – the throw was bad – as the tool slipped elusively beyond his fingertips and tumbled with a clatter behind a crate.
There was a pause. John shot a glance at Aeryn, ruefully
noting the sardonic expression on her face, the one that stated quite clearly
that she would not have missed that catch.
Something caught his eye at once. Not the tool, but just beyond it, shining, silver, nestled and half hidden in an alcove. Curious, John scooped up the tool absently with one hand and reached out quickly with the other, collecting the mystery object. Pulling himself upright with a grunt, brow crinkled, he hefted his find and held it to the light.
Lost deep in thought, the sound of Aeryn's voice made John start. He had all but forgotten she was there.
"Oh, what? Hey! Umm, nothing, just…this."
"What is on it?" she asked tightly.
John shrugged. "No idea. I've never seen it before. I don't even know how it got there." He paused, uncertain, knowing his next step would place him on dangerous ground. "Think we should watch it?"
Aeryn flicked a glance at him then abruptly closed her fist around the tape.
"No," she said bluntly. "The past is gone and that's where it should stay. The last thing we need right now are more revelations."
John fixed his eyes upon her taut silhouette. "You mean there's more to reveal?"
Aeryn's eyes narrowed. There was a long moment of silence. The mutual gaze of stubbornness held.
Finally the Sebacean broke the stalemate. "I've told you everything you need to know," she said with a softness that belied the determination in her expression. "Now if you'll excuse me, my Prowler needs an overhaul. I've wasted enough time here as it is."
With that, the peacekeeper wheeled and stalked into the corridor, the door starting hurriedly out of her way. She passed the waste chute without slowing, but a flick of her hand was enough to send a streak of silver back into the darkness. A moment later, she was gone.
For a microt, John didn't move eyes fixed on the void of space left empty in her wake.
Way to avoid the question, Aeryn! He thought to himself bitterly. Damn that peacekeeper! He just didn't know what to make of her. One minute she was his best friend, warm, caring and fun, making his heart sing at the sight of her. The next, Sebacean ice queen. Was it some kind of racial thing, or was it just the way she was? He wished he knew more about her, about her peacekeeper life and what it involved, something, anything to give him a point of reference. Damn, he had trouble understanding human women!
Well, he was used to getting scorched by now. As long as he kept whatever he found to himself, what would it matter?
The smell hit him like a sledgehammer. John staggered back, clutching his nose and gasping for breath between uncontrollable retches. Frell, that was foul! The human paused, cursing his own stupidity. This was the same garbage chute that Rygel used – of course it was going to reek! John hesitated, waiting for his nose hairs to stop burning and the feeling to return to his nostrils. Why was nothing on this frelling ship ever easy?
But if he wanted that tape, it had to be done. Covering his
face with his hand and hoping beyond hope that the noxious gases would leave
him with some skin, John crept across the corridor, shying away in spite of
himself as he extended the unfortunate stick at arms length. Eyes watering even
at this range, he inserted the rod into the chute and lowered his arm in almost
to the shoulder. Reluctantly he raked around, risking a look, only to stagger
back with streaming eyes. Swearing under his breath at Rygel – that obnoxious
little gas ball was going to die when he next saw him! -
"Crichton? What are you doing?"
The familiar voice made John start – his fingers jerked and lost their tenuous grip on the stick. He jerked upright, more than a little embarrassed at having been caught rooting around in the rubbish, rubbing his tingling arm as his eyes fixed on the small, yellow DRD that was his only company, it's mock-eye antennae fixed on him firmly. John took a calming breath, caught a whiff of the garbage chute and hurriedly moved away. Once he was safely out of range, he reached reluctantly for his comm.
"Pilot," he ventured. "You're probably wondering what I was doing in there."
"I have to admit to a certain curiosity," the navigator replied, his gentle voice rippling out of empty air. "Not that what you choose to do in your free time is any of my business."
Pilot's voice was dripping with sardonic amusement. John could feel his embarrassment factor rising drastically.
"I do have a reason for being in there, you know!" he exclaimed, rather irritated by the thought that Moya's serious minded navigator found his antics humorous. "I don't explore Rygel's leftovers for a hobby!"
"Of course not, commander."
Now he was making fun of him. The warmth of embarrassment gave way to the heat of anger.
"Hey, I dropped something in there, okay?" he declared. "A holotape. I was just trying to get it back!"
"What, this holotape?" A slightly odorous DRD rolled around the corner, the small, silver sliver of metal grasped securely in its pincers. "If you wanted it back, you should have just asked me. But Officer Sun seemed quite emphatic when she threw it away."
"You were watching us?" For some reason, this irritated John all the more. They all knew Pilot monitored them from time to time, but the thought still made him uncomfortable. He bent down, reaching for the tape, but the DRD whisked it away from his fingers.
"Hey!" he protested. "Gimme that!"
"I am not certain I should. Officer Sun seemed to believe it was best that it remain a mystery."
"And since when was she made captain of the Enterprise? Hand it over!"
"I don't think…"
"No, don't think! Do what I say! That what you're there for, dammit!"
There was an icy silence. Crichton realised with a cold rush he had just overstepped an unspoken mark. Pilot never protested at being ordered about by the crew but they all knew that he did resent being treated like a servant. It was not a mistake that John would usually make. What was the matter with him today?
"Sorry," he said quickly. "I didn't mean that."
The pause became strained. John could sense that Pilot was still not happy with him.
"You seem to be in a remarkably snappish mood today, commander," the navigator said finally. "You have already argued with Officer Sun over nothing."
John rolled his eyes. Not only watching, listening too. Their
very own, all knowing, all seeing Big Brother. George Orwell would be
"Very little. Or at least, that is what I try to insure." There was an edge to Pilot's voice. "Recent events have shown me that if I wish to keep appraised of developments amongst the crew, I have to find them out for myself. Respect for privacy is all well and good but not to the extent that it leads to my exclusion."
The DRD trundled forward and deposited the chip unceremoniously at John's feet, a terse action that reflected the mood of its guide. John sighed.
"We don't mean to exclude you, Pilot! It just sorta….happens! And anyway, sometimes it's for your own good!"
A loud humph down the commlink revealed just how Pilot felt about that statement. John knew he was digging himself deeper and deeper and if he wasn't careful, he was going to require a mighty big ladder to pull himself out again. It always seemed to happen this way, first with Aeryn, now with Pilot. John Crichton, the human JCB. They'd probably carve that on his tombstone – if they had tombstones at this crazy end of the galaxy.
Resigned, John raised his hands. "Just forget it, okay? Forget I said anything! Forget I even exist!"
He knew the moment the words left his lips that he'd walked straight into the line of fire for a seriously sarcastic retort. But to his surprise, Pilot didn't shoot. The slow, purposeful silence was deadly enough.
There was a pause. Then with a slow whirring, one of the watching DRD's wheeled and scooted rapidly up the corridor after him.
It took John a ridiculously long time to locate a holo-imager. Under normal circumstances he would have asked Pilot to find one for him but after his annoying spat with the navigator, the human was in no mood for a second round. In the end, he spotted one nestling in a pile of junk in a corner of Chiana's cell – checking that the coast was clear, John made a diving run into the room, snatched it and was out again before the doors closed, in a move that would have made Indiana Jones a proud man. Hopefully Pip wouldn't miss it for a while. He felt a bit bad about not asking to borrow it but asking would have led to the awkward issue of why, and John didn't want the others knowing this thing existed any more than he wanted Aeryn finding out he'd fished it from the trash. If Pilot knew, then there was a good chance that the peacekeeper was going to find out in the near future but John didn't see any need to blow his cover when he didn't know whether or not Pilot was planning to be discreet.
But the deceit made him uneasy and by the time he arrived back at his own quarters, John was not in the best of moods. He slammed down the recorder on the table and slumped onto the stool beside it, cupping his chin thoughtfully in one hand and he lifted the small, shining chip with the other, playing it between his finger and thumb. This frelling thing had better be worth all this aggravation! If this turned out to be a peacekeeper home movie or a public service video he was going to flush it out of an airlock in an interesting jigsaw arrangement!
With an impatient sigh, John reached forward and slotted the tape firmly into the play slot.
The imager sprang to life - a flat, holographic screen erupted into the empty air before him. The image flickered and fizzed and then abruptly coalesced, rippling with colour and sound as it brought the past to life. The golden, graceful curves of one of Moya's corridors gleamed before him, but from an angle he was not accustomed to – a high corner, tucked between two of the rib like protrusions that made Moya's passages so distinctive. And this was more than just a traffic camera. Below, shrouded in a dimness alien to Moya's airy freedom, a latticework door broke the flowing pattern of ribs. And to one side, standing statuesque, like a shadow torn from deepest night, a peacekeeper stood, helmet lowered like a screen to conceal its features, rifle held with an icy cold precision. He appeared to be staring straight ahead, gaze unwavering, although it was hard to tell behind the void like visor of his helmet, no hint of motion or emotion visible. He could have been carved from stone, and his whole demeanour exuded a menace that sent a shiver down John's spine. The thought that his Aeryn had ever been one of these mindless, disciplined killing machines was at the same time both inconceivable and disturbing.
And then the stillness rippled. A small, green, disgruntled face peered through the bars, running his eyes appraisingly along the statue-like figure of the Sebacean. Small hands gripping his prison, he leaned forward.
John started. Rygel! The camera was pointing at Rygel's cell! When it really was a cell! The human stared. Now just what had Sparky done to deserve his own surveillance? Or had devices like this been set up outside the cells of all?
It took him a moment to realise that something was going on. The Hynerian was talking a low tone, but a tone that John recognised, the one he saved for serious negotiations. Despite the rocky, no nonsense, no patience aura that shimmered around the peacekeeper, it appeared that Rygel was attempting a conversation with him – or at least to cut a deal. He was talking quickly, almost anxiously, but the words seemed to come with ease, the ease of practice likely as not. John got the impression this wasn't the first time he'd tried this line. Leaning closer, he listened in.
"…And if you were willing to help me, I could make it worth your while. I may look like a simple prisoner to you, but I have access to treasures beyond your dreams and I would be more than willing to share in return for a little assistance. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours, if you see what I mean. Your superiors would never have to know, and they needn't stay your superiors, not if you will help me…"
"I swear to you, peacekeeper, you'd never have to take another order again! You could settle down, live a life of luxury, waited on hand and foot by the finest women in the galaxy! You could even…."
"Shut up," he drawled softly, a voice a threatening whisper as he emphasised each word so that it hung in the air with a lingering threat of violence. Rygel withdrew with some haste.
"Understood," he stammered, nodding his head frantically.
For a microt longer the peacekeeper's eyeless gaze remained locked on the hapless prisoner. Then slowly, deliberately, his every move an implication of his desire to kill, the Sebacean turned his back and resumed his former position. From behind the lattice, Rygel let out a hearty breath and retreated into the recesses of his confinement.
John watched the unfolding drama, an eyebrow raised. Even he could tell that Sparky had been pushing his luck. But the recording was making him think. Rygel had always claimed he had facilitated Moya's escape by bribing a guard for the cell key codes. But if his icy friend there was anything to go by, John was having trouble seeing just how that could have happened. Most Peacekeepers weren't much for bribery, as far as he could tell – give them a fleet full of enemies to assault and they were happy as a pig in slop. Mind you, it didn't do to generalise like that; it didn't follow that all peacekeepers were the same as Aeryn had amply proved. Maybe one of Rygel's other guards had been a little more corruptible….
The siren shattered his train of thought. John jerked in shock, turning his wandering attention back to the recording in time to see the peacekeeper jump as well – he hadn't been the only one caught off guard. But the guard was not shaken – he shot a glance at Rygel before turning and striding the few yards necessary to peer into the corridor. Almost at once, another peacekeeper appeared out of nowhere at his side, dressed in the same heavy, black concealing armour. Something was said but John couldn't hear the words – the siren was too loud. The second peacekeeper appeared quite anxious – he pointed emphatically down the corridor with his rifle, but the first shook his head decisively, gesturing at Rygel. John leaned forward, intrigued. What was going on?
Then to John's surprise, Pilot's voice echoed out over the siren, precise and professional – it took John a moment to realise that the announcement was on the tape and not on Moya now.
"Attention. Convict escape in progress, maintenance bay two. All available personnel to report for containment duty immediately, by order of Captain Crais. Repeat, all available personnel report to the maintenance bay."
This declaration seemed to leave Rygel's guard torn – he clearly wanted to adjourn to the scene of the action, but at the same time was reluctant to abandon the duty to which he had been assigned. But the newcomer solved his problem. With a nod, he stepped over to Rygel's cell, taking up position beside the latticework door. For a moment, his hidden gaze seemed to scan the recesses of the corridor – it seemed to linger for a microt on the camera before switching back to his companion. With a gesture of what John could only assume was gratitude, the first guard turned and vanished down the corridor.
His replacement watched him go.
And the moment he was out of sight, he acted.
But there was no time to ponder it. Events had taken another turn. It seemed a deal had been struck -the peacekeeper reached inside his armour and drew out something small and compact. Carefully, he slipped it to Rygel through the latticework bars, pressing it firmly into the Hynerian's diminutive palm. John felt his breath catch in his throat – suddenly everything clicked into place. Keycodes! Those had to be the keycodes! He was watching the genesis of Moya's escape!
The transaction completed, the peacekeeper rose, leaving Rygel to stare in stunned disbelief at the chip in his sweaty little palm. His benefactor shoed him in annoyance and he obeyed at once, tucking the codes away as he vanished into the gloom of his cell. Certain that he would not give them both away for now, the peacekeeper moved away, his hand lingering on the brow of his visor. But something made him pause. Slowly, almost deliberately, he turned, visor still raised and for an instant, he stared face on into the camera, his features a picture of indifferent defiance, his eyes boring deep into the lens as though he didn't care if they saw who he was. Then, with a casual flick of a hand, his face vanished behind a wall of darkness and he swept into the corridor.
But John barely noticed.
He was far too lost in shock.
Because he knew that peacekeeper.
With shaking fingers, John grasped at the holo-imager, tweaking the control to make it run backwards and freezing it cold, the defiant face of the peacekeeper etched silent in the air. The human stared at it, the blood drained from his face, his lungs gasping – breathing became a labour. He didn't know him. He'd thought he never would. In a way he'd been glad. But now, it had all changed. He stared full on into the eyes of a man he had never met, who he had seen only once but whose image was engraved on his mind for one very specific reason.
She had told him that she had loved him.
He'd never heard those words pass Aeryn's lips before – he'd wondered if he ever would. And it had hurt, deep down, that she hadn't said them first to him, that this man had been there before him, stolen her heart before he'd even reached the battleground, told her to be more before she'd even known his name. For an instant, he wondered if maybe he was wrong, if his own feelings had planted his image where it could not possibly be. The guy was dead!
But deep down inside, he knew that he was not mistaken.
But how could this be? Aeryn had told him- no, not told, but implied – that he had died three cycles before. If this was true and he was right in his guess about this being the birth of Moya's freedom, then how in the Hell could this guy be feeding Rygel keycodes when he was two cycles cold in his grave?
Rygel. He had to talk to Rygel. Maybe he was wrong. Maybe the transaction he had witnessed hadn't been the all-important keycodes. Maybe this was some other deal the pair had struck prior to the events that saw Aeryn turn her lover over to Crais. After all, Rygel had been aboard Moya for a very long time.
But then how could it be their Pilot's voice on the summons instead of that of his predecessor?
What the Hell was going on?
Curiosity killed the cat. Well, he wasn't dead. But he had taken quite a mental beating. Nothing he was seeing made any kind of sense. Some way, somehow, he had to clear this up or he was likely to go crazy.
He needed to talk to Rygel.
Still in a mild daze, John deactivated the image. Taking the holo-imager and the tape from the table, he crossed the room, bent and bundled them quickly under his bed. Then, rising rapidly, he strode to the door and tapped the lock tersely, before hurrying into the corridor in the direction of the centre chamber.
A glowing pair of eyes watched him go.
Slowly, warily, the DRD rolled out from its place of concealment, antennae blinking. Then, with a little twitch, it turned and rushed off in pursuit.
END OF PART ONE.
Unseen Hands – Part Two.
Recap: Another holo-recording, accidentally lost by Chiana just prior to the events of TWWW, shows up in Crichton's quarters. Despite Aeryn's disapproval, he decided to watch it and made an amazing discovery – the peacekeeper who sold Rygel the keycodes that allowed Moya' escape was none other than the supposedly deceased Lt Velorek….
"What do you want, Crichton?"
John jumped in spite of himself – he hadn't realised that Rygel had noticed he was there. He had headed purposefully down to the centre chamber, lost in thought, striding through Moya's corridors in a semi-daze, until he reached his destination and discovered, as expected, that the Hynerian was settled firmly behind the long, curving table, casually stuffing his face. John had almost started forward through the open door, intending to get this business sorted once and for all, when he was swamped by a sudden realisation. There was no point in asking Rygel straight out – most likely, he wouldn't know Velorek from Adam, especially since he'd only seen him twice. If he really wanted confirmation, he would have to show the recording to someone who had actually known the peacekeeper tech – and that meant Aeryn or Pilot. Aeryn was out of the question – aside from the lecture she'd give him on dredging up the past again, frell knew how she'd react to the discovery that Velorek was still alive. A part of John didn't want her to know. Things were complicated enough there already. And Pilot – that would be a risk. When it came to the events surrounding his insertion into Moya, the navigator had always been less than willing to talk, not to mention the fact that his friendship with Aeryn meant that telling him was as good as telling her. So now what?
Halted by indecision, John had frozen in the doorway, mind tumbling desperately as he tried to make some decision about his next move. He could keep it to himself as he had silently promised but then he would never unravel the mysterious web of why. But telling the others would just lead to more angst. Uncertain, he had been right on the verge of turning around and going back the way he came when Rygel's beady eyes had fixed on him and eliminated the option of escape with his words.
"Ummm…" John deliberated internally. What should he do? He wouldn't show Rygel the recording – that would be stupid – but perhaps he could find a way to get information out of the Hynerian anyway. Well he was here now – he might as well make the best of it.
"Hey, Buckwheat, I was just thinking," John smiled as he strolled as casually as he was able into the room and settled opposite the little dominar. There was something almost rictus like about his false smile but luckily Rygel didn't notice, snorting his disdain and pulling his plate a little closer in case Crichton happened to show an interest in his food.
"An unusual occurrence," he sneered haughtily. "What about?"
John shrugged. "You, as it happens."
"Me?" Rygel's tone was awash with a cocktail of suspicion and curiosity. "What about me? If you want money, you can think again…"
"No, no!" John waved a hand, trying his best to appear casual. "It wasn't anything like that! I was just mulling things over, you know, about Moya and how she used to be a prison ship. It's just so great that we could help her get free."
"We?" John knew that Rygel would not be able to pass on such sumptuous bait. "Me, you mean! I obtained the keycodes that opened the cell doors! If it wasn't for me, there would have been no escape!"
"And I'm sure Moya's really grateful to you." John sat back smugly, hiding his smile. That had been too easy!
"You know, Sparky, I have to say I've always kinda wondered – how the Hell did you get hold of those keycodes in the first place? It can't have been easy for a prisoner to obtain that kind of thing."
"And it wasn't easy!" Rygel puffed up visibly with pride. "But with my superior skill and persistence I was rewarded in the end. For cycles, I worked, setting up lines of contact, ways into the peacekeeper's minds, earning their trust, making myself useful. I spent most of my time on Moya laying groundwork and waiting for my chance!"
In other words, you got turned down a lot, John thought cynically but kept that to himself.
"I made forays, experimental attempts and I faced my share of adversity and brutality," Rygel continued, his flow unabated. "I faced my far share of hardship, more than I deserved in fact but in the end my persistence paid off. A peacekeeper came to me – he'd heard that I was offering a trade and wanted a part in it. He was unsure at first but after a few microts, he fell prey to my superior skill as a negotiator and gave me the codes on the spot! No advance payment, no security, nothing! He just handed them over without any guarantee of a return! The naïve fool!"
John was hardly listening. He had smelled a rat – a big, filthy stinker of a rodent. Why the Hell would a peacekeeper do such a thing without getting any kind of payback? Of course, this wasn't your average, run of the mill peacekeeper, if it was Velorek on the recording. Putting aside the fact that he was supposed to be dead, Aeryn had said that Velorek showed a streak of compassion unusual for his kind, in regards to both herself and Pilot. But would that really be enough to make him betray his people in this way. What reason did he have to put himself at risk like this? Aeryn perhaps? Had he done it so she could be free of the peacekeepers and fulfil his prediction that she could be more? But how could he have known she'd be involved in the chase? He couldn't have predicted that she would be the one to be caught in the wake of Moya's Starburst – the odds were millions to one. No, there had to be another more compelling reason – a reason that explained his almost defiant glance into the camera. But what?
"Crichton? Are you listening to me?"
His mind had wandered again. John jerked his attention back to Rygel, who was watching him with hard-eyed suspicion. The Dominar had clearly been talking but John hadn't heard a word he'd said.
"What? Oh, yeah, whatever." John brushed off what he'd missed quickly. There was something else going on here, some deeper, hidden motive and he wanted to get to the bottom of it. For reasons he couldn't begin to explain, he simply didn't trust Velorek. He knew a substantial part of that distrust probably originated in jealousy, but he stringently ignored that train of thought, telling himself it was because of the way he tricked Pilot into becoming a virtual slave. The guy just wasn't honest. He might care, but he hid it well sometimes.
"Sparky, doesn't it strike you as kinda strange that it was that easy?" he said thoughtfully. He held up a hand to repress Rygel's hovering retort. "Yeah, I know, cycles of ground work. But what I mean is, why the Hell would a peacekeeper go out of his way to help you out if he knew there was no way he was gonna be able to collect on the benefits afterwards? It doesn't make any sense! Didn't you find it suspicious at the time?"
Rygel gazed pensively at the ceiling. "I must confess, I was a little … apprehensive about the ease with which it occurred," he admitted carefully. "Especially after so many cycles without success. I had all but given up hope. But peacekeepers are not made of stone, despite what you hear – I managed to bribe a tech into letting me keep my thronesled. A chance was offered and I took it. When you have been incarcerated as long as I had then, you will take any chance of a release – no matter how slight or suspicious."
John nodded – he could see how that would happen. But he was no nearer establishing the truth behind Velorek's motive – if it even was Velorek. Maybe he was wrong, maybe it wasn't him on the tape at all. Maybe his jealousy had imprinted the guy's image where it wasn't or, for all he knew, Velorek had a twin. He wished he could sneak a quick look at the original tape and compare but that recording had been safely locked away by D'Argo and the big Luxan was unlikely to share without a seriously good reason. There was no further he could go with this without telling somebody the reason for his inquiry – and that would go against his personal resolve, the resolve that was the only reason he had felt he could break trust with Aeryn's wishes. Aeryn had been right – that tape had been nothing but trouble. He opened up the past and left himself with more questions than answers. And he needed to know what those answers were – if he didn't sort this out, it would play on his mind forever. Was it Velorek and if so, why had he done it? The second part might never be revealed to him but he needed an answer to the first – and there was only one way he was going to do that. Like it or not, he was going to have to show the tape to Pilot or Aeryn.
"Commander Crichton." Pilot's crisp voice broke into John's thoughts; the human looked up as the clamshell hologram shimmered to life. The impassive face of Moya's alien navigator gazed down at him. His features gave away no hint of his thoughts.
"Please come to my chamber immediately," he said brusquely, ignoring Rygel altogether. "There is something we need to discuss."
The edge to his voice was unmistakable, his golden eyes a mystery. John opened his mouth to voice a query, but before he found the words, the image flickered and was gone. The human frowned in confusion. What the frell was that all about? Surely he couldn't still be mad about…
The thought trailed off. John's eyes fixed on the yellow form of a DRD. The little droid stared right back.
Pilot had seen the tape.
This was going to be interesting.
That much was obvious – the moment John stepped through the door and into the chamber, the navigator's sun like eyes fixed on him, burrowing into his forehead like solar flares. His gaze was intense, and strangely knowing but at the same time, there was a nervousness about him, an apprehension that defied John's ability to explain. He watched the human carefully as he made his way across the walkway to lean casually against the edge of his console, his expression inscrutable. John couldn't help but feel that there was more going on here than he was aware of.
He decided to cut to the chase.
"You saw it too." This was a statement of fact, not a question.
Pilot's eyes flickered slightly. He nodded gently.
"And you saw the guy?"
"Was he who I think he was?"
Pilot looked almost awkward. When he answered, his voice had an edge of strain.
"If you believe him to be Lieutenant Velorek, then yes. He was."
"But that was your voice on the recording, wasn't it?"
Pilot's expression remained unchanged. "It was."
"But how can that be?" John lost patience, slamming a frustrated fist against the glowing panels. "I don't understand! It makes no sense!"
Pilot looked suddenly confused. "Commander?"
"Dammit, Pilot, how can a guy who is supposedly deceased be giving Sparky keycodes? What is this, Night of the Living Dead?"
"Dead? Why would that be?" The navigator was regarding him with genuine perplexion. "Who told you he was dead?"
John caught himself. For a moment he could only stare at Pilot as the truth dawned brightly in his mind. He doesn't know, the human realised. He doesn't know Velorek was arrested! And why should he? Crais had no reason to share prisoner information with an unproven Pilot, especially one who had been recruited by a traitor. And Aeryn never told him that bit either – it hurt her enough just telling me and I didn't know and like the guy! Does he even know they were involved with each other? Dammit, probably not. And you may have blown that. Nice work, Johnny boy!
He decided to cover his tracks with evasion. "Ummm… Look, it doesn't matter, maybe I misheard or something. That's not the point. The point is, why did he do it? Why would a respected peacekeeper tech go out of his way to help a prisoner? Especially one as obnoxious as that little gas ball Rygel!"
If Pilot had been capable of it, he would have shrugged. "I suspect he just wanted to help. It was not as though he had a career left to damage once Crais was done with him."
The words took a microt to sink in. "What?"
Pilot was gazing absently at his panels. "I said, he had nothing to lose."
"I heard you." John was staring. "Hold on! So you do know about the arrest!"
It was John's turn to look perplexed. "But how?"
"Because he…" Pilot broke off, his expression suddenly apprehensive. "Does it matter?"
He knew something. John could tell it instantly. Pilot knew a great deal more about this business than he was letting on. The human found his mind skipping back to the tape, to the sudden siren and the announcement by the being sat before him now that had drawn the original guard away. Without that, Velorek would not have been able to have his moment alone with Rygel. Add to that the conspiratorial little look he had exchanged with that DRD whilst doing the deal and suddenly the whole thing seemed very convenient.
"You were in on it." The words escaped John's lips before he could stop them. The human's wide-eyed gaze was intense – Pilot almost seemed to squirm.
"I do not know what you mean," he stammered but the words lacked conviction.
"You know exactly what I mean," John leaned forward over the console. "You were in on the whole deal, weren't you? That's how you knew Velorek had been arrested – you talked to him! You arranged for a distraction for him so he could slip Rygel the codes! Didn't you?"
Pilot looked away. For a moment, he seemed unable to answer. But slowly, his eyes crept back to fall upon the glaring human and he sighed deeply.
"Yes," he confessed reluctantly. "I did."
John briefly closed his eyes, letting free a wisp of breath. At last, he could get some answers!
"So you wanna tell me what was really going on that day?"
Pilot frowned. "It is quite a long story."
John smiled as he crossed his arms on the console. "I have time."
Pilot sighed again. "Then I suppose I'd better start at the beginning."
John nodded. "A very good place to start."
He caught Pilot's quizzical look and raised a quick, dismissive hand. "Never mind. Just talk, okay?"
"Very well." Pilot sat back gently, shifting his huge bulk as his four arms worked almost absently over the controls. He closed his eyes, thinking back carefully as John waited. Then with a final sigh, the navigator opened his eyes and staring down at his panels, he began.
"I suppose it began with the visit by Captain Crais, although things had been set in motion before that…"
ONE AND A HALF CYCLES AGO.
"Is there any limit to your incompetence?"
To say that Captain Bialar Crais was angry was probably one of the supreme understatements in the long history of the universe. His tense body was drawn up, neck ramrod straight, his dark eyes burning in his swarthy face whilst the rest of his features compacted together in a furious scrum over the cold hard line of his mouth.
Pilot had a feeling that this meeting would be less than pleasant.
And what rankled the most was that it hadn't even been his fault. He had spoken up, against his own better judgement, risking peacekeeper wrath in order to venture an opinion and of course, no one had paid the slightest bit of attention. When Crais had ordered the clearance of the prisoners from the catacomb of cells that formed Moya's middle tiers in order to transfer them, via transport pod, to other leviathans in the armada, Pilot had reluctantly pointed out that he could not guarantee the security of the pods against escape. He had quietly warned them that the transports had not been designed to hold prisoners and that the locks would more than likely prove no deterrent to a determined criminal. But had they listened?
Of course not.
And that was due to Crais. The man had no patience, as far as Pilot could tell. The Captain was in a hurry and when he gave an order, all discussion was over. He had no time to listen to anything a mere Pilot might have to say, especially if there was a chance it would hinder his plans. He wanted Moya emptied now – there was to be no waiting around for the arrival of properly equipped prisoner transport barges from High Command. As usual in his dealings with the leviathan Moya, he wanted things done fast.
And such dealings were frequent – unusually so. Pilot had noticed in the past that Crais seemed to spend much more time aboard Moya than he did aboard any of the other captive leviathans in the fleet and that, on his every visit, he seemed to depart with greater and greater frustration. Pilot had always suspected that this interest was founded in the secret project he had learned about from Lieutenant Velorek and, although he had no clue what it was, Crais' annoyance seemed to indicate a failure and in the navigator's eyes, that could only be good. But this situation had an unfortunate side effect – the captain's perpetual bad mood. The apparent lack of success of whatever this project was meant that Crais seemed to be permanently aggravated during his time aboard Moya and he seemed to feel the need to take it out on someone. And who was an easier target than a defenceless Pilot? Even the smallest, most insignificant mistake on his part was enough to draw the good captain down to his chamber for a fairly prolonged haranguing and today was no exception. Never mind that he had warned them. Never mind that it had almost nothing to do with him. Crais wanted a scapegoat. And as usual, that scapegoat was him.
"Why did you not inform us that the security on the transport pods was so flimsy?" Crais was striding back and forth in front of his console, hands clasped harsh and pale behind his back. "Now, because of your inability to organise this ship, we have been forced to deal with virtual riots in the hangers!"
Pilot bit down indignantly on his protest of innocence in the face of such hypocrisy, knowing it would do him no good. On the last occasion he had made the mistake of answering Crais back mid-tirade, he had received a vicious blow to the face. It was not the kind of mistake he would make twice. The throb of pain that was his daily companion – another legacy of the impatience of Captain Crais – seemed to grow and writhe at times such as these, emphasising his discomfort and unhappiness, driving him to a state of near despair. He loved Moya more than anything else, and he had tried his heart out to care for and protect her in the face of the peacekeeper onslaught, but it was moments like these that made him wish almost desperately that he had just been a little more patient.
But he hadn't been of course, which was why he was now living in this awful situation. And why he now had to live with the consequences.
Luckily the Sebacean's rant appeared to be winding down. Pilot had noticed in the past that Crais tended to run out of steam after a while, at which point he would conclude his concerted effort at abjectly humiliating his victim with a bellowed demand for improvement and storm out. On some days it took longer than others – it probably depended how tired he was. Pilot had long ago learned not to let Crais' criticisms affect him – there was simply no point. The ritual insults had become a part of his life – he had become desensitised to it. He knew better than to let the words of the peacekeeper bother him – it was easier to deflect the hurt by being clinical about it. If he had taken the words to heart, as he would have done earlier in his life, he would have been crippled over by misery long ago and what use was he to Moya like that? The only time he was affected by the peacekeeper was when Crais got violent – and since he had learned to hold his tongue, that happened a great deal less frequently. There were times when Pilot worried that his time under peacekeeper oppression had changed him in ways he didn't like, taught him to keep his opinions to himself and not protest, even against things he knew to be wrong. He sometimes wondered if the peacekeepers had left him with any confidence and self-respect at all.
"…And from now on, I expect better!" Crais came to a halt directly in front of Pilot, slamming his hands on the console and jerking the navigator's attention back to the real world. His golden eyes snapped up to meet the Sebacean's glare, anxious not to show that his mind had wandered and ready to display the appropriate contrition expected at the end of such an up braiding. But something had changed. The atmosphere was wrong. Pilot was accustomed enough to these meetings to know how they should feel and this was definitely different. This was no routine telling off to relieve the captain's tension. This was serious. But it wasn't the pods that were bothering Crais. There was no way such a minor error would account for the mocking undertone that laced his words or the gleam of real malice in his intense eyes. It was customary at this point for Pilot to nod respectfully and apologise, but for reasons he couldn't even begin to explain, he found himself unable to move. There was real threat underlying Crais' tone, actual malicious intent that whispered of potential harm, reinforced by a dark glint in his eye. A cold feeling lodged in Pilot's chest.
Something was going on.
He had suspected for days that things were happening of which he was not aware, ever since Crais had begun to order the evacuation of the prisoners. There were hardly any left now – a Luxan, a Delvian and a Hynerian in the cells an a motley collection of a dozen or so petty thugs still awaiting transport to another leviathan in the maintenance bay. But why? Moya was a prison transport – clearing her of her prisoners made no sense. But since when had the actions of Bialar Crais made sense anyway?
It had something to do with apparent failure of the project. Of that Pilot was almost sure. Crais' impatience in that regard seemed to have come to a head of late – he had clearly made some kind of decision. But would that decision leave Moya unscathed or would it turn out bad?
So many questions. But Pilot suspected one answer. On observing the expression on the face of Captain Crais, Pilot had a strong feeling it wouldn't be beneficial.
Crais seemed to sense Pilot's discomfort – a slight smile tugged at the corners of his lips.
"You might want to take a little more care from now on," he drawled blandly. "You of all people should be aware of just how easily you can be replaced."
The standard insult – and the only one that ever hurt. Stubbornly Pilot forced down the flood of guilt that rose within him, trying desperately to ignore the accompanying surge of pain. Crais knew at once he'd struck a nerve – his smile spread.
"I'd contemplate that if I were you," he said in a tone of insincere helpfulness. "You won't have much time for it later."
With that, he wheeled with a flourish of dark coat and strode across the walkway to where a black uniformed female aide was awaiting him. Pilot watched him go, unable to shake a feeling of dread.
His eyes fell on Crais and the aide. They were talking quietly in the entrance to his chamber, apparently oblivious to the fact that he could hear ever word they were saying. The peacekeepers always seemed to forget just how superior to theirs, his hearing really was.
"…About the Hynerian, sir. He's still at it. Only this morning he tried to bribe a tech with money he doesn't have. What do you want us to do?" The aide was a blonde female, slim as a knife-edge and dangerous looking. Her eyes were cold.
Crais tapped a finger thoughtfully against his bearded chin. "I have something in mind for that one," he replied with a chilling smile. "But it will take me a few solar days to arrange. In the mean time, watch him. Erect a surveillance device outside his cell and keep him under guard until further notice. Make sure to assign a reliable officer to the duty. The last thing I need right now is another escape on my hands."
"Understood sir." The aide nodded. Side by side, the two peacekeepers marched from the room, the door swinging shut firmly behind them.
Pilot breathed a sigh of relief. But he knew the reprise was only temporary. He was plagued by a terrible fear, inspired by the implications of the gaze of Captain Crais. Just what did the peacekeepers have in store for Moya now?
It was several arns before he found out.
It was so quiet. Pilot couldn't get used to the hush that echoed through Moya's deserted tiers, the silence, the stillness, the lack of life that had slowly crept in to fill the void left by the departing prisoners. He had never exactly been a fan of those travelling aboard Moya, either willingly or under duress, but there had been something vaguely reassuring about the constant hum of sound that marked their passing. It was a sound that had been with him from the very first agonising instant he had touched against Moya's mind and it seemed to typify his new life somehow, so different from the wild and lonely quietude of his home world. And now it was slipping away. It felt like the end of an era. And change made him nervous.
All was still. Which was why the footsteps so easily caught his attention.
He heard them first as they swept passed a DRD, slow a slow, meticulous rhythm striding down the corridors towards his chamber. Pilot was mystified all at once. Apart from Crais, visitors to his chamber were a rarity. Commander Rotar, the officer left in command of Moya by Crais, always addressed him via the clamshells. He had been to the chamber only twice and both occasions, he had spent most of the time trying not to look down. And since Rotar was an undisputed control freak, his aides never came down to see him either – the slightest hint that they were acting without his consent would be enough to bring them up on treason charges. Pilot had heard it whispered in the ranks that Rotar had done more damage to peacekeeper numbers than the entire Scarran armada. Which was why countermanding his orders was so unusual. And there was a standing order that no one was to visit the ship's pilot unless under specific instructions.
The footsteps came closer –a steady drum beat on Moya's skin steel floors. A swift debate waged war in Pilot's head; what should he do? Was this an authorised visit or some rogue arrival? It was possible that the approaching figure had no interest in him – but then what else would they be doing on this remote tier? The last thing he wanted to do right now was get into any more trouble, and if this whoever was not supposed to be here, the peacekeepers would almost certainly find some way to bring him to blame. Or what if it was official? What if this was the opening gambit of the threat he had read in the eyes of Captain Crais?
But there was no more time to ponder it.
The chamber door swung open.
A black shadow stood silhouetted within the arching curve of Moya's golden walls, the grim lines of the heavy jet body armour of a common shoulder etched against the brighter backdrop. A dark visor, faceless, eyeless, fixed impassively upon the apprehensive face of the creature sat before him, shrouded in darkness like a living mystery. For a single teasing, tantalising microt, the figure waited, statuesque, motionless, seeming almost to be frozen, before taking a single precise step inside. Behind him, the door swung gently shut and a quick flick of a finger was enough to seal the chamber tight. His hidden gaze never left the navigator.
Pilot watched, hypnotised, bound by a combination and fear, apprehension and curiosity. What was this?
"Can I help you?" he ventured hardily, not quite managing to disguise the nervous traces in his voice. He drew himself up almost imperceptibly, bracing himself for the worst. His heart was quaking but he was determined not to show it. What was this peacekeeper thinking? If only he could see his face!
There was a pause as the echoes of his words drifted to the far reaches of the chamber to gently die to silence. The stillness seemed to stretch on forever.
And then the peacekeeper moved, one precise step after the next to cross the walkway to halt just a few yards from the console. From beneath the visor rolled a ripple of sound.
"I think perhaps you can," he replied. In one swift move, he removed his helmet.
Pilot couldn't speak.
He could only stare in disbelief.
The intensity of the shock was immense. It was quite fair to say that this was the last face he had expected to see beneath that darkened screen.
What the frell was going on?
His eyes locked, unable to stray, from the face of the man who had brought him to Moya two cycles before, the man who had given him his dream but at a price of pain he would forced to pay back for the rest of life. He had certainly never expected to see him again. He hadn't been sure that he wanted to. His feelings about Velorek had always been confusingly ambiguous . On the one hand, he was grateful for the chance that the tech had given him, to fly, to see the stars, to share the magical life of a leviathan not to mention the fact that he'd always shown a ray of kindness in a sea of peacekeeper ice. But he was also acutely aware of Velorek's deceit. In a way, he had been responsible for tricking him into this situation, awash with persuasive words in the face of his reluctance with no mention of the horrendous confinement in which he was forced to pass the twenty-two day space journey nor any reference to the minor detail that he would be left in agony for the rest of his life. He had felt strangely relieved when the tech had completed his assignment and left Moya so abruptly – at least he knew how the other peacekeepers regarded him. There was no mystery or confusion in their behaviour – to them, he was a weakly servicer, present only to obey. He knew what they thought of him and could behave accordingly. But Velorek was not so easy to read. Did he care or was it pretence? What was he really thinking? Pilot had never been able to work it out.
And now he was back.
And just what was going on with him?
For there was something – Pilot could see it at once. Why was he dressed in the uniform of a common soldier? He was a lieutenant and a tech – he had no reason to be wearing combat armour. And as he moved forward into the ball of coloured light that welled up from his console, the navigator noticed his features clearly for the first time. Gone was the smooth refinement, the neat, ordered appearance of a tech that had known his own importance and taken pride in his looks. His hair was longer and almost shaggy, his face unshaven. A jagged scar tore through his once-clean features, starting at the temple to carve a red gorge down the left side of his face, before sweeping beneath his chin. This was the face of a man whose life was hard, a man who fought to survive and was stronger because of it. Something had changed.
A slight smile tugged at the corners of Velorek's mouth as he leaned forward gently to rest his hands against the console. He looked tired somehow but at the same time vaguely triumphant.
"Hello again," he said quietly.
Pilot nodded, still rather wild-eyed. "Lieutenant," he acknowledged. "What brings you here?"
"Not lieutenant," The intervention was sharp, his eyes strangely intense. "Not anymore. I am no longer a peacekeeper."
That was a surprise. "You left?"
Velorek grimaced, running a tender finger down his cheek. "More like I was persuaded to leave." There was a pain in his eyes that Pilot didn't understand. "I was betrayed," he said quietly. "Someone I thought I could trust revealed to Crais that I had taken measures to sabotage his project here on Moya. I was arrested and tortured and was due for execution. But I was lucky. A group of sympathisers heard about my plight and managed to free me before the sentence could be carried out."
He leaned forward, lowering his voice. "There is a…. resistance within the peacekeepers, a group who believe that our policies are both wrong and unnecessarily cruel. I am now one of them. And that is why I am here."
He took a breath, his expression a wash of emotion. "In a way, you could say that this is my fault," he admitted awkwardly. "When I sabotaged Crais' project two cycles ago, I thought I would be saving both Moya and you. But now that act has backfired. I only delayed your fate. The failure of his coveted project and the criticism from High Command over his lack of success had made Crais angry and with me unavailable, he needs someone else to take that anger out on." He sighed. "He has chosen the two of you."
Pilot stared in horror. A terrible fear engulfed him, a rippling tremor that touched as deep as Moya herself. "What do you mean, he's chosen us? You know what he has planned for us?"
"Unfortunately, yes. A few days ago we intercepted a message – a confirmation from High Command regarding Crais' recommendations for the leviathan Moya and her pilot. He has decided to send you both to the gammak base at Deva Rayne to begin immediate experimentation. He intends to use the pair of you as test-subjects for a new technique in leviathan control – a technique that will probably destroy you both."
A wave of sickness washed through Pilot. For a moment, he thought he was going to throw up. Deva Rayne! He'd stumbled across that name in the peacekeeper data banks and what he'd learned had filled him with terror. The base was a death sentence for any leviathan unfortunate enough to be assigned there – it was the last call of the damned, hall of the condemned, the place where sick, disobedient or damaged leviathans were sent to be pulled apart in search of better ways to enslave the rest of their race. It was said that to die there was a blessing, for to live on after the kind of things they would do to you at Deva Rayne was a fate far worse than death.
Velorek must have read the petrified look on his face – he reached out a hand and squeezed Pilot's claw reassuringly. "Don't worry," he said quickly. "I'm here to insure that doesn't happen."
"Just you? Against an armada?" Pilot's mind was full of Deva Rayne; he had no time for comfort. "Forgive me if I'm not brimming over with confidence!"
Velorek chose to ignore that, continuing with remarkable patience. "Moya is almost empty – most of the prisoners and their guards have been assigned elsewhere. We have an excellent opportunity for a coup."
"A coup?" Pilot did not even try to hide the incredulous tone to his voice. "What are you talking about? This isn't a government! They're sending us to Deva Rayne and our only hope for survival is talking nonsense!"
Velorek sighed. "Will you please just calm down and listen? Now, Crais has ordered a detour to Terran Rau to deposit the last three prisoners personally. That gives us time. I've decided the best course of action would be to free those three prisoners and let them help you escape."
This was going too fast for Pilot. "You'd leave Moya in the hands of convicts?" he exclaimed. "Convicts that are bad enough to be sent to Terran Rau?"
Velorek fixed him with an intense gaze. "It's that or die," he said bluntly. "Or at least spending the rest of your life lobotomised. Is that how you want to live? Is that what you want for Moya?"
That stung. Pilot looked down. "No," he said softly.
"Then listen." It seemed Velorek was losing patience with his uncertainty. "I have a plan, but I'm going to need your help with it, so I need you to stop dwelling on Deva Rayne and do something about avoiding it. My sources tell me that the Hynerian prisoner has been attempting to bribe his guards and passing techs in order to obtain the cell key codes. That isn't going to work. Crais knows all about it. He's already set a tech to devise a special sequence of key codes to feed to the Hynerian. If they function as he intends, they will trigger an explosion that will wipe out both the prisoner and most of his cell."
"But the damage that will do to Moya!" Pilot protested. "Is he insane?"
"Probably," Velorek grimaced, shrinking from a bad memory. "He doesn't care anymore. You are going to Deva Rayne anyway, home of the crippled leviathan. What matter if the ship is harmed?"
Pilot shuddered. "It matters to us!"
"And to me. Which is why I'm here." Velorek turned away from the console, pacing slowly before the glowing panels and their worriedly watching Pilot. "We can't give Crais time to execute his plan. We have to act now – today. I have managed to obtain Moya's key codes myself – the real ones. Here." He handed Pilot a small chip. "This contains all you need. If you have these codes, you can free the prisoners yourself if it proves necessary – if I'm captured for example or if the Hynerian isn't social minded enough to free the other two." He held up an identical piece of technology. "I'll take this copy and trade it to the Hynerian. If I get the chance, I'll come back afterwards and we can co-ordinate the escape together. Otherwise I'll be in touch by comm. I suggest you post a DRD to keep an eye on me – it's important that you be able to take over if something goes wrong."
"I will." Pilot was staring at the chip. Everything was happening so fast – he'd hardly had time to get his head round it. Escape with the convicts? Key codes to the Hynerian? Could this really be happening?
He released that Velorek was turning to leave and suddenly remembered something.
"Wait!" he called out. "You might not be able to reach the Hynerian. Crais put him under guard this morning. He put up a surveillance camera too."
Velorek paused and turned back with a smile. "Thank you. I didn't know that." He sighed. "That changes things. We're going to need to draw that guard away if I'm going to make the trade."
"How?" Pilot felt his stomach sink. He had a bad feeling this was going to involve him.
He was right.
"You'll have to arrange a distraction, something to draw the guards down to the maintenance bay." Velorek tapped a finger thoughtfully against the console, mind faraway. Pilot waited nervously. He had no objections to escape in principal – a successful escape would be fine – but if this attempt went wrong, his life would be hezmana bound.
"I know," Never had two simple words filled Pilot with such apprehension. "Those prisoners waiting for transfer – you can spring the lock on the transport door. Once they get out and start causing trouble you can make an announcement – all peacekeepers to the maintenance bay on the order of Crais, or something like that; the kind of thing no peacekeeper would dare to countermand. That ought to get that guard's attention."
Pilot was staring at him. "Are you insane?" he declared, his words revealing his thoughts on the issue. "If Commander Rotar catches me freeing prisoners and making bogus announcements, I'll be dead before you can blink!"
Velorek fixed him with a steely-eyed gaze. "Then don't get caught," was the blunt reply. "Do you want your freedom or not?"
There was a long pause. Freedom. Just a few arns before, the prospect had been a distant dream. It was something Pilot had longed for, one of the reasons he'd come into space in the first place. And now he had his first genuine chance to achieve it, a real opportunity to be the kind of pilot he'd always dreamed of. He and Moya, united, free and unfettered for the first time in their time together – it would be glorious.
Wasn't that worth a little risk?
"How long do you need?" Pilot asked decisively.
Velorek smiled. "Give me five hundred microts to get to the cells. Then go."
Pilot nodded. "Very well. What do you want me to do about the camera?"
Velorek shrugged. "Leave it for now. If you get the chance, take out the tape and hide it somewhere – the storage bays on the top tier ought to do."
"Understood. Good luck lieu… Good luck Velorek."
The Sebacean nodded. "Good luck to you too. Are you ready for this?"
Pilot smiled wanly. "As I'll ever be."
"Then let's do it," Velorek said.
END OF PART TWO.
Unseen Hands – Part Three.
Recap: The discovery of another holo-recording revealed that the supposedly deceased Lieutenant Velorek had provided Rygel with the key codes that allowed Moya's escape. On questioning Pilot, John discovered that the navigator had known about this and he reluctantly explained; Velorek had appeared out of the blue one day and revealed that Captain Crais had condemned Moya to almost certain death. He had sought his help in freeing her and Pilot had agreed…
It all went according to plan. Pilot kept a close eye on the situation in the maintenance bay, summing up his prospects as he carefully counted down the five hundred microt pause requested by Velorek. He watched unseen as the peacekeepers herded the resentful huddle of a dozen or so prisoners into the cargo bay of one of Moya's transports, locking the door and wandering away absently to wait while the vessel was refuelled. They sensed no danger. This was a routine transfer, nothing more. They paid no heed to the DRDS that scooted at their heels – Pilot had long ago learned that the little droids were seen as so commonplace, they were all but ignored. Besides with the leviathan collared, and the pilot thoroughly subjugated, what danger could they be?
They were about to find out. Pilot had more sense than to open fire on the guards – such blatant disobedience would bring a quick end to his tenure as Moya's pilot and besides, the control collar limited his ability to take such action independently. Instead, he subtly manoeuvred for position, weaving the DRDs around the transport pod as he awaited the optimum chance to strike. Time slipped by; the five hundred microts were all but passed. The tech responsible for fuelling the pod was too close – if he tried to release the lock with the DRD it would be seen and reported. Don't get caught; Velorek's words. Easy to say, not so easy to do, Pilot thought to himself. He had to do something to draw the tech away!
Inspiration struck. With a quick burst of speed, Pilot sent a DRD scuttling towards the tube leading from the fuelling tank. With a swift swipe, he knocked the pipe free of the nozzle.
Fuel gushed onto the floor in a shining ooze. It wasn't combustible – Pilot had more sense than to put Moya at risk like that – but it was messy. The tech noticed at once that the fuel had stopped coming – he glanced over his shoulder and swore loudly.
"Frell it!" he exclaimed, hurrying to the nozzle and switching off the flow of fuel. With an expression of irritation, he knelt uncomfortably in the seeping puddle and began to refit the pipe.
Pilot had no intention of hanging around for him to finish. A DRD was already poised – a single command sent it scurrying up the side of the pod. It was the work of microts to free the simple lock –the door released with a gush. It was immediately clear that those inside had had much the same idea – a tall Vorcarian blood tracker glanced up in surprise from the crouch he had adopted in order to pick the lock with his fingernails. Needless to say, he and his fellow prisoners had no intention of letting this unexpected good fortune pass unclaimed – they burst free of their confinement and set upon the astonished and unprepared peacekeepers with a vengent ferocity.
The siren echoed throughout the tiers – Pilot deliberately chose the loudest and most irritating he could find – following it up quickly with his announcement. This was without question the most dangerous part of the plan but Pilot had used the five hundred microt respite to take a few precautions – using a redundant bypass system unknown to the peacekeepers, he had managed to mute the audio grid in Moya's command, in order to insure Commander Rotar would hear neither the siren or the call to arms. It was a necessary act –if Rotar or one of the two aides on duty with him overheard the summons, they would recognise his voice and send at once to Crais for confirmation. At that point, he would be in deep and fragrant dren. The success of his plan depended on the PK grunts not realising the order had common from a Pilot rather than a peacekeeper officer – it was fortunate that only the command staff and not the common soldiers knew him well enough to identify his voice. He had briefly considered attempting an impersonation of Captain Crais – after so many arns of listening to his voice, Pilot could actually do a fair impression of him – but he quickly discarded the idea as too risky. If he was caught acting as himself, he could at least protest that he thought he was doing the right thing. If he were caught pretending to be Crais however, he would be well and truly dead.
Pilot jumped in spite of himself – he scrambled quickly for the comm control.
"I hear you. Did it work?"
"Perfectly," Velorek replied. He sounded slightly breathless. "The Hynerian has the codes and he's already at work with them. We have to move fast to draw the rest of the grunts off the ship. What's the status in the maintenance bay?"
"The prisoners have been recaptured. The pod is almost fuelled. The remaining peacekeepers are about to disperse back to their posts."
"We can't let them do that," Velorek's tone brooked no opposition. "We have to get them off Moya before you make a break for it." There was a thoughtful pause. "Make another announcement. Tell the commander Moya has a technical malfunction that you can't repair and that she will decompress in fifty microts. You can seal the command and your chamber – the rest of the soldiers will have to leave with the pod. Once they're clear, free the prisoners and guide them to the command. The three left inside should be no match for an angry Luxan. When they have control of the ship, run for it and Starburst the first chance you get."
Pilot was shaking his head. "What about the control collar?"
"That's been taken care of." Pilot detected a slight air of satisfaction in the tech's tone. "I've been on this ship for arns now and I took the chance to do a little constructive sabotage on some key components in the control collar system. If you probe into your console, you should find you have access to several systems denied to you before, including DRD weapon control and the command console readouts. Use them well. I can't free the collar from here though – it requires a remote signal from a peacekeeper-designed transmitter. Once I'm off the ship, I'll trigger a pulse and release it for you. I wouldn't recommend making your move until that's done. I'll be as quick as I can."
"You're leaving?" Pilot surprised himself with his disappointment at the news. It appeared his feelings for the peacekeeper had lost their ambiguity.
"On the transport pod. I'm already approaching the maintenance bay. I doubt I would be exactly welcome with your new crew and besides – I have work here that still needs me."
"I understand," Pilot made no protest, despite the feeling of nervousness welling in his soul. He wasn't sure he liked the idea of going it alone but he could at least see the necessity. "Thank you, Velorek – for everything."
He could sense his smile. "You're welcome. It was good to see you both again. Good luck – and enjoy your freedom."
"We intend to," Pilot smiled to himself. If this works, he added silently.
"Goodbye," he said instead.
"Goodbye," Velorek replied.
The comm went silent.
That was it. Now it was down to him.
Pilot sighed. Back to business.
He activated the clamshell in command.
"Commander Rotar!" he exclaimed urgently. "We have a problem!"
"What kind of problem?" Rotar was a tall, authoritative peacekeeper with a mane of black hair and ice cold eyes. They fixed on Pilot's holographic image as he strode across the command. Behind him, his two aides – a blonde female and a brunet male – also watched him intently. Pilot really wished they wouldn't – the three-fold stare was making him even more nervous.
"Moya's primary atmospheric facilitator has failed. We are rapidly venting atmosphere into space. I estimate full decompression in fifty microts!"
"What?" The look of panic that washed over Rotar's face was more then a little gratifying. "Fix it!"
"I don't have time, commander. Such drastic repairs will take arns to complete. The air will be gone long before then."
"He's right!" The female aide was lingering at he command console with obvious concern. "We're losing air, fast!" She tapped at the controls in a futile gesture of doing something. "I can't stop it!" she exclaimed, her voice rising with the first signs of panic. "It's out of our hands!"
Pilot hid his amusement. Of course she couldn't stop it. It wasn't happening. Thanks to Velorek's collar tampering, Pilot had managed to send false readings and sensor echoes to the consoles in command to fool the peacekeepers into thinking he was telling the truth. Moya was fine – but they weren't know that.
"Thirty microts!" he exclaimed "Commander, I can isolate my chamber and seal you safely in command, but there is nothing I can do for your soldiers. I recommend they evacuate immediately in the transport pod. You can summon them back once repairs have been made."
Rotar hesitated but only for a microt. "Hadren!" he snapped at his male aide.
"Evacuate the troops immediately! Servicer!" He wheeled on Pilot. "Seal off this command!"
"At once, commander!"
The door to command swung rapidly to a close, the lock clicking securely into place. Under the guise of saving their lives, the peacekeepers were entombed. There was no way out now – the door activator was under Pilot's control. And there was no aid close at hand for the transport, containing all other PK officers had just cleared the hanger and set out into space.
Pilot smiled to himself.
Just too easy.
Now for the prisoners.
It was the harsh blare of the siren that jerked Pa'u Zotah Zhaan from the state of blissful meditation in which she'd passed the last few arns. The sound ripped through the gentle ripple of sound that usually filled her cell, slicing like a knife into her heart and forcing her back into the harsh reality of incarceration. The Delvian priestess started to her feet in mild alarm, snatching her clothing from the bed and pulling her robe over her head as she strode towards the door. What in the name of the Goddess was happening this time?
A voice echoed over the comm system, issuing a swift call to arms. Zhaan recognised the tone at once – she had picked out this voice more than once before in her long stay aboard this particular leviathan, a gentle, hushed echo of a voice that was most unlike that of a peacekeeper. A gentle frown creased her delicate blue features as she listened to the words. She had to admit, the sheer difference of that voice had caught her attention at once but quite how it's owner fitted in aboard this ship was a mystery to her. The soft tone did not sound like that of a soldier – but who else but a peacekeeper would be issuing such a command?
The rapid clatter of footsteps jerked her back to alertness. As she reached the door of her cell, resting her fingers gently against the golden lattice, a fully armed peacekeeper appeared at a run from around the corner and bolted past without pause, a dark shadow chasing moonbeams. Zhaan followed him with her eyes, the scene at once familiar – she had seen it many times over the last few days. Only a fool would not have noticed that something had been happening within her golden jail of late and Zhaan was hardly stupid. The moving of the prisoners, the frequency of escapes – things were no longer following the regular patterns to which she had become accustomed. The cells around her were almost empty; it was rare for her to hear any other voices. Even the guards themselves seemed reduced in number – the only time she so much as saw a peacekeeper these days was when she was brought her food. It was almost as though the ship was being systematically stripped of all life. Zhaan didn't like it. It made her wonder just what fate the peacekeepers now had in store for her. Why had she been left when so many others had been dragged away?
The siren terminated abruptly – Zhaan sighed in relief. The soothing, calming well-loved rhythms of the leviathan – Moya she had heard her called – reasserted themselves like a cooling balm. It was not that Zhaan really wanted to leave – although she loathed her confinement, past experience had taught her that there were much worse places to be imprisoned than aboard such a beautiful ship – but the sudden change made her uneasy to the depths of her soul. More often than not in the world of the prisoner, unexplained change was a bad sign.
Zhaan sighed to herself. Well, there was little point in worrying herself over it. It was not as though she was capable of doing anything about it. Gently, she drifted away from the forbidden passage behind the links of gold, reaching back almost absently to loosen her clothes once more.
The door opened.
For a moment, it failed to register. Zhaan's mind was half with the Goddess – the click, the soft hiss, did not connect at once as a sign of liberty. She turned her head almost absently and found her gaze met with the golden curves of the corridor outside her cell. No hindrance tampered with the sight – no lattice, no bars, no guard. Clean air flowed without turbulence, without barriers, from her limited space into the unknown land beyond.
She was free.
The surprise rendered her immobile. Her body almost seemed to shake – her brain refused to accept what her eyes now told her plainly. What the in the name of the Goddess was this? Was this a trick, a trap, some cruel game of the peacekeepers? Were they playing with her mind, her soul, her desperation? Was she expected to run, to be hunted down in the maze of leviathan corridors? Was that why the ship had been cleared?
But then her sharp ears caught on a sound, a voice, a triumphant shout filled with the joy and euphoria of freedom, that echoed from a distant corridor.
"Yes!!! I've done it! I've done it! I'm free! I'm finally free!"
That was no peacekeeper. And the declaration implied that this was no militaristic trick, but a genuine bid for escape. Zhaan felt her breath catch in her throat – her heart pounded in her chest as every fibre in her body shivered in sudden hope? Could it be true?
The Delvian hesitated no longer. She rushed into the corridor, fighting to stay calm in the rushing, flash flood of euphoria that engulfed her soul as she touched forbidden ground. She was free! At last, she was free! It had been so long!
But practicality swamped her joy a microt later – she hadn't won her liberty yet. This was still a peacekeeper ship, despite the recent downsizing and she still had to get passed those peacekeepers if this tantalising whisper of freedom was to make itself a shout. And for that, she would need help. Bracing herself, Zhaan turned in the direction of the distant voice.
A blur of green swept out of nowhere – if Zhaan had not darted back it would have knocked her down. The Delvian stumbled back against the wall in surprise to find herself staring into the beady eyes of a diminutive Hynerian. The little green creature looked to be of mature years, dressed in a small purple robe as he hovered at about waist height on a surprisingly ornate thronesled, eyeing her up and down with an icy glare.
"Watch where you're going, you stupid female!" he snapped ungraciously. "Are you trying to kill us both?"
"I freed myself!" he retorted at once. "Letting you out was nothing more than a by-product!"
Zhaan bit back a smile in spite of herself. "Nonetheless, you have my gratitude. Have you seen any guards?"
He shook his head. "None. They all bolted when that frelling siren went off. That's why I decided to take my chance."
"An excellent decision." Zhaan eyed her accidental rescuer thoughtfully. He was obviously going to be annoying – that was clear even on such a short acquaintance - but he must also be a creature of resources to have freed them in so short a space of time. She wasn't keen on the idea of doing this alone and despite the Hynerian's bluster, she was all but certain he wasn't either. She made a rapid choice.
"I think we would do well to stick together, you and I," the priestess said with a smile. "Two minds are better than one, and you are obviously a resourceful companion.
Perhaps by aiding each other, we stand a much better chance of escape."
The Hynerian regarded her suspiciously. "Perhaps," he conceded with reluctance. "I take pity on you, Delvian. I will grace you will the benefit of my help."
"Again, I am grateful." Zhaan nodded her head, choosing to overlook the arrogant words in favour of the company. An ally was an ally after all.
"What shall we do now?"
The Hynerian hesitated. "Well…"
He got no further, her words swallowed beneath the echoing bellow of frustration that burst from a nearby cell. Angry roars and the violent rattle of chains punctuated the air, filling the corridor with the sound until it swelled to overflowing. It sounded like a single-handed war.
"What the yotz?" The Hynerian swore, immediately reversing his thronesled a little way back down the corridor. "What is that, a caged animal?"
"No," Zhaan started forward, following the cries. It was not difficult at that level of volume. "It is another prisoner."
"Where are you going?" The Hynerian bellowed after her. "Are you insane? Do you want to kill us both, you blue-arsed prabakto?"
"Help me!" he cried, his voice awash with a combination of anger and desperation. "I can't get free!"
Zhaan was at his side at once, examining the chains with gentle fingers. Behind her, the Hynerian had ventured as far as the doorway, peering in with anxious eyes.
"Hurry up, Delvian!" he hissed, gaze darting frantically from side to side. "The peacekeepers could return at any microt and you're frelling around in the open!"
"I'm doing my best!" Zhaan retorted, running her hands back across the links that bound the Luxan, hunting for weak spots. One glance was enough to tell her that they were locked solid. She shook her head.
"These are too strong. I need something to cut them with."
"Cut?" The Hynerian was aghast and made no attempt to conceal it. "That'll take arms! For frell's sake, just leave him and come on!"
The Luxan growled with menace, but the Hynerian ignored him. Zhaan glared. She had no intention of leaving anyone. As well as the advantage to be found in an ally with such physical strength, she was quite eager to have a companion other than he Hynerian. He was already starting to wear on her nerves.
"No!" she snapped firmly. "We need him! What do we do if we meet any peacekeepers? Do you want to fight them?"
There was a healthy pause. The Hynerian humphed loudly. "Oh free the frelling Luxan then!" he exclaimed. "Do what you please! But do it quickly!"
"I will!" Zhaan cast around the cell desperately for something she could use to attack the Luxan's chains. But there was nothing of course. What peacekeeper would be fool enough to leave anything with potential as a weapon in the cell of a prisoner? Perhaps in the corridor… She called to the Hynerian. "Do you see a saw out there or…"
Her voice broke off as a scatter of motion caught her eye. A small yellow droid, one of the little repair drones that she saw every day here on Moya, rolled almost casually out from beneath the shadow of the Hynerian's sled and into the Luxan's cell. Zhaan felt a chill – what if the device contained some kind of peacekeeper spy camera? What if they were about to be found out? The droid trundled to a standstill in the chamber's centre – it's little eyestalks fixed upon the chained and now motionless form of the Luxan, giving him stare for stare. It almost seemed to eye him up, running a gaze over him almost as it would have had it been a living being. There was a momentary pause for assessment – Zhaan could almost sense that somewhere, someone was thinking over what they had just seen. But the question was; who was thinking and what were they going to do about it?
A microt later they had an answer. There was a click – a panel on the front on the droid retracted, thrusting forth a small black tube. It was pointed at the Luxan.
The barrel of a gun!
"Yotz!" The Hynerian dived for cover into the passageway. Zhaan hurled herself aside just in time, driven by a raw instinct for self-preservation as she rolled across the floor of the cell. Behind her, she heard laser fire but she dared not turn to see the Luxan's fate. She scrambled to her knees just as the hum of the weapon intensified. And then, there was silence.
Cautiously Zhaan raised her head. Was it over? She had no wish to draw any attention to herself – she had no desire to become the next target. She felt mild shame for abandoning the Luxan like that but she told herself quickly that it wasn't as though there was anything she could have done. But she was also confused. Why would a peacekeeper drone gun down the helpless target and leave the unbound alone? It made no sense – unless the Luxan was viewed as the greatest threat to those on board.
In the doorway, there was movement. The reluctant head of the Hynerian peered into the room, searching out the fate of those he had left behind. His eyes fixed on where the Luxan had been. Abruptly, he gaped.
Zhaan followed his gaze. A moment later, she too was staring.
The Luxan stood, wide-eyed, shocked but very much alive in the centre of his cell. In his hands he held the long chains that had restrained him for so long, the loose ends trailing like streamers to the floor. The links of each shattered tip glowed red, neatly cut by laser fire.
"What the frell?" Zhaan heard him mutter.
"You seemed a require a little assistance. I apologise if I scared you."
The disembodied voice made them all jump. Zhaan scrambled to her feet, her eyes wide with sudden recognition. She knew that voice! That same soft tone, so unlike a peacekeeper that she had heard and puzzled at just a short time before – and now, it had come to their rescue. What was this?
"Who are you?" she called out, her eyes scanning the hidden recesses of the room for a face to match the words. She found none. "Why did you help us?"
"I am this ship's Pilot," the voice replied at once. At once a thousand queries in Zhaan's mind clicked into place. The Pilot! Of course! Now, it all made sense. Why hadn't she realised before?
"The Pilot," she repeated. "You are taking a risk in helping us."
"I am fully aware of the dangers." There was a slight edge to the Pilot's tone that
Zhaan could not quite place. "But what I hope to gain from my actions is worth it."
"What do you want?" There was suspicion in the Hynerian's tone.
"The same thing as you," was the simple reply. "Moya and I have been prisoners of the peacekeepers just as you have. We do not wish to be captive any longer. We want our freedom. And we think that with your help, we can achieve that."
"You want us to free your ship." Zhaan made it a statement of fact.
"Free the ship? Have you lost your mind?" The Hynerian, it seemed, was less than happy with the idea. "When you freed the frelling Luxan, I went along because I thought he might be some use to me! But hijacking a collared leviathan from a legion of peacekeepers? If I wanted to commit suicide, I'd shoot myself!"
"There are no legions," The Pilot intervened before the Hynerian could get into full flow. "There are only three and they are sealed in the command. All the other officers have been evacuated." There was a firmness to his voice that Zhaan had never detected before. "You will not leave this ship alive, even with my help – the prowler squadrons would shoot you down in microts. Your best chance is to stay with us. If we can break free of the convoy, we may be able to StarBurst to safety."
"Only three?" Zhaan stepped forward, addressing the air. "Why so few?"
"There is no time to explain," The Pilot's voice was tense and terse. "If we act, we must act quickly. Do you want your freedom or not? I know we do."
Zhaan glanced at the Luxan as he pulled himself free of his broken chains with a grunt of satisfaction. It seemed odd to turn so readily to a stranger for support but Zhaan had a feeling that he could be trusted. He caught her gaze and nodded.
"I think he is right about the prowlers," he said gruffly. "And I am sure I can deal with only three, if they are not too heavily armed."
The Hynerian protested. "How do we know that the Pilot isn't
working with them?" he exclaimed.
"You don't," Pilot's voice was low. "But I have no reason to lie to you. I can only ask that you simply trust me."
The Hynerian snorted. "Why should we?"
Zhaan exchanged another quick look with the Luxan.
"What do you think?" she asked.
He shrugged. "What choice do we have? He did let me go. And it's better than staying here and waiting for recapture. At least this way, we're doing something. I say we believe him."
"Then let's do it," Zhaan nodded and turned towards the door, the Luxan at her side.
"Pilot, which way to the command?"
"Wait a yotzing microt!" The Hynerian declared indignantly. "I'm the one who opened the doors! I'm the one with the key codes! Don't I get a say in this?"
"No," The Luxan strode imperiously through the entry. "Take that hoversled of yours and search the rest of the tiers. Find the other prisoners and use those codes to free them. We can use all the help we can get!"
The Hynerian drew himself up. "I am Rygel the sixteenth, Dominar of the Hynerian Empire, beloved sovereign of six hundred billion subjects! Why should I take orders from you?"
The Luxan paused. Slowly he turned, his features a mask of sheer, undiluted menace and bent until his face was on a level with the Hynerian's. His eyes burned.
"Because if you don't," he said darkly. "I'll kill you."
The little Dominar shrunk back. "You can't talk to me like that!"
"I can and I am. Go!" The Luxan gave the thronesled a hefty push, propelling it quite some way down the corridor. It's occupant wiggled indignantly.
"Fine!" he declared. "But I want it understood that I do this under protest!"
"Protest all you want," The Luxan muttered as he rose and turned to Zhaan. "Doesn't mean I have to listen. Which way to the command?"
The Pilot's voice echoed from above. "I will direct you. Follow this passage to its end and turn right. I will issue further directions on route."
"Thank you Pilot." Zhaan said sincerely. Events had certainly taken an interesting turn. The thought of freeing the leviathan and taking her with them was a strange one but not unpleasantly so. Despite being her prison for so many cycles, Zhaan felt comfortable aboard this Moya and it seemed only right that she should be liberated too.
The Hynerian was already half way down the passage. With a smile to the Luxan that blunted his scowl, the two very different prisoners set off together towards the command.
Pilot watched them go.
So far, so good.
That had proved less troublesome than he had expected. The
Delvian at least seemed friendly enough although he had some fairly substantial
doubts about the Luxan and the Hynerian. But they were far, far better than
staying in the hands of the peacekeepers. He had a strong feeling that it would
be wise to keep an eye on the self-proclaimed Hynerian Dominar though – on
observing his antics with the key codes, it had been immediately clear to Pilot
that he had no intention of freeing anyone but himself. The navigator had
finally lost patience with him – using the codes Velorek had provided, he had
triggered all the locks himself. He had known that they were unlikely to trust
him; his stunt with the DRD had been a gesture although it had surprised him
just how easy they had accepted him afterwards – he had expected to be greeted
with a great deal more suspicion.
But now came the big test – taking the command. Pilot was uncomfortably aware that this was by far the most hazardous part of the plan. For one, he was putting the lives of Moya and himself into the hands of a group of strangers, convicts no less. And it was more than likely that Rotar had reported Moya's fictional difficulties to the command carrier by now – there was nothing Pilot could do to block outgoing transmissions whilst the control collar was in place, even after Velorek's tampering. He had already reached the limit of his restricted access – he couldn't help but wonder to himself just what it would feel like to have complete mastery of every system, to be in absolute control of his leviathan for the first time since they were bonded. He was already feeling further and more sharply than he ever had before – how would it feel to share in Moya's all?
The prospect made him shiver with a combination of anticipation and nervousness. It was what he had always wanted, always dreamed of – could it truly come about at last? He almost dared not hope – it had always been his nature to fear the worst and a thought had been preying on his mind ever since he had first grappled with the idea of autonomy. His bond. The artificial peacekeeper bond installed by Velorek – would it be able to cope with such an eventually? After all, it had been created on the assumption that this ship would always be a captive – what if it was proved too flimsy to deal with the true rush of sensation of an uncollared ship?
But Velorek had not implied that this would be a problem – surely if it did matter in some way, the tech would have informed him. No, if there were to be any difficulties here, they would almost certainly originate with him. He had never before had complete autonomy – he had no idea if he was capable of handling it. The Elders had told him he wasn't ready to pilot a leviathan and up until now, he had assumed they had been mistaken. He had never been trained, never prepared liked those chosen for bonding by his people but he had never had any serious difficulties maintaining Moya's systems – he was quite proud of the fact that he had managed to maintain a decent level of efficiency whilst being almost entirely self-taught. But his current experience was not Moya's whole. What if the full weight of a free leviathan's systems proved too much for him?
"Pilot, we have reached the command." The big Luxan's voice echoed down the comm system. "Do the peacekeepers realise we're free?"
Pilot ran a quick scan across the command. There was no evidence of alarm or concern. If anything, the trio of officers looked bored.
"I do not believe so," he replied. "They will not be expecting your attack."
Pilot could see the grim smile that crossed the Luxan's face through one of the DRDs.
"I always like to give peacekeepers what they don't expect. Open the doors."
The Delvian had reached the console in microts.
"Now what do we do?" she exclaimed.
The Luxan was looking around at the limp, broken forms of his long time wardens in distaste. "We dispose of these pieces of dren," he scowled. "I can't even stand to look at them. Pilot where's the nearest airlock? I want to flush these wastes of skin into space."
Pilot quickly activated the clamshell – his holographic image flickered to life, gazing down at his new crew and the fallen remains of his old one. "There is an airlock a little way back down the corridor. It should be sufficient for what you request."
"Show me." The Luxan seized the arms of the dead Sebacean woman; he had already hefted the body of the male aide over one shoulder. Dragging one victim and carrying another, he followed Pilot's guiding DRD out of the room. The Delvian, Pilot noted, had twisted her mouth in discomfort, keeping her eyes fixed on the console so as not to observe the Luxan's antics. Her kind were taught to respect all life and the killing, however necessary it was, had obviously distressed her. With a sigh, she looked up and met Pilot's gaze.
"Is there any sign that the peacekeepers are aware of us?" she asked.
Pilot shook his head. "Not as yet. They have no reason to be suspicious. They believe us to be experiencing technical difficulties."
"No. But they think we are."
Pilot paused, considering his answer. Just how much should he tell these almost strangers? He had only recently gained their trust and he held no illusions that their alliance was still tenuous at best. Telling them that they owed their freedom to a peacekeeper was unlikely to help foster an atmosphere of trust and respect. The most sensible action they could take was to sit and wait until Velorek had deactivated the control collar. But of course, his newfound allies didn't know this, and Pilot hadn't a clue how to convince them without jeopardising his position. He decided to hedge.
"They misread the readouts," he stated blandly. It was true in a way. "They were convinced Moya was about to decompress."
"And you didn't tell them otherwise?"
Pilot did his best to look put upon. He'd had plenty of practice after all. "Since when did a peacekeeper ever listen to a pilot?"
That seemed to do the trick. The Luxan grunted his agreement as he hauled the lifeless form of Commander Rotar into the corridor. The Delvian nodded.
"Since when have the peacekeepers listened to any non-Sebacean? If they wish to be so foolish, they deserve their fate. Well, what do you suggest we do know?"
"Stay where we are," Pilot answered at once. "If we hold our position in the convoy, they will not get suspicious. It will give us time to work on removing the control collar. Once it is gone, I will be able to initiate StarBurst and they will not be able to catch us."
"You mean just sit here?" The Luxan strode back in, wiping his hands. "I don't like it. We make too easy a target."
"If we don't draw attention to ourselves, we won't be a target at all," the Delvian replied. "I agree with Pilot. Let's give ourselves some time."
"No!" The Luxan was not happy. "We should get as much distance between ourselves and the command carrier as we can. I have come this far. I will not be recaptured!"
Pilot sighed. "The microt we try and make a break for it, the command carrier will send out a burst to the control collar and shut down Moya's systems. I'll be cut off. Then we really will be a sitting target. Without StarBurst, we do not stand a chance. And I cannot access StarBurst whilst Moya is collared!"
The Delvian raised her hands. "This is getting us nowhere. We need to make a decision. Now…"
"Wait!" Pilot interrupted. It was hardly polite, but this was too important. He tapped at his controls, trying to mask his anxiety. "We have a problem," he said in what would prove to be a gross understatement. "We are receiving a transmission from the command carrier – routed directly to command. It's for Commander Rotar."
"Who we just flushed out of an airlock." The Delvian paled. "Pilot, can't you answer instead?"
"That will tell them something is amiss at once. Pilot's are forbidden to respond to restricted communications."
The Delvian ran her fingers over the controls. "Couldn't you pretend the communications grid in command has failed?"
Pilot was already shaking his head. "They can scan for that. They'll known I'm lying. Then they'll open fire."
"What are they saying?" The Luxan asked, his eyes fierce.
"I'll rout it onto external vocal."
There was a low hiss and then the cold, hard voice of Captain Crais shimmered in the air.
"…Why do you not respond? Commander Rotar! Lieutenant Hadren! Officer Yan! Answer me! Our scans show you ship still has breathable atmosphere. You reported decompression. What is happening? If I do not receive an answer from you in thirty microts, I will assume you incapacitated and dispatch retrieval teams! Commander Rotar!"
"Turn it off!" The Luxan snapped. He glared at the ceiling. "Now we have no choice. The peacekeepers are coming. We must run."
Pilot knew that he was right. They could not allow Moya to be boarded. But he also knew that to flee was hopeless. The moment Crais realised that Moya was no longer under peacekeeper control, he would issue the pulse and shut her down completely. Where was Velorek? Why had he not yet released the control collar? What was taking so long?
The Delvian was shaking her head. "Pilot, is there somewhere near here that we could make a run for? Somewhere we could hide?"
Pilot checked his scans. "I read an asteroid field about four thousand metras away. It's small and not very dense but it will offer us some measure of protection."
"It will have to do." The Luxan strode forward to the other console. "Pilot, alter course. Take us into the debris."
"Changing course. Proceeding at hetch seven velocity."
Pilot felt sick. He knew from the microt that he surged Moya away from the armada that he had just committed suicide. There was no way an experienced veteran like Crais would read this action as anything other than it was – a desperate bid for freedom by a group of hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned prisoners. And with the collar still firmly in place, their chances of getting away were less than zero. They would be lucky to make the asteroid field at all, and what exactly did it offer? A slightly more challenging approach for the prowlers sent out to blast his beloved Moya to shreds. The freedom that had seemed so possible just a short time ago was fading into the distance like a forgotten dream. Pilot was absolutely convinced that he was about to die – if Crais' prowlers didn't blow Moya to pieces, they would be rounded up and shipped off to a gammak base so some heartless tech could frell with their minds.
Three thousand metras.
The debris field was closing. Behind them, Pilot could see a scramble of confusion amongst peacekeeper ranks – it appeared that they had not expected Moya to be foolish enough to bolt for it. But the prowler squadrons were an efficient unit, already mobilising – Pilot saw them break free of the command carrier in a swarm of menacing black, sweeping, twisting and writhing in the vacuum of space as they surged into pursuit.
Two thousand metras.
The prowlers were closing. The command carrier had begun to turn, a slow, languorous, deadly response to the impetuous, insignificant flight of the leviathan transport. It could take its time. It knew they had nowhere to go.
One thousand metras.
The prowlers formed into a vicious arrow of attack, diving into formation as they prepared to strafe and corner the vessel. Pilot sensed the terrible surge as their weapons charged – he scrambled for the comm.
"Incoming prowlers!" he cried. "Brace yourselves!"
The warning was punctuated by a searing line of pain across the outer hull – Moya jolted and shuddered with the impact. Pilot bit down hard, shocked by the sudden swath of agony, a double wave that rode on the back of the pain he had felt every day since his bonding. Wincing at its sting, he forced himself to concentrate. He had dealt with pain before. He could handle it. Ahead, the asteroid field was opening out before them, a temporary haven nothing more. Pilot knew the command was coming – it was only a matter of time. One hundred metras, fifty, twenty – graceful and elegant Moya slowed down slightly and slipped along the edge of the rocky field.
And stopped cold.
It wasn't really a shock to Pilot – he'd been waiting for it. A shudder of electricity radiated through Moya's body from the control collar; Pilot could only watch as half his console died before his eyes. From the command, he heard the Luxan's roar of frustration and Pilot had to admit, he knew exactly how he felt.
Velorek, where are you?
When Velorek had boarded the transport pod, he had expected it to travel straight to the command carrier. But he had failed to take into account the presence of the prisoners – by the time that Velorek realised that their target was an adjacent leviathan, it was far too late to act. He could only curse his luck. This was a serious setback; the pulse to free the sabotaged control collar could only be emitted from a Sebacean transmitter – the arrays on captive leviathans lacked the necessary strength and range and emitted pulses on the wrong bandwidth – which was the reason he had not freed the collar from aboard Moya in the first place. He knew he should have brought a transmitter with him but it was too late now. Hindsight was a wonderful thing.
And it didn't help that the pod was so frelling slow. The prisoners in the back were kicking up a fuss – twice on the trip, the pilot was forced to halt the journey to suppress a miniature rebellion. All this meant that by the time the transport finally alighted in the docking bay of the adjacent leviathan, Moya had already made her break for freedom.
Velorek knew he had to act fast. He crossed the hanger hurriedly to where a primed prowler sat ready for take off – her pilot stood a few steps to one side, slipping into his flight suit. It was a few microts work to approach the pilot from behind and stun him with a solid bar, a few more to steal the flight suit and climb into the cockpit. Quickly, Velorek called up the tracking data as he recalibrated the vessels transmitter to emit the correct pulse to release Moya from captivity. It took him a short time – he was a leviathan tech and prowler controls had never been his specialty – but finally, he managed to tweak the pulse and lock onto the target.
Just as she moved out of range.
Velorek paused, cursing silently. He was no fighter pilot but what other choice did he have but to desert those he had fought to save to their fate? He had to get closer.
Or Moya and Pilot would die.
He couldn't allow that. Not now.
Determinedly, he pulled on the helmet of the flight suit and gripped the controls. A few taps were enough to rev up the engines. Then with a roar, the prowler launched itself into the air and hurtled towards the stars.
END OF PART THREE.
Unseen Hands – Part Four.
Recap: The discovery of another holo-recording revealed that the supposedly deceased Lieutenant Velorek had provided Rygel with the key codes that allowed Moya's escape. On questioning Pilot, John discovered that the navigator had known about this and he reluctantly explained; Velorek had appeared out of the blue one day and revealed that Captain Crais had condemned Moya to almost certain death. He had sought his help in freeing her and Pilot had agreed. In an audacious plan, they had successfully freed the prisoners but the peacekeepers had realised something was amiss and halted Moya's bolt for freedom by freezing out her systems through the control collar…
It came out of nowhere.
A flash of blue light and a ship.
Well, sort of a ship.
Pilot had never seen anything like it. It was small, clearly only designed to carry a single pilot, but unlike most vessels designed for a limited crew, it was blatantly no fighter. White, completely unarmed, with an engine system that barely deserved the name, it was hard for Pilot to comprehend how it had ever come to fly at all.
So how had it appeared so quickly?
"What is that thing?" The Luxan's voice echoed down the commlink. "Is it a threat to us?"
"Unknown." Pilot did a quick check of Moya's memory records but turned up nothing. "It does not conform to any of the known ship designs in Moya's database."
"Should we bring it on board?" The Delvian asked, gripping the console as Moya lurched under yet another barrage of prowler fire. The Luxan stared at her.
"What for?" he exclaimed.
The Delvian regarded him as though he was a child. "You saw how rapidly it appeared – as if from nowhere. Maybe it contains some kind of device we can use to escape!"
"A prowler squadron is approaching the vessel. They are passing it by and…." Pilot gasped at the sudden impact. "It's hit! A prowler! It's out of control… It has been destroyed!"
"The ship?" The Luxan scrambled at the sensor readouts.
"No, the prowler!"
"It destroyed a prowler?" The Luxan lunged forward. "With weapons?"
"I don't know. It appears they simply collided but I could be mistaken."
"It doesn't matter," The Luxan waved a dismissive hand. "Dispatch the docking web. Bring it on board."
Luckily the docking web had not been disrupted by the freeze out initiated by the control collar – presumably so that, when the inevitable surrender came, the victorious peacekeepers wouldn't have to put too much effort into boarding. Pilot looped the energy field deftly around the little white vessel and drew it carefully into the cradle of Moya's docking bay, all the while keeping a close eye on the attacking prowler in case one of them noticed this new opportunity and tried to land. But they were lucky – it appeared the prowlers were far too preoccupied raking Moya's hull with weapons fire to notice that her docking bay was open to space. With the strange craft safely inside, Pilot quickly sealed the door and dispatched a small squad of DRDs to the hanger to receive it's pilot.
But Pilot had to admit that he was rather apprehensive about this course of action. Bringing a strange ship of unknown origin or allegiance on board in the middle of an assault – it was a significant gamble. But then, it's pilot had destroyed a prowler whether by accident or design – he would be a marked man amongst the peacekeepers. Perhaps when faced with this grim truth, the alien would help them. His appearance, for whatever reason, could alter the balance of this fight. But would it be in Moya's favour or against her?
The ship slid gently to a halt, it's wings folding inward as it rolled slowly into the hanger. Pilot watched it closely for a few microts but there was no sign of movement in the shadowy cockpit. He frowned. Perhaps the pilot was incapacitated; perhaps he was unable to get free on his own. Cautiously, he sent forward a lone DRD to scout, rolling it carefully up the scarred white hull to peer into the darkened canopy. He caught a glimpse of a bipedal entity, dressed in a loose, yellow covering and a simplistic white helmet, sitting, rather glazed, staring at his readouts. Curious about the craft, but unwilling to disturb the pilot, Pilot gently used his DRD to probe the ship's computer.
The pilot jumped violently – he scrambled upright as his console burst into flames, snatching up a small powder cylinder and using it to spray a white powder that quickly filled the cockpit with smoky dust. He hit a control – the canopy of the cockpit abruptly went flying, hurling the unsuspecting DRD into the air along with it. The pilot leapt free of his tiny craft and continued to attack the blaze until the fire at last receded.
Pilot watched, feeling more than a little guilty. He hadn't intended that to happen, of course. But the technology had been of such a basic design that his attempt at an interface had simply overloaded it. He could only hope that this little incident would not damage any potential alliance with the alien. The very last thing he wished to do at this crucial point was be responsible for offending any creature who might be able to assist in Moya's escape. He watched as the pilot put aside his canister – at least the fire was finally out – and paused for a microt. Then casually, almost thoughtlessly, he lifted off his helmet.
It was Pilot's turn to start. A peacekeeper! For an instant, panic overwhelmed him – he came within a whisker of opening fire. But a second examination stayed him. The new arrival looked to be Sebacean, yes, but peacekeeper? Pilot wasn't so sure. He was however, without doubt, the strangest looking Sebacean that Pilot had ever laid eyes on. His clothing was bizarre – the baggy yellow flight suit, the retrograde white helmet and unusual insignia – and their owner was no less out of place. He seemed to be in a mild state of shock, confused and slightly daunted, gazing around at Moya's golden walls as though he had absolutely no idea of what was going on. Which he probably didn't, of course, Pilot had to concede, but it seemed somehow to be more than that. He almost looked as though he had stepped unprepared into a whole new world.
But that was irrelevant now. Peacekeeper or not, he still appeared to be Sebacean and that still made him a potential threat. Moya was in dire peril now – the continued assault of the prowlers was taking it's toll on her health, If the Sebacean could help them in some way, in any way, they had to find out quickly.
Pilot hurriedly pressed forward his remaining DRDs, extending their guns and laser rods as they circled in to gather the Sebacean up. But to Pilot's surprise, the new arrival did not surrender or put up a fight – he simply stared at them, looking for all the world as though he hadn't a clue what was happening. The navigator sighed – he didn't have time for this! Flipping the power level to the lowest setting, he ordered the closest DRD to fire a burst of power.
Pilot kept a careful eye on him of course, but out of necessity he switched the main focus of his attention back to Moya's plight. Things were not looking good. The prowler raids were causing some significant damage – if they didn't break free soon, hull integrity would begin to buckle and that would be unavoidably fatal. They had to find some way to dodge the assaults, to escape from the tearing lines of fire, before they ripped Moya apart entirely, but with the control collar still firmly in place, that was simply not going to happen. Pilot swore silently to himself, staring face on into a situation from which there was no way out but one, one that was out of his hands. What did Velorek think he was doing? Had he been captured? If he had, they were all dead.
By now, the strange newcomer had reached the entrance to command. It occurred to Pilot then, that perhaps it might have been a good idea to warn the Luxan and the Delvian that the pilot was Sebacean, but now it was a little to late for that. He could only hope the Luxan would not damage him too badly.
They did not notice him at first. A squad of prowlers lit up the forward portal with their venomous attack; both prisoners braced themselves against the consoles, fingers flitting with rapid futility across the golden lattice of controls as they shouted suggestions and warnings between themselves, desperately trying to coax Moya into some kind of motion. Why they felt they would be able to succeed where Pilot had failed was a mystery to him, but he was not about to take away their sense of being useful and give them another reason to shout at him. They continued, absorbed, Moya shaking herself to pieces around them, unaware of the new pair of eyes staring incredulously at their backs.
But then the Luxan turned.
His eyes fixed demon-like on the Sebacean features of the newcomer – his expression washed to dark as night. The Delvian, noticing her companion's distraction, turned. Her expression was puzzled, but not malicious. For his part, the Sebacean looked utterly dumbfounded. Whatever he had been expecting, it obviously wasn't this. His gaze flicked between the staring faces of the two prisoners with a distinct apprehension. He looked almost dazed and well and truly over his head.
"Hi!" he ventured with a bizarre little gesture. "My name's John. John Cri…"
He got no further. In a few quick strides, the Luxan had swallowed the ground between them; his strong hands gripped the front of the yellow flight suit. With effortless anger, he lifted the Sebacean from his feet and suspended his struggling form in the air.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "Where did you come from? Your ship, is it peacekeeper? Is this some kind of trick? Answer me!"
The Sebacean was making choking noises, his eyes wide and filled with fear as his face turned an interesting shade of pink. He could barely speak in the face of the Luxan's onslaught.
"I can't understand what…." He stammered.
He had no translator microbes. The realisation hit Pilot in a rush. He acted quickly despite his confusion, pushing forward a nearby DRD to administer the injection. But he had to admit to being more perplexed than ever by their new arrival. Why would he not have been issued the injection at birth? What kind of Sebacean was this?
"I suggest that you answer him quickly. You know how Luxans can be."
"Your ship! What kind is it?" The Luxan's voice was rife with menace but the Sebacean still looked blank. Luckily, the Delvian was more temperate.
"Your ship appeared from nowhere and we don't know that technology. Is it something we can use to escape?"
"We brought you on board for one reason." The Luxan spoke in an icy growl. "Tell us, or die with us!"
The Sebacean, it seemed, was too involved with choking to death to answer the questions. The Luxan abruptly lost patience with his captive – with a scowl he hurled him across the command and stormed towards the manual guidance system.
Pilot was barely paying attention; he had very little interest at present with the antics of his erstwhile crew. His concern was Moya's survival. Although her consciousness had always been muted slightly by the lobotomising effect of the control collar, he was nonetheless acutely aware of the washes of pain that were rippling along her hull, her vivid flashes of fear and her desperate, terrified yearning to escape. He fought to maintain her systems, his own feature tight with the pain that he and Moya shared, although his longer experience with that particular sensation meant he was coping with it better than his leviathan partner. Vaguely, he heard the imposing voice of the Luxan calling out to him down the comm system, demanding the use of manual manoeuvrability but he had no time to respond – the pressure in the amnexus conduits was rising dangerously and required his immediate attention. But he was unable to fight down a surge of annoyance at the interruption – how many times did he have to tell them that he could not do anything to access those systems now the collar was locked down? Maybe they had sympathised when he had told them that the peacekeepers never listened to him, but they themselves weren't exactly attentive to his words either.
Moya shivered around him – a rush of pressure imposed upon his mind. Pilot turned to his panels at once, hunting desperately for the source – the last thing he needed at that moment was another strident bellow from the Luxan. Annoyed beyond all measure, Pilot flicked on the clamshell, barely restraining himself from snapping at his distraction.
"There's nothing I can do!" he exclaimed. "Not while the control collar is still in place!"
Almost as the words left his lips, he felt a perilous surge run through Moya's command circuitry. His moment of distraction had proved telling. He scrambled to disperse the building pressure but it was already too late. With a fizzling bang, the rear command console shorted out and abruptly gave up all signs of life, causing the Delvian to leapt back in shock. Pilot was a little shocked himself. Frell! Moya was coming apart! He winced under the pinprick stings of the latest prowler barrage, fighting a rising panic that welled within his soul. They had to get out of here!
"Moya cannot withstand this assault much longer!" he declared, grimacing under a sweeping surge of agony. It took all of his composure to maintain the controlled façade he knew was expected of his kind – he felt like screaming but that was hardly going to help. He wasn't quite sure what informing his crew of things they must have already noticed was going to achieve, but at least sharing the knowledge of their impending doom made him feel a little better.
He regretted it a few moments later however. The Luxan was a glowering tower of pent up energy – in a pique of frustrated fury, he wheeled on the functionless console and ripped away its lid. Angry and impatient, he wrapped his powerful fingers around the synapses and conduits contained within and began tearing indiscriminate chunks from the circuitry.
Pilot stared in horror. What was he doing? Such a ridiculous action was going to cause more damage than the entire of a peacekeeper battalion! If he was trying to unhook the control collar, he was wasting his time- the release was nowhere near there. And this unprovoked attack on Moya was more likely to hinder their escape than help it!
It was only with great difficulty that Pilot spoke without anger – if it had not been for the necessity of emotional control imposed under the reign of the peacekeepers, he would not have managed to keep a civil tone at all. "Those synapses you are tearing are not wired to the control collar!"
The Luxan fixed him with a terrible glare. "Then I shall keep doing it until I find the ones that are!" He turned back to his brutal task.
It was useless. Pilot could see that. He was clearly not
going to be told, especially if was something he didn't want to hear. Silently
he cursed the air.
Disconsolate, Pilot slumped down behind his controls. Nothing but trouble. That would be his legacy to Moya. What were they going to do?
Movement in the command caught his attention; the Hynerian was back, shoving the unknown Sebacean roughly out of the way with his sled as he hovered to join his precarious allies. The Delvian turned at once.
"The others – where are they?"
"There are no others. I've checked every cell level." The Hynerian paused, drinking in the shock and disappointment on their faces.
"I found a manifest," he added. "We were scheduled for transfer to Terran Rau."
The two bipeds stared at him in icy, unified horror. They knew what that meant.
"That is a lifers colony!" The Luxan said softly.
The Sebacean, still huddled in a corner, widened his eyes. "Prisoners?" he piped up.
"You're escaped prisoners?"
The Luxan glared – it seemed to be his favourite expression. "I will not be taken prisoner again!"
Pilot was barely listening. Terran Rau. So it was true. Velorek had been right, about that part at least. Did that mean that he had been right about the rest as well?
But what did it matter if they were all going to die?
Another squadron of prowlers swarmed into view from behind the asteroid field. Their fire tore into Moya in a swath of agony – Pilot could feel the delicate skin of the leviathan starting to weaken and buckle under the excruciating strain. One more attack like that and they were dead. The readouts on his console flashed ominously – Moya was in real trouble now and fading fast. Pilot felt his own terror rising like a wash of tide. He didn't want his beloved Moya to die! He didn't want to die himself, not now, not like this, not within a touch of freedom, not without ever fulfilling his dreams to see the stars unchained. Neither he nor Moya were long out of adolescence – she at least did not deserve to fall this young. But like it or not, it was going to happen. And there was absolutely nothing he could do.
He should warn them it was coming. He owed them that much. Their brave attempt at freedom had been all his fault – he had dragged them into a situation not of their making and now they were going to die from it. He wished he could apologise, but somehow he could not bring himself to admit the deception. Better that they die believing than bitter.
"Attention!" he announced, desperately trying to conceal his true emotions as he knew a Pilot should. If he were going to die, he would at least die knowing he was acting in the true manner of his kind. "Hull integrity is reaching critical compromise."
There was no need to say more – even the dazed Sebacean knew what that meant. Looks were exchanged, lumps in throats swallowed firmly down. The Delvian closed her eyes and gently started praying.
Pilot wasn't looking. His attention was fixed on the ominous dark shapes that filled Moya's sense horizon. Black as deepest space, cold and hard, a fleet of prowlers swooped into view, their weapons already locked and targeted on Moya's fragile hull. One broke free of the pack, writhing, twitching in spasms in the air almost like a nervous tic as it stooped in low over Moya's golden back, preparing to blaze a trail for it's colleagues to follow.
Pilot closed his eyes.
But he was wrong.
What happened next would stay vivid and magnificent in his memory from that day forward. There was a surge and a pulse of energy from the prowler – his console blazed to life like a bright galaxy of suns, every system alive and burning to be used. An amazing wash of sensation rushed his senses, filling his mind with sights, sounds feelings, what he had always known but yet so much more, touching on far distant parts of Moya that he had never before experienced, as he was exposed for the first time to the full extent of Moya's sensory range. It felt like his brain was expanding, overflowing its capacity as fluttering flashes of feeling that made him feel a thousand, a million times more infinite than he had ever known, barraged him. He saw everything, shared everything, as he felt Moya's mind snap to alertness for the first time in cycles and shared in the rising surge of euphoric joy that spiralled through her body, tempered only by the deep and abiding weariness caused by so long in mental chains.
The collar links were broken. Velorek had done it.
They were free.
They were free!
A moment later, the beings in command became aware of it too. The Delvian snapped out of her prayer, examining the console before her as her eyes filled with astonished hope.
"What have you done?" she exclaimed.
The Luxan looked up in surprise, damaged synapses dripping as he gripped them in his fists. "What do you mean?"
"The coding wall – it's dimming! You've hit the code!" The Delvian's voice was an ecstatic whisper. "You've hit the code!"
They thought the Luxan had done it. That was fine by Pilot – it left him a great deal less awkward explaining to do. He ran his claws across his controls, truly his now for the first time, fighting to hold down his own ecstatic joy and maintain his grip on the situation. But he could not help but watch with rapturous satisfaction as the hated control collar that had shackled his life and destroyed Moya's independence began to disintegrate and detach.
"The control collar," he murmured in awe, his hologram sharing the view with his makeshift crew. "It's coming off!"
For a microt, all any of them could do was stare as ahead, through the forward portal, the last peacekeeper chain fell away. The dark remains of the restraint floated almost gracefully free of Moya's hull to drift in a cluster into space, whirling and spinning as they abandoned the life they had restricted so long and made their own way to freedom. It was almost hypnotic to behold
But a passing sweep of prowlers jerked them all back to reality. The peril hadn't lessened. They weren't free yet.
"Pilot!" snapped the Luxan. "Prepare for immediate StarBurst!"
He had known it was coming. He had even suggested it himself. But it didn't alter the fact.
Pilot had never done a StarBurst.
It was one of the great absolutes of a collared leviathan – StarBurst meant death. Peacekeepers never used it – it was just too easy to lose track of ships. And since Pilot had never flown with Moya outside of peacekeeper control, he had not been through a Starburst before. He had very little idea of what it involved. He knew it was an energy drive that would push them to the edges of normal space and spit them out at random, but what he didn't know was the role he had to play in the procedure. His studies of Moya's database had somehow never got that far – since he had never expected to use it, learning the technique hadn't seemed much of a priority. His knowledge of the initiation sequence was rather sketchy and hadn't the faintest clue of how to go about resetting the navigational sensors afterwards. Moya would help him through as best she could of course, but there was only so much she could do. In the corners of his mind, Pilot made himself a firm mental promise to swot up on the procedure if they could just get through this first jump alive.
He couldn't tell the crew. He might as well personally screw up his credibility and toss it out of an airlock. No, he would just have to work it out for himself. He knew Moya's systems well enough. How hard could it be?
Wasn't that a great question to be asking himself in the middle of a life or death struggle?
He found the energy charger quickly enough only to discover that the readout was worryingly low. Moya's extended period in captivity and her weariness now had seriously drained her energy reserves. Pilot sighed. Why couldn't anything be easy?
He activated his clamshell. "Moya has been restrained so long…" he began, intending to explain further but the Luxan had no time for excuses.
"She is a leviathan!" he snapped. "It is the single defensive manoeuvre she is capable of!"
He was right, of course. Pilot had briefly considered making a run for it on the Hetch drive but something there was amiss; although he had no time to investigate it now, he suspected it had something to do with the Luxan's console surgery. That meant, of course, that StarBurst was the only viable option.
If he could only work it out….
Moya came to the rescue. Although she was too tired to emit the burst independently, she was quick to aid her Pilot, flashing the necessary sequence directly into his memory. Pilot responded with a flood of gratitude and set to work at once, securing and powering her systems as Moya's golden tail was set aglow with blue.
"Claw onto something, people!" he exclaimed. "Prepare for StarBurst!"
He could feel the energy rising, flowing, a rush of warm sensation as it spread through Moya's body, bracing her for the launch into another world. The prowlers, reading the danger, had all dropped back – all but one rogue and what danger could one lone prowler be? – and then they were away and clear. Pilot felt a wash of emotions – anticipation, apprehension, fear and joy, nervousness and rapture. So this was it. The way to freedom. Away from the peacekeepers at last. Blue energy fizzled in the air, dancing along the walls of his chamber – ahead a gaping hole was ripped into the fabric of space. Pilot could only sit back and let himself be carried away.
Just what kind of life lay in store beyond that azure maw?
The blue energy rose and swallowed them whole.
Their new life had begun.
"It was you that blew up my computer?"
John was staring at Pilot with hard eyes. The navigator sighed.
"I didn't mean to," he replied. "But the technology was so retrograde…"
"All right, all right." John raised his hands rather than face another dressing down on the inferiority of his species. "I guess it doesn't matter. We've got bigger fish to fry."
The Human stepped away from his console, resting his hands on his hips. "So why didn't you tell us any of this before?"
"Tell a band of escaped prisoners and fugitives that they owed their escape to a peacekeeper?" Pilot fixed John with a steady gaze. "Can you imagine what they would have said? Besides, gaining their trust was enough of an issue back then – telling them I'd collaborated with a peacekeeper, even for the sake of our freedom, would hardly have endeared me to them. And what if they had asked how I knew him?"
"But what about since then? We all knew who Velorek was after that business with the first tape. You couldn't have told us after that?"
"Tell Rygel I was the one who opened the cells? Tell D'Argo it wasn't him who decoded the control collar? Tell Aeryn…anything! What would be the point, Crichton? All it would have done is stirred things up, shattered their cosy illusions and caused trouble. Things are better off left how they are – simple and straightforward. That is why I am going to ask that you keep the truths I have revealed here today to yourself. If not for my sake, then please, do it for theirs." Pilot's golden eyes fixed on John's face. "Please Crichton."
John nodded slowly. "I think you're right. Let sleeping dogs lie. The last thing this crew needs right now are more revelations." He sighed, resting his folded arms on the edge of Pilot's console. "So what do we do with that tape?"
Pilot looked slightly awkward. "Actually, it is done already. I took the liberty of dispatching a DRD to your chambers whilst we were talking. It has already concealed the recording on one of the lower tiers."
John smiled ruefully. "I guess I should have seen that coming. Don't hang around, do you?" He paused, a frown creasing his features. "You got any ideas on how it landed up in my cell in the first place?"
Pilot shook his head. "I haven't a clue. The last time I saw it was when I hid it with some other peacekeeper recordings on the upper tier not long after the escape. I can't say I gave it much thought after that."
John shrugged. "Then I guess we'll never know." He grinned. "Maybe it just wanted to seen!"
The look on Pilot's face sent the grin scurrying for cover.
"Sorry," John apologised hurriedly. He took a few steps towards the walkway. "Well, I guess that wraps up my business here. I'd probably better go."
"As you wish." Pilot glanced up, a slightly anxious look in his eyes. "And you won't tell Aeryn, or the others?"
"Cross my heart." John saw the blank look on pilot's face and sighed. "It means no, okay?"
"Good." Pilot nodded and turned his attention back to his controls. For a microt, John stood, quietly watching the strange, gentle creature work. Then he turned, and departed the chamber.
His mind was whirring. Well, he'd got to the bottom of the mystery all right, and that bottom was way, way deeper than he'd ever imagined. Velorek, the force behind Moya's escape and Pilot his assistant; who would have thought? John had always suspected that Pilot had played a much greater role in the initial escape than the modest navigator was prepared to admit but he had certainly never expected anything like this. There was barely a factor in the whole business that he had not had a claw in. It had been Velorek's plan but it would never have happened without Pilot to pull it off.
Unseen hands, hard at work, doing all of the graft but taking none of the credit.
It was strange how things turned out.
His quarters opened out before him. Still slightly dazed, John wandered inside. A quick glance under his bed told him the tape was indeed gone, and the recorder along with it; Pilot had probably returned it to Chiana on his behalf. With a sigh, John slumped down on his bunk, suddenly weary to the bone. Despite the fact that he had done almost nothing in the last few arns, mentally he'd run a marathon. He could feel his body slipping, yearning towards the tender caress of sleep but his mind refused to relax, tumbling over and over recent events like a waterfall in spring. Velorek was alive. He had arranged Moya's escape from Crais. Aeryn didn't know. And John didn't want her to. Pilot was right – it was best to keep some things simple and straightforward.
His mind succumbed. Sleep rose to claim him and swept him on his way.