Breaking Point - Part Eight.
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.
Rating: PG –13 - some bits are rather grim. Contains scenes of violence and fairly mild gore. Be warned.
Category; Drama, Action, Horror.
Spoilers; TWWW, DNAMS, TGAS, IET, CDM.
Timeframe; Midway through S2 probably after LATP. I can't be specific because I'm not sure myself!
Summary: The crew discover a dead leviathan whose Pilot and crew have been brutally murdered. But who was responsible – and could the same fate be about to befall Moya?
The passage was dark and still, a narrow arching curve that edged it's way along a forgotten corner of Moya's lower tiers, darkened braces balancing to conceal the five diverse shapes that huddled in it's shadowed embrace. Despite the presence of a being once incandescent, now it was the turn of darkness to swallow the light.
But not to swallow the spirit.
"You mean he isn't dead?" The tired face of Chiana lit up as she stared at Zhaan in joyful disbelief, her dark eyes suddenly as bright as sunset. "But Aeryn said…"
Zhaan shrugged, a smile creasing her worn chlorophyll features sincerely for the first time in arns. "It seems Aeryn was mistaken. Rygel is merely unconscious."
D'Argo's features creased in puzzlement. "That is not a mistake that you would expect a peacekeeper to make," he commented. "They usually finish what they start."
Zhaan shrugged again. "Perhaps she was preoccupied by coming to Pilot's rescue. Besides, when such a miracle comes, we should not question it. We should merely thank the goddess that, despite the horrors we have endured, we all remain alive."
"Maybe," Chiana's eyes wandered in the direction of Pilot's chamber. "If Pilot and Aeryn haven't finished with John."
There was a moment of unpleasant silence. Chiana stared down at the immobile form of Rygel, as D'Argo examined a wall with an abrupt glare. Zhaan let her eyes wander to the corner of their quiet, hidden passage hideaway where the now dull, and almost halo-less form of Kir crouched, desperately meditating to restore some echo of his power.
"What are we going to do now?" Chiana's words rippled through to push aside the silence. Her grey features looked hewn as stone in the twilight of their concealment.
"That serum was our last hope. What can we do except wait for Pilot and Aeryn to finish up with Crichton and start coming after us?"
Zhaan softly shook her head. "No, child. Hope is never passed whilst there is spirit to support it. We can make more serum; with rest, Kir may recover enough to attempt another burst." Her expression hardened. "John sacrificed himself to give us this time. We must not waste it. We must honour his memory by carrying out his final wish."
Chiana shook her head. "What final wish?"
Zhaan met her eyes – even in the darkness, her emotions were easily perceived. "That we go on. That we survive. That we save ourselves from Pilot and Aeryn – and save Pilot and Aeryn from themselves." She took a sharp breath. "I intend to return to the ventral junction where we left my herbs. I believe I have enough ingredients left for two more doses."
D'Argo nodded. "One from Pilot, one for Aeryn."
"Yes. Once we have more serum, we can make another attempt to reach Pilot. But we must act quickly." She paused, taking several deep breaths as she forced down the emotion rampant in the harshness of the words that would follow. "Whilst they are still occupied."
A grim pause followed, broken after several microts by the growling voice of D'Argo.
"What about Kir?" he muttered. "He doesn't look well enough to move, much less help us."
Zhaan glanced at the energy being, her concern not quite concealed by the shadows that washed over her face. "He is in a state of deep meditation," she said softly. "He believes it will provide him with enough light to give us one last burst – if he is not disturbed."
D'Argo sighed. "Well, we can't stay here, and we can't leave him. How is he going to come with us if we can't disturb him?"
The Delvian sighed. "You will have to carry him."
Instant alarm crossed the Luxan's features. "But…" he began, a protest hovering on his lips.
"He is dormant, D'Argo," Zhaan intervened. "It is perfectly safe." She drew a breath. "Enough of this. D'Argo, bring Kir. Chiana, carry Rygel. We go on and this is the only way. And hurry. We may not have much time."
The impact of the golden floor sent shockwaves through John Crichton's already battered body. For a microt, he could barely move, barely breath, stunned into brief blissful non-awareness by the glancing blow that had just been applied to his skull. He could feel the slow trickle of blood as it wept down his cheek, the raw pounding of rainbow bruises and the sharp penetrating throb of cuts. He began to form a vague impression of how it felt to be ground through a mincing machine.
Struggling against a rising weariness within, he forced himself to open his eyes. Black eternity stared back, not the welcome relief of unconsciousness, but a long, distant plunge past gleaming neural clusters into a far, invisible nothing.
"This is pathetic." The voice came from above and behind, a harsh, disdainful whiplash tinged with a mixture of disgust and disappointment. "We should have kept D'Argo. At least he would have put up an interesting fight."
"Humans," the second voice chimed in, this time tinged with mocking amusement. "They are ridiculously fragile. Barely a quarter of an arn and he's broken already."
John felt a growing hysteria rise within his chest – he tried to laugh but was answered only by a bubbling choke as bloody saliva soaked his lips.
"You know," he croaked with a gasp. "If you break all your toys this fast, your mamma's gonna take them away from you!"
From the unseen dark behind him, one of the voices laughed softly. "How long was that?" he asked his companion.
John heard footsteps echo against the walkway – a black shape towered against the strained edges of his vision but he could not, would not turn his head to look more clearly. "Fifty-three microts," the harder of the two voices shimmered from above. "I told you he was weakening. The gaps between his gestures of defiance have increased by nearly fifteen microts since we started."
John struggled desperately to rise, cranking his arms with all the energy he could muster so as not to remain floor-bound. But his body, it seemed, had suffered just about all that it could take – his arms gave up the ghost with no more than a creak and a throb, leaving him to slump exhausted to a golden floor that trickled with his own blood.
So this is it…. The thought flicked through his mind unbidden and sparked a dawning realisation. How many times have I thought that today? Three, four? He half-smiled ironically under his breath. It came to something when a person lost count of the number of times in a day he'd almost died.
"Oh, for frell's sake," Aeryn's now harsh voice slashed across his consciousness, tearing unpleasantly against his thoughts. "He isn't even putting up a fight, just flailing on the floor!"
A solid black boot slammed into his already screaming ribs. Crichton bit his lip until it bled as he collapsed back to the ground, trying desperately not to cry out as pain ricoched from muscle to bone in his chest. He was determined at least not to give them that satisfaction.
"Get up!" Aeryn roared at him, a wave of sound that rode on the back of yet another bone shattering blow to his torso. "Now!"
John coughed, his throat raw as he struggled to regain his breath.
"Get...stuffed!" he intoned with a gasp.
"I'd watch what you say, Crichton," Pilot's voice was dripping with mordant amusement from the pool of light flecked darkness to his right. "You might give her ideas."
"What is the matter with you, Human?" Aeryn's words slashed against his ears. "I always knew you were subnormal, but this…. We want to kill you, Crichton! Aren't you even going to fight back?"
John grimaced as he fought to retain his sanity above a rising tide of agony. He forced himself to remember that he had volunteered for this – that he had stepped into the mouth of Hell so as to give his companions a chance to snuff the pilot light whilst he tried to convert the devil. He hadn't really made much progress in trying to talk Aeryn down – most of the words that had passed his lips had been one form or another of exclamation.
Maybe it was time to try.
"I don't…want to hurt you," he gasped softly. "Either of you."
Aeryn snorted disdainfully, her eyes raking his body with a distinct lack of respect. "Like you could!"
Pilot's soft voice echoed from beyond her, his tone rich with darkness. "You don't wish to hurt us, Crichton?" he drawled coolly. "That isn't the impression you gave me earlier when you threatened to ram a broken wrench down my throat!"
John closed his eyes – his body was shaking, his mind was awhirl, every breath was a pain-racked struggle. But he had to stay focussed – and more importantly he had to stay alive. Time… it was all time….
"I was desperate," he whispered, his voice a raw rasp that staggered ungainly from his throat. "I had to stop you. I had to get you to listen…"
"To what?" John could sense the disdainful smile that must have been lingering across Pilot's face at that instant. "To your fascinating little fiction about the radiation? You must think I am a fool."
"It's no fiction." John's voice was no more than a glorified choke. "Surely you must be able to see how you've both changed! Aeryn, even a couple of arns ago, when you spoke to me over the comm…"
Abruptly his body was yanked into unwilling motion. A hand grasped his belt – with a jerk he felt himself being hauled unceremoniously upright. Fingers gripped his shoulder as though to draw blood– hard boots kicked his legs into place as a second hand caught his waist and spun him around on his heel.
To stare straight into the cold blue eyes of Aeryn Sun.
He had barely seen her. Until now his glimpses had been half-light and shadow play – flickering glimpses insufficient to truly assess. But now, with her ivory hewn features just inches from his, John found for the first time that he could clearly see what Aeryn had become.
She looked a wreck. There was no denying that. Her hair was a tangled web of darkness, twisted into strange unearthly curls by the dried blood that also coated the flesh of her face like a grotesque tattoo that contrasted sharply with the paleness of her skin. And she was pale, even more so than normal and there was a gaunt weariness around her eyes that gave her a shrunken, almost skeletal appearance. But there was no tiredness in her eyes themselves– they gleamed with fanatical zeal like a pair of hard, blue agates, giving nothing, taking all. It seemed almost to John that her eyes were the only part of her still truly alive – the rest of her body seemed to hang from them unwillingly like a walking cadaver held together only by the murderous strength in her eyes.
She looked like the dead possessed.
John couldn't speak. It hadn't been so noticeable with Pilot – the navigator had hidden himself well, not appearing in the clamshell and cloaking himself in the dark. But with Aeryn, with a face whose every contour was etched into his mind, whose every expression he could read without thinking, it was glaring. What the frell was this radiation doing to them both?
"Aeryn," he whispered.
A smile flickered across her face, a fleeting nasty twitch of feeling.
"John," she whispered back. "John, I'm alive. But I don't know how much longer that will last." Her eyes gleamed with unearthly cruelty as she watched realisation dawn across the human's features. The message in the corridor….
"Please, John," Aeryn's voice was a tone for tone match to the desperate words which had fired his heart just a few arns before – her expression was one of cruel mockery. "Just do as Pilot says."
John felt his stomach drop away. That message had been his hope, his drive – to be told now that it had meant nothing at all was painful. He met her playful, ice-cold gaze with an iciness of his own.
"So you played me," he drawled softly. "You played the gullible human. Congratulations."
"Oh, John," Aeryn shook her head slowly, a blur against the black stained background. "I do not understand you. All I'm doing is giving you what you've always wanted."
John stared at her incredulously. "What?"
Her iron grip on his shoulder eased abruptly – with a gentle coyness, Aeryn's fingers danced playfully across his shoulder and reached out to stroke the battered, sensitive skin of his face with tantalising slowness. Under other circumstances, John's heart would have been cheering at this sudden motion, but all that flickered through his core now was repulsion. This wasn't his Aeryn and it meant nothing. She was mocking his feelings and both of them knew it.
"I'm giving you an Aeryn without limits." Her face moved towards his, slowly, deadly, sultry, a wraithlike apparition of the woman he'd once known. Her breath seared his cheek like cold heat as her fingers weaved patterns against his temple. "An Aeryn not constrained by foolish discipline and denial of emotions. What I feel, I say. And what I say, I feel. I would have thought you'd have liked me better this way."
John's heart was pounding like thunder in his ears – adrenalin surged through his veins to spill new life into battered limbs. He forced himself to attempt some semblance of calmness, but with Aeryn's unyielding proximity, it was a little hard to focus.
"Thanks," he managed at last. "But I liked Aeryn better when she wasn't a sadistic killer."
A smile teased her cheekbones. "I've always been a sadistic killer, John. You simply chose not to see it."
He could feel her breath as it swelled her chest, so closely pressed were they. Her eyes glittered like sapphire stars. Her touch was a caress against the skin of his face, her breath a sultry poison. He could feel it brush his lips. She was so close…
"You're crazy," he said softly.
Pain shot through his face with agonising force as her fingers thrust themselves into his flesh – even as he squirmed in shock and pain, he felt himself being thrust backwards, propelled by the sharp force of her hands. He tumbled, staggering for some manner of control – he caught a half-glimpse of Aeryn, not laughing or angry as he might of expected, but breathing hard, her head bowed as a grimace that hinted of pain contorted her features. But John really did not have time to consider Aeryn's mood – he had far more urgent problems. Abruptly he ran out of walkway, his left foot flailing out over an alarming amount of nothing as his right foot scrabbled to hold him vertical. His arms windmilled desperately as his toes scraped on the edge of the abyss, his body convulsing and contorting like a drunken marionette. But it was no good – his balance had fled in the same direction as his dignity – and his toes lost their tenuous grip once and for all. He felt himself falling away, tumbling into the void below. To his own surprise, it came as quite a relief.
Out of nowhere, Aeryn's arm lashed out. Fingers still stained with his blood grasped his belt, preventing the blissful drop at the last instant. She hauled him back to the near vertical, his toes clinging once more to the golden edge, unable to find a safer haven. John breathed deeply, rather surprised and mildly disappointed to find he hadn't plunged to a sticky death and made a brief assessment of his new situation. It was hardly much more favourable. The black abyss still yawned alarmingly beneath him; he was nowhere near safe from its call. The peacekeeper might have saved him for the time being but he had no illusions about where gravity would take him if she were to let go. The only thing standing between him and oblivion was Aeryn.
Not the most reliable lifeline in the universe right now.
Or was it?
Because for just a microt, a brief instant so fleeting that it barely registered on his consciousness, a look of alarmed concern had settled on Aeryn's features. It vanished almost instantly, quashed out of sight by a hard-edged look of fierce determination that John knew all too well; but a quick glance told the human instantly that something had changed. The casual, confident brutality had been erased – the Aeryn that faced him now was strung, tense, the fingers that held his life in their grasp shaking almost imperceptibly. He glanced up to meet her gaze but her eyes swerved away from his as though repelled. She was no longer smiling.
"What the frell did you just do that for?" At the sound of Pilot's voice, Aeryn almost seemed to start. "Why didn't you just let him fall?"
That was a good question. John's eyes trained themselves decisively on Aeryn, examining the sudden friction that vibrated across her features as he waited for an answer.
A cool smile forced its way onto Aeryn's face but it gleamed with falseness and effort - gone was the casual cruelness of just a few microts before.
"Well," she exclaimed softly. "It wouldn't be right to cast him away without a proper goodbye, would it?"
Pilot snorted and rolled his eyes. "I would not have a problem with that."
"Well I do," There was a breathy quality to Aeryn's voice, a hushed seductiveness that did not quite seem to sit right with her demeanour. "Where's the fun in an accident?"
Pilot's golden eyes gleamed unpleasantly in the darkness. His light taunted features were taut with irritation. "Infinitely more than watching you drool over that human," he declared harshly. "Just do as you will with him and have done with it. I wish to start plans for the others. Unless of course, you would rather reconsider our arrangement."
Pilot was losing patience. John didn't miss the brief flicker of concern that flitted almost unnoticed across Aeryn's face – her skin, already ivory, paled further in the half-light. Despite Aeryn's claims of equality with Pilot, it was pretty obvious to John at least who was in charge.
But Aeryn's moment of alarm had passed – her expression rose into a fierce smile.
"Very well," she said coolly. "It seems, human, that your end has come at last."
With a single fluid, sinuous motion forwards, Aeryn filled his world. Her odour, a bloody musk, filled his senses with a cocktail of revulsion and allure. He could feel the press of her chest against his heart, the soft, sensuous caress of her free hand as it slid around his waist, lingering for a moment against the small of his back, before trickling it's way on down….
But instead of warm fingers, John felt something cold and hard press against his skin. He almost started but the fierce gleam of Aeryn's gaze stayed him just in time – he suppressed his surprise with a gulp. A microt later a second something joined the first, still cold but larger, flatter, more angular, forced behind his belt and tucked firmly into place. Her finger explored its edge for an instant, before coming to rest upon a sharp outcrop of the smooth surface. There was a jerk and then abruptly a strange sensation spread across Crichton's back and the rear of his legs, a gentle, disconcerting shudder.
The whatever was vibrating.
What the frell?
Aeryn's hand withdrew. A brief satisfaction stained her expression.
"Crichton," she intoned, her voice pointed and precise. Her eyes flickered rapidly in Pilot's direction but the navigator it seemed, had lost interest in her antics and was barely paying attention.
"The time has come," Aeryn's voice was a soft, deliberate declaration. "For you to follow the path of Dominar Rygel."
And then she met his eyes and every thought and feeling, every horror and hope in John's Crichton's mind stopped absolutely dead.
It was Aeryn whose gaze now bored into his soul.
John opened his mouth to speak.
He felt his toes part company with the walkway, his final hold on the land of the living ripped away by one simple motion on the part of Aeryn Sun. For just a microt, all around came to a standstill; he froze, half fallen in mid air to gaze upon the sharp outline of her face against a backdrop of indistinct nothing. Her eyes filled his heart.
And then reality resumed and she was gone.
He was falling.
And this time no hand reached out to catch him.
The world was a blur, spinning pulsing, indistinct, a rotating tangle of black, silver and gold. Air rushed past his skin, a maelstrom rising – he was tumbling, writhing, hurtling through the air like a skydiver gone haywire, his whole body coursing and vibrating to the strange rhythm spun out from the small of his back. Ridiculous thoughts flitted through his mind – it was a bomb, a booby trap designed to go off as he fell so that his remains would be splattered to best effect like some gruesome Fourth of July. Aeryn had rigged him as the first ever human firework.
His senses were a blur – screaming air whipped against his ears, his eyes ran with cascades of water as colours flitted through his vision indistinctly. He could taste bitter blood against his tongue, feel the whiplash touch of resistance against his skin. He could smell his fear.
And still he fell. Did this frelling chamber ever end? Was he going to tumble in a coloured blur for the rest of eternity?
He closed his eyes.
And the world stopped.
John paused, waiting for his mind to catch up with his sudden lack of sensation. The rush of air, the tingle, the burn against his senses –all had ceased abruptly. There was nothing, nothing but the blackness against his eyelids, nothing but the aching pulse of his worn body as it hung, frozen in a horizontal spread eagle, his limbs dangling behind him as they reached out towards the ground. Nothing but a low, invasive and strangely familiar hum that matched exactly the frequency of vibrations from Aeryn's deftly provided something.
Was that it? Had he hit bottom and somehow transfused into the next world pretty much as he'd left this one? This wasn't quite how he pictured dying after a several hundred foot fall – surely it should have hurt for a start. Perhaps he had landed on a walkway – he had had several near misses on his passage downwards -but again, wouldn't pain have been a factor? Besides he could feel no firmness beneath him – if he hadn't have known it was impossible, he would have concluded that he was lying motionless on his back in midair.
John opened his eyes and realised he was wrong.
He was lying on his back in midair. But he wasn't motionless.
He was rising.
Granted, it was slow and slightly on the jerky side – the juddery hum that had earlier caught his ear was whining uncertainly, the vibrations shuddering out of tempo as though to complain that they were not accustomed to bearing this kind of weight. But at that particular instant John was not about to complain. He didn't know quite what was happening but he did know this – he was a great deal more alive than he'd expected and that was not a gift to question.
Above and a little to the left, a walkway was bearing down on his ascent. Shaking himself into some kind of composure, John quickly twisted his reluctant body, swimming against a tide of empty air as he flipped himself over, flinging out a hand to catch the golden lifeline as it passed. His fingers grasped the grainy surface – determinedly his trousers continued to rise, taking his lower body with them but John acted quickly, groping back with his free hand until his fingers seized upon the smooth metallic object that Aeryn had slipped him. He found the small protrusion almost at once, a small, switch like device, but using an unknown switch in an unknown device was not necessarily the safest of plans. But his fingertips were straining to maintain their hold on the walkway – his trousers were on the verge of continuing without him. This was no time to be cautious.
He flicked it.
With an abrupt thump, John slumped headfirst onto the walkway, his chin colliding with solidness with unpleasant amounts of force. For several microts, he barely even bothered to breathe, struggling to come to terms with the fact that, instead of being splattered over a fairly decent radius of floor space, he was in fact lying safe, if a little bruised and sore around the chin, after taking a rather unexpected turn as a human elevator.
What the frell was going on today?
"Feel better now?"
John started furiously, his body leaping to half upright fuelled by pure adrenalin as his head whipped around in search of the owner of that voice. But there was no black and white figure gazing down at him, no hard blue eyes fixed upon him with disdain. There was nothing but the ghost of darkness and the pale rising gold of the neural nexus towering to his left to spill out another walkway a few dozen yards above. A shadowy shape swept across it's length, her voice echoing as it spoke, not to him, but to the being ingrained into the vessel not very far above him. With a hollow rush, John realised where he was, where this walkway led.
It was the access to Pilot's lower chamber.
"Much," Above, Pilot's voice echoed with a nasty, sadistic glee. "But couldn't you have killed him and then thrown him over the walkway? I find it much more enjoyable when I actually get to watch the life drain away from their eyes."
"True," Aeryn, it seemed had returned to her old position at Pilot's side, judging by the striation of echoes that shimmered from her lips. "But then we would have missed that wonderful look of horror on his face when I pushed him."
Pilot's laugh was low, cold, cruel. "That was worth watching, I'll admit. But Crichton is gone now, and the universe will not miss him. It is time to turn our attention to the others."
A cold chill seized John's heart. Time was up. With his apparent demise, nothing stood between Pilot and the fates of his shipmates. And yet here he was, scant yards from Pilot's exposed underbelly and nobody knew he was there. It was a God given opportunity if he could only find some way to use it.
He started to half-rise but something dug sharply into the small of his back, reminding him abruptly of his unknown saviour. He reached back at once, fingers closing on the flat, metallic object as he drew it from behind his belt and lifted it into the half-light.
His eyes widened.
Of course the hum had been familiar – he had heard it every day for the last cycle and a half. A disbelieving smile flickered across his worn features as he twisted the anti-gravity unit from Rygel's thronesled over in his hands. It had been removed hastily from it's casing, judging by the scarring of tool marks around it's rim, but it's function had not been damaged – at least not so much as to prevent it breaking the fall of a rapidly plummeting human.
But the unit had not been the only thing he had been given. A second cool jab against his back reminded him all at once – Aeryn had slipped two items into his belt. His hand swung back at once, yanking the second device to freedom and hauling it before his eyes.
His jaw dropped. His heart soared.
This was it.
It was Rygel's serum injector.
Follow the path of Dominar Rygel…
Aeryn was faking?
John could hardly breathe, hardly think as a thousand conflicting thoughts, feeling, sensations, emotions, danced before his eyes. That was the answer, it had to be – why else would she have provided him with both the opportunity to reach Pilot and the means to stop him? But all the taunting, the sadism, the cruelty she had portrayed – surely she would not have been so harsh – not least to poor Rygel – if she was in her right mind. But yet she had saved his life and potentially everyone else's as well. Why would she do that if she were the monster she had seemed? It made no sense.
But now was not the time to ponder it. There would be chance enough later to find out Aeryn's state of mind; right now, it was Pilot who needed to be stopped and John with an unrivalled chance to do the stopping.
He paused, his ears straining to hear the low conversation going on above him, to be sure his target was occupied before he plunged into the deep end.
"…Never thought of using it that way." It was Pilot, his cool, clear voice delighted as he laughed softly in response to whatever suggestion had just been made. "You really are very ingenious."
"I have more." Aeryn's voice echoed through the chamber like an icy wraith. "If I could just show you…"
Through the dark, high above, John caught a fleeting glimpse of Aeryn pulling herself up onto the flashing welter of lights that surrounded Pilot and leaning down intently over a panel. Even as he squinted, trying to catch a better view, he saw her foot snake backwards and press down firmly against a panel just out of Pilot's view. Whatever she was doing, she obviously didn't want the navigator knowing about it.
Grinning to himself, John turned and headed quickly over to the neural nexus.
Time to party.
It was the work of microts to scramble up the slender ladder that linked the walkway level to Pilot's lower chamber. He approached the cusp of the circular doorway warily – it would be foolhardy to assume that Pilot had not maintained some kind of guard. Most of the DRDs had been dispatched from the chamber a little while before, most probably to prepare the way for hunting down the others, but there was no guarantee that some had not been banished here.
Gripping the rung just beneath the entry with both hands, John slowly raised his head above the lip, his eyes sweeping the chamber with rapid efficiency. A glimpse of yellow caught his eye – he dropped back at once – but after a moment, his brain caught up with his instincts and processed what he had just seen more accurately. Still wary, he raised his head gently once more but this time held position, allowing a thorough sweep of the chamber. His eyes fixed at once on the three yellow guardians scattered across the darkened room, one resting high in an alcove to his right, one just a few yards in front of his face and a third, positioned beside the white, tangled mass of Pilot's tendrils. Just beside it, Rygel's thronesled lay upside down on the golden floor, it's underside pulled apart to provide him with the component that had saved his life.
But of more interest to John were the DRDs – principally the fact that they didn't appear to be moving.
In fact they didn't seem to be doing much of anything at all, their little gun barrels slumped against the ground, their eyestalks dark and drooping. For a moment, John hesitated, painful memories of Pilot's cruel trickery playing through his mind, but then a new image surged through his mind, a shadowed half-impression of the leg of Aeryn Sun, reaching backwards across the console.
She had shut down the DRDs.
The way was clear.
It was hard to believe after so much pain and so much suffering that it could possibly be this easy. Indeed, although John's mind was opening exulting at this stroke of good fortune, his body, still feeling the principal effects of his earlier efforts to bring this to an end, all but shut down in disbelief. It took all the effort he possessed to force himself to climb those last few rungs of ladder, to clamber into the shadowed chamber and stumble the three steps that took him within touching distance of Pilot's lower body. He stared at it almost blindly, the ridged contours, the dark maw that spilled the bright white tendrils down into the bowels of the ship, the tiny, wasted legs that twitched and spasmed more out of a sense of duty than any real need to move. His eyes ran over the glittering form of the glass injector, Zhaan's serum vibrating fluidly in his shivering hand. One motion. One move. One click and it would all be over.
A sudden elation filled him, a sharp reckless exuberance. Overhead he could hear voices, Pilot plotting his crew's demise with the woman who had tricked him, completely unaware that a man he thought dead was about to bring it all crashing down.
It was a good feeling.
"Hey Pilot!" he roared suddenly. "Guess who's not that easy to kill?"
Above him, he heard Pilot gasp. He felt himself smile.
With one swift motion, he plunged the injector into the base of Pilot's tendrils and squeezed the serum home.
Pilot's scream of rage echoed through the chamber like a maelstrom of sound.
"CRICHTON!!!" he gasped furiously. "Crichton, you're… how could you…"
His ineffectual legs swiped at the human but John had already back-peddled out of the way, an avenging grin plastered across his face.
"Poor Pilot!" he bellowed gleefully "How gullible are you?"
"What?" Pilot ripped out the word with the force of rage. "What are you talking about?" His voice struggled to expel the words against the sudden incursion of sleep potion. His lower body was already wracked with convulsions and John was fairly certain by the jerkiness of the navigator's voice that the effect must have spread all the way to the top.
John didn't stop to think – he was too caught up in the triumph, the glory of the moment, the final victory after so many defeats.
"Aeryn played you, Pilot!" he yelled at the tops of his lungs, fighting a powerful urge to burst out laughing. "She sucked you in and spat you out! So much for your glorious revolution!"
"Aeryn?" Pilot carved the word out of the air with a blunt blade. "Is that true?"
"No! No, he's lying to you, I would never…"
There was real fear in Aeryn's tone and her voice was originating from an alarming proximity to Pilot. John's adrenalin level dropped like a stone as he realised he had just made a serious error in revealing Aeryn's betrayal – Pilot sounded in the mood for rapid reprisal and Aeryn, for whatever reason, was still within his range. His eyes glanced back towards the ladder well but he knew almost at once that if he took the long way around, he would never reach them in time. He grasped hold of the anti-gravity unit, flicking the switch as he flung himself towards the hatch. Wrapping in his arms like a buoyancy aid, he stared out into infinity.
Aeryn's scream pierced the darkness like a knife, squeezing to a gasping choke as Pilot's claw closed mercilessly around her throat. John's eyes fixed with horror upon the scene before him as he ascended rapidly to walkway level.
Aeryn was half-kneeling on the console, her hands scrambling desperately at her throat as Pilot's claw seized it in a vice-like grip. There was no self-restraint here, for this was not the righteous anger of a quarter cycle ago but genuine malicious murder. The navigator's pincer claw was squeezing mercilessly and it was only Aeryn's reflex grab that had prevented the instant crushing of her windpipe.
Abandoning his ride, John grabbed the edge of the walkway and hauled himself up, hurtling from dead halt to flat out run with the force and speed of a thunderclap. He leapt onto the console at a flying bound, slamming into Pilot's arm with all the force he could muster in a desperate effort to knock it away from the peacekeeper's throat, but Pilot was not to be thwarted from this death at least – a free arm grasped Crichton harshly by the hair and flung him backwards towards the abyss. Even as John hurtled back through the air, a chance caught the corner of his eye – snatching out his arm, his fingers fixed around the still ascending form of the anti-gravity unit. For a terrifying instant he swung out over oblivion once more, his momentum carrying him almost beyond his emergency life buoy. But his screaming fingertips held – he reversed on the back-swing, curving round in a graceful arc through the shadowed air and with a wild yell, he hurled himself back at Pilot.
It was obvious at once that the navigator had not been expecting an assault from the air – his expression gaped in disbelief as he caught a last minute glimpse of the leaping human bearing down from above, his eyes gleaming, his smile maniacally wild. Then Crichton was on top of him, sprawling across his carapace in a jarring impact that jerked the navigator backwards. His grip on Aeryn lessened for a crucial microt – with a cry, the Sebacean yanked herself free and tumbled backwards, rolling head over heels onto the walkway to slump in a shuddering heap against the golden surface. Furious, Pilot tried to grab John for more of the same; but it was immediately obvious that the odds were shifting in the human's favour. John easily slapped away the drug-weakened assault, pushing himself free as he scrambled away from the console and dropped, breathing hard, at Aeryn's side.
"Sweet dreams!" he called out, his smile all but bursting from his cheeks as he faced the incandescent navigator. "All this stress you've been under – I think the rest will do you good!"
"You can't keep me unconscious forever!" Pilot's voice slashed at the two foes huddled on the walkway just beyond his reach. His hunched body writhed like a flame-bitten snake in the shadowy flicker of the lights of his console, his golden eyes gleaming with avenging fire. "Not if you want to breath, and eat and survive aboard my ship! You'll have to bring me round sometime and when you do…" His voice broke off with a gasp, his weakened body sagging as he fought against the sleepiness that was dragging at his limbs.
"I…" he rasped out harshly. "Will make… you…. pay…."
The last word drawled out like a dying gasp as Pilot's strength finally failed him. His head slumped forward, his golden eyes, extinguished finally of the fire, slipping closed beneath the heavy weight of his carapace. His limbs sagged, and drooped, slumping motionless against the pulse of his console. A last gasp escaped his lips, a single angry expulsion of breath before he tumbled deep into silence.
Stillness fell. For a microt there was no sound, no motion, as the magnitude of what had happened finally sunk in. Then a slow, dawning smile spread across John's face and fighting an exuberant urge to jump up and down like a six-year-old, he turned towards the slumped form of the Sebacean beside him, reaching a hand towards her shoulder.
"Damn, you're good!" he exclaimed. "You had me completely…"
Her hand whipped back, slashing his touch away as her body shuddered frantically. John's eyes widened in horror as he realised for the first time that Aeryn's distress was not simply an aftermath of Pilot's assault – she was gasping for breath, her body pulsating, shaking, shivering as though trapped in vibrant seizure. Her fingers scrapped the floor until they bled.
"Aeryn!" John darted to her side, reaching for her face but her head whipped up before he could touch her, her eyes fixing upon him. John felt his stomach drop as he stared into her storm-tossed gaze, her eyes a mad tempest of sanity and bloodlust, self and fever as a battle roared within her between insanity and control.
"Inject me!" she cried, her voice a desperate screech. "Inject me now before it comes back! I can't hold out much longer!"
John stared mindlessly at the serum injector still gripped within one palm, but the glass container had been drained dry by its use on Pilot.
"Aeryn, I… I can't! I don't have any more!" His voice broke as he stared down in helpless horror, his heart pounding in his ears, his frustration welling within him like flash flood against a dam. He had to help her! "Aeryn!" he exclaimed desperately.
Abruptly she wheeled on him, her pulse pistol gripped in her hands – John staggered back in sudden shock but the pulse blast he'd expected did not come; instead the peacekeeper grasped his hand and thrust the gun into his fist.
"Take this!" she gasped at him, her face contorted by wave after wave of agony. "If I turn again, shoot me! It's the only way!"
That was not an argument John was prepared to accept. "Wow, now wait a second! I am not going to shoot…"
"Do it!" Aeryn's voice slashed his argument apart like a knife. "I am not going back to being like that! Do you hear me? Shoot!"
John jumped violently as the door behind him slammed forcefully open; D'Argo's bellowed war cry half-shattered the air before trailing to abrupt silence as he paused, kicking aside several lifeless DRDs as he beheld the scene before him. Chiana hurtled abruptly into his back, her trilling call breaking off as she peered over her lover's shoulder, her dark eyes wide and shocked. Behind them, Kir was a sickly glow of confusion, bathing the azure form of Zhaan in his now pale glow. The glassy silver of an injector glistened in her hand.
John's eyes fixed on it instantly. "Zhaan!" he bellowed. "Get over here!"
But the Delvian did not need telling. Her feet were already skimming rapidly over the golden floor as she hurried to John's side, dropping quickly into a crouch behind the huddled, convulsing form of the Sebacean. Her eyes lingered for a microt on John, his skin a riddle pattern of blood and bruises, on Pilot, his darkened form strangely serene in repose, before they fixed at last upon the pale, gaunt form of Aeryn Sun. Her arm arched down – the injector plunged into the bare skin of the peacekeeper's arm with a hiss. Aeryn's face whipped up, taking in the new situation at a glance and the brief edge of a smile flickered across her face.
"Thank you," she whispered softly.
And then her eyes slipped closed and she slumped into unconsciousness.
Slowly, softly a blanket of silence settled over the den, across the statuesque forms of the five companions, across the motionless forms of Pilot and Aeryn as a strange invisible light cut a gentle swath through the darkness. It seemed to lift the heavy weight, the pall of atmosphere that had lingered shroud-like over them all, casting away the throbbing pain and exhaustion in favour of light-headed, bright relief. They all sensed it, all felt it and one by one it caused them all to smile.
For the first time in several solar days, peace had fallen over Moya.
"So how are you feeling?"
Aeryn's eyes slipped upwards from their blank contemplation of the plate of food cubes that Zhaan had placed before her half an arn before to focus unwillingly on the gently smiling human silhouetted in the archway of the chamber entrance. She smiled back, albeit wanly as he crossed the room, a slight gingery quality to his walk implying that he could still feel the impact of their fight five days before, and settled opposite her at the centre chamber table. Quietly, he placed down the cup he was holding and, extending a finger, he pushed it slowly across the surface towards her.
"Your medicine, fresh from Zhaan," John nodded to the unappetising green fluid that had settled sluggishly in the offered container. "And you never answered my question. How are you, Aeryn?"
Aeryn pulled a face as she examined the potion with an expression of mild disgust.
"You mean apart from the pounding head pain and the nausea?" she snapped sharply.
John's smile was tolerant. "Still haven't shaken the irritable hangover then?"
Aeryn glared at him. "Ten out of ten for observation, Crichton."
The human shrugged at the sarcastic retort, a reaction that for strong irrational reasons only served to annoy Aeryn all the more. "Couldn't you at least pretend to be cheerful?" he exclaimed. "Come on – give me a smile, babe. You know you want to!"
The expression that filled the peacekeeper's face was the most sarcastic attempt at a smile that John had ever witnessed. "I don't want to," she retorted dryly. "Because I'm saving them for when you're dead."
John regarded her steadily as he placed a hand against his chest. "You wound me," he declared.
Aeryn sniffed. "I wish."
John rolled his eyes. "Oh for frell's sake Aeryn, will you give me a break?"
"Certainly, Crichton." Aeryn's eyes slipped across the human's body with predatory ease. "Arm, leg or neck?"
John sighed. "Just drink your medicine, will you?"
It was Aeryn's turn to roll her eyes. "It tastes like dren!"
"And it looks worse, but you'll feel better for it." John's expression was serious. "And maybe it make you quit with the verbal maulings. I'm battered enough as it is."
Aeryn gave an irritable huff and picked up the cup. For a microt John thought that she intended to hurl it away – several of Zhaan's earlier doses were still decorating the walls of Aeryn's quarters - but instead, with a grimace, she swung the cup to her lips and swallowed the liquid whole. Her face contorted as it traversed her tongue, but a microt later she shook her head and dropped the cup back to the table. Gazing down, she sighed.
After a fair amount of silence, John risked a smile. "Feeling better?" he ventured.
Aeryn's eyes flickered towards him. "A little – I suppose," she offered reluctantly. "I'm sorry, John. I just can't help it."
"I know," John nodded kindly. "Zhaan said you'd be like this for a couple of days. That radiation can't be leeched out of your system overnight. But if you just keep taking your medicine, you'll be fine soon enough." He smiled. "You know, Zhaan's learned a lesson from the medicine showers you gave her when you first came to. She's started injecting Pilot whilst he's still unconsciousness. Hopefully by the time he comes round he'll be as sweet and good-natured as you."
A frown creased Aeryn's pale brow. "How is Pilot?"
John sighed. "Still out cold. But he's breathing more easily and most of his colour's come back. Zhaan's lowered the dose of sedative. She reckons he may wake up any arn now. She's staying with him and she'll let us know if anything changes."
He shrugged. "It's a good thing too – Moya's getting more active by the arn now that those damn spheres have gone. If Kir hadn't known the basic life support functions from watching Kaalene's Pilot, we'd have been screwed. And now he's gone, we just have to hope Pilot won't be out for much longer."
Aeryn glanced up from destroying a food cube with her fingers. "Kir got away all right then?"
"Yep," John leaned forward, poaching a cube from Aeryn's plate and biting into it thoughtfully. "D'Argo shanghaied Chiana and Rygel into loading every last sphere onto a transport pod this morning, straight after Kir finished powering them down. He's well on his way back to Kaalene and looking forward to a good tentrite meal. And now he has a pod he doesn't even have to stay there." Aeryn glanced at him quizzically and he shrugged. "He decided not to take Zhaan up on her offer to stick around; he didn't reckon much to our dietary arrangements. But we said he could keep the pod – least we could do really. He was really pleased – he's going to go looking for another radiavore colony once he finishes up with Kaalene."
For an instant, a grim expression flickered across John's features. "We gave him some of Zhaan's jelifan fire paste. He promised to make sure this never happens again."
Aeryn nodded slowly. "Good." An expression of brief disquiet stained her features. "How is Rygel?" she asked quietly.
John grinned broadly. "Sparky? Oh, he's back to his old obnoxious self, and he's gloating outrageously because he said it was Pilot all along. You know what they say – they can't break you if you don't have a spine!" He paused, his grin fading slightly as he read the expression on Aeryn's face. "You know, you could ask him yourself."
Aeryn shook her head. "He's been avoiding me. And I don't blame him."
There was a long, hard silence, a kind of imposing quiet that sucks the air out of the eardrums and any cheer from the heart. Aeryn's gaze drilled relentlessly into her plate as she fingered her food ruthlessly: John's eyes never left the Sebacean's face. The atmosphere vibrated awkwardly.
It was John who broke the silence with the words that were lingering on both of their minds. "I know you don't want to talk about this," he began softly.
"Then don't." Aeryn's interruption was sharp as a dagger to the heart but John ignored it pointedly.
"But I have to know," he finished the sentence with quiet force. "How much of what happened down there were you in control of? How much was you and how much the radiation? Because I'm still having trouble sorting out what was real."
There was an inference behind his words that shimmered heavily beneath the question but Aeryn carefully ignored it. Her eyes never strayed from her plate. Her lips remained a firm tight line. John sighed.
"Come on, Aeryn." His voice was a low, intense attack. "I just want to understand what happened to you. If you were faking Pilot out, then why did you stop me when I had Pilot at my mercy? Why did you attack Rygel before he could inject the serum? And if you weren't, why the frell did you help me?"
A soft sigh escaped Aeryn's lips like a hiss. "I'm not sure I can answer that," she murmured at last. "In many ways, I'm not sure myself."
John leaned forward. His eyes were a determined plea. "Try. Please. "
Aeryn rubbed her fingers against the bridge of her nose as she fought to clarify her memories.
"I don't remember very much about what happened," she responded at last. "A lot of it is a blur. I remember going to visit Pilot and I remember his attack. I remember coming around afterwards and arguing with him. But a lot of what happened afterwards is hazy. I remember it but it was like staring through mist from behind my own eyes. What I remember most clearly are feelings." She shivered. "Which was the part I would most like to forget." She looked up and met John's gaze, her blue eyes intense. "I did want you dead," she stated softly. "All of you. It was the strongest desire I have ever faced. But somehow – a part of me still knew that what I was doing was wrong. There was a little sane corner fighting to get out and every so often, it did. At crucial moments, it would force itself out and influence events. I knocked Rygel out instead of killing him and took his serum and the anti-gravity unit. I saved you from the first fall and made sure you'd survive the next. I even gave you the means to stop Pilot. But I didn't remember afterwards that I'd done it. And now, it's all switched round – I remember the sane moments clearly and block out the madness."
Her hand, still gripping a food cube, began to shake. "It was a battle – staying sane for long enough to make a difference. I would have injected Pilot myself if I could have only held on a microt longer. But I couldn't. The desire to kill was too powerful to be held away for long. The only thing that made me strong enough to fight back was my desire not to."
She glanced back down, a pale, rueful smile flickering across her features. "Ironically, it's probably a good thing it happened that way. If I hadn't disarmed you, you would dead by now and probably the others too. Pilot was never at your mercy – there were a hundred DRDs that would have wiped you out in a microt if he'd really believed you would harm him. If he had seen you as an immediate threat, he would have obliterated you instantly instead of playing with you first. I was as much protecting you as him. Besides, I wanted Pilot cured not dead." She sighed. "The same applies to Rygel. Pilot was no fool, John – he knew what you'd do and who you'd send. He would have killed Rygel on the spot if I hadn't been guarding his lower chamber to prove my loyalty."
John watched her thoughtfully. "But what about on the walkway? Couldn't you have told me what you were doing instead of letting me think I was about to die?"
Aeryn regarded him. "Do you have any idea how good Pilot's hearing is?" she retorted. "He would have heard me – and then we'd both have been dead."
"John, are you there?" Zhaan's disembodied voice caused a violent start to both peacekeeper and human. Pulling a face, John reached for his comm.
"Yeah, Zhaan, what's up?" he asked.
Zhaan's voice was soft but it contained an element of anxiousness well hidden in its folds. "Please fetch Aeryn and come to the den," she said brusquely. "Pilot is conscious."
Aeryn's expression froze. The food cube she was holding snapped in half like a gunshot.
John's eyes never left the Sebacean's face. "Thanks Zhaan," he replied. "We'll be right down."
It took no more than a few hundred microts to traverse the golden ribbed passages of Moya's interior to reach the towering vastness of Pilot's chamber. Neither John nor Aeryn had entered this room since their experience five days before and despite themselves, both displayed a distinct trepidation as they beheld the gleaming golden door that concealed the arena their earlier battles. John's hand rubbed almost unconsciously against his bruised limbs – Aeryn's fingers slipped up to stroke the dark red scar hidden just beneath her hairline. But after a brief, mutual glance, John took a sharp breath and flicked a finger against the door release.
The chamber opened out before them, a shadowed vault the size of a vertical cathedral, but somehow it did not seem so dark or threatening as before, reverting to it's more familiar impression of simply being big. At it's centre, dwarfed despite having considerable bulk himself, Pilot rested, his limbs laid out weakly against his panels, his eyelids flickering, his carapace drooping forward slightly as though his neck was having difficulty taking the strain. His usually vibrant purple colouring was dulled to a greyish tinge, his amber eyes a pale reflection of themselves. He looked unnaturally weary and seemed to be fighting a fairly futile battle to keep himself awake.
And he was not alone. To one side of the walkway, D'Argo lurked imposingly, his Qualta blade, in its rifle form, resting with deceptive casualness against his shoulder. Beyond the Luxan, Zhaan was kneeling on Pilot's console, bending over the navigator with apparent concern, her azure face displaying a mild but affectionate irritability as she reached out to swat the nearest outstretched limb.
"I told you to leave that!" she exclaimed firmly. "Moya can look after herself for a couple more arns. Concentrate on yourself. I'm sure she can manage without you for the time being."
"But…" Pilot's protest came out with difficulty, his voice rich with strain but very much back to normal. "All her systems… I've neglected her, I have to…"
"No!" Zhaan's stare could have welded rock. "What use do you think you are to Moya is this condition? You need to rest a few arns. You'll do her far more good recovered than you ever will in this state and you won't recover until you rest!"
For a microt, it seemed that Pilot intended to continue his protest. But then with a sigh, he slumped back against his console and gave up.
"I am a little tired," he conceded. "Though I don't see why I should be. It isn't as though I've been doing anything."
Zhaan glanced up – her eyes fixed on the two new arrivals, both of whom were regarding Pilot with a combination of relief that he was so clearly back to how he should be and confusion at his last statement. She quickly shifted her gaze back to her patient. "I told you," she stated and there was a decisiveness to her tone that seemed to be aimed more at the new arrivals than at Pilot. "Radiation sickness can be very draining and you and Moya suffered a nasty dose. It's hardly surprising that you should feel weary."
She patted him gently on the shoulder and shifted her gaze away, fixing it more permanently on John and Aeryn.
"John, Aeryn," she declared, her eyes a stab of deliberateness, her voice pointed and precise. "Pilot has lost his memory."
Her gaze tightened as both the human and the Sebacean fought down flickers of surprise. "His last clear memory is leaving orbit of Kaalene's moon. He has some vague recollections of a few conversations and a meeting in his chamber but he can't remember any details. I've explained what happened though – that the radiation from the spheres Chiana and Rygel brought aboard poisoned his and Moya's systems and that he collapsed whilst trying to repair too many system fluxes. But the spheres have been removed now and we've flushed out the radiation. Provided he rests, he should be himself again in a matter of days."
From the look on Zhaan's face, it became immediately clear that anyone who did not stick to her lie and let slip the truth to Pilot would wish they had died when they had had the chance. John felt a strange shiver of relief pass through his body. He'd been dreading this for days – what to say to Pilot, how Pilot would feel about what he had done, the awkwardness, the guilt on both sides, and the inevitable impact it would have had on their relationship with the navigator. But now, with one convenient lapse of Pilot's memory, it had all been avoided. He felt as though a weight had lifted – he had to restrain himself from cheering out loud. If Pilot's memory block held, it meant it was finally, completely, and irrevocably over. They could put the whole messy business behind them and have done with it.
He stepped forward, smiling at the navigator who regarded his euphoric expression with mild confusion.
"Commander?" he inquired. "Are you feeling all right?"
"Just glad to see you back to yourself again," Sincerity shimmered through every syllable of John's words. "We were all very worried about you, you know. For a while, I really thought we'd lost you."
An odd little expression flickered across Pilot's face. "So did I," he murmured, the words all but inaudible, a hush beneath his breath. He smiled with tired sincerity. "But I'm all right now."
For a just a microt, John wondered. His eyes scrutinised the navigator's features – beside him he could sense Aeryn doing exactly the same. But Pilot, it seemed, was done with giving anything away; his gaze flicked back to his panels, much to Zhaan's irritation.
John gave an internal shrug. Well. It didn't really matter anyway. What Pilot chose to say he remembered was up to him. As long as he wasn't planning on a relapse, he could respond to the events of the last few days however he wanted to. And it was certainly easier this way.
Zhaan was speaking and her tone implied that her words were meant for general consumption – John placed his suspicions firmly to one side and listened.
"All the same, Pilot, I believe we should take precautions." The Delvian was glancing from face to face. "For the next few days, we will take it in turns to keep you company – just until you feel less tired. It's better to be safe than sorry."
John read through the priestess's concerned gesture at once – she was taking no chances on a recurrence until the spheres were well and truly out of the area and the radiation out of Moya's system.
"I will stay for now," Zhaan was already sorting through the pile of herbs and vials she had heaped on Pilot's flashing controls. "You may all leave if you wish."
D'Argo nodded gratefully and swinging his Qualta blade, he strode from the room, muttering something about checking on Chiana. John glanced at Aeryn, who was a silent statue at his side. She had not spoken once since they had entered the chamber, her eyes never straying from Pilot and his console. John caught her gaze as it shifted briefly to the bulkhead, it's earlier bloodstains wiped away thoughtfully by Zhaan; a shiver passed down her body, as her hand twitched towards her skull. John, catching the gesture, frowned in concern.
"Come on, Aeryn," he muttered softly. "You never finished your meal."
She glanced at him, gratitude flashing briefly across her eyes as he laid a hand on her arm and led her towards the exit.
Pilot's guilty eyes watched her go.
The next three days on Moya passed with blissful uneventfulness. As wounds healed and memories faded, one by one the crew slipped back into their old routines and attitudes as hellish days were slotted away and replaced by cosy inaction. Watches were taken on command, meals consumed in the centre chamber, repairs performed, hobbies indulged. Nobody spoke of their ordeals – Zhaan had made it very clear that, with the navigator's apparent short-term amnesia, the subject of Pilot's radiation induced behaviour was a permanent taboo – and the only thing to remind them that last dozen days had been anything out of the ordinary was the casual watch being maintained in Pilot's chamber. After several such watches, John's private suspicion that Pilot knew the real reason for the surveillance hardened into almost certainty – but since the navigator's behaviour made it abundantly clear he wanted the events of those awful few days forgotten as much as everyone else did, John allowed him his denial and kept his thoughts to himself.
Only one member of the crew had not taken a turn at keeping the navigator company. Aeryn had not volunteered and no one, excluding Rygel's grumbling about the peacekeeper not doing her bit, had suggested she should. The memory of their terrible pairing was still fresh in the minds of all – it was the unspoken opinion of everyone on board that it would be best to keep them apart for the time being, as much to avoid the distress it would cause for them as to reduce the risk of recurrence. But once her irritability had faded, Aeryn had slipped into a state of almost abnormal quiet – she wandered the corridors of Moya in times of both sleep and wakefulness, a pale, dark ghost with shallow gaze and haunted eyes, fending away the concerned attempts of her shipmates to console with her. When questioned, she would simply claim that her headache was still troubling her and preventing her from rest, but yet she refused Zhaan's offer of a herbal sedative in favour of maintaining her vigil. She seemed almost trapped, tangled in the web of her own mind, unable to escape the events of eight days before but yet hurling back every lifeline she was offered. She needed an outlet, that much was clear, someone to whom she could clear the burden of her mind and start to get back to normal. But she would not speak to her crewmates but in passing and spent vast quantities of her time gazing with lost eyes into nothing.
Her friends watched her and worried.
It was John who suggested it was time that Aeryn take a watch in Pilot's chamber. He offered the suggestion diffidently over a meal, his eyes drifting knowingly towards Zhaan as the words broke free; the Delvian had already approved his plan. Pilot had expressed his concern about the Sebacean to both on several occasions, having witnessed her meanderings via his now placid network of DRDs, and although he had skilfully managed to avoid any reference to events of which he was not supposed to be aware, he had succeeded in portraying his deep desire to straighten things out with her as soon as possible. The human was almost sure that the reason Aeryn would not open up to her crewmates was because she was convinced they could not possibly understand what she had been through. The time had come to push her into contact with someone who did.
He had expected her to protest. At the very least, he had expected her to react. But instead, the peacekeeper merely regarded him for a microt, the turbulence of her eyes a mystery and then, with a barely perceptible nod, she had risen from the table and proceeded from the room.
She needed this.
She knew that. It was going to continue, to nag, to eat away at her insides until it was resolved and it would never be resolved until she had faced Pilot. But that did not make it any easier for Aeryn as she strode rapidly along Moya's golden tiers, her stony expression a mask of contrast concealing the emotional chaos that lay beneath. Even in her days as a peacekeeper, she had never believed herself capable of such calculated cruelty, such torment, such deliberate evil. She had tricked, attacked and tortured her friends; she had plotted to destroy their lives for her own gain. She had become a different person and she had been helpless to prevent it.
She wanted so much to be able to say that she had lost herself. But deep, lurking coldly in the depths of her heart, an unpleasantly honest corner of herself refused to accept this was true.
She had not lost herself in the radiation. She had found herself.
It wasn't true. It couldn't be. She had been so determined, so sure, so insistent on denying it. But no matter how hard she had tried, she could not shake that parasitic little doubt. A face, a vision, a memory lingered in her mind, taunting her, reminding her that this was not the first time she had placed herself above the well-being of those she cared about, not the first time her actions had led to torture and death for someone who had changed her. What if that selfish instinct was ingrained into her psyche?
What if it emerged again?
It was her greatest fear. But she dared not share it. No one who had not experienced the full power of the radiation poisoning could ever understand the way it segmented the mind, dragged all the nastiest emotions within the soul to the surface and suppressed all that was good. There was no point in sharing her thoughts with John or Zhaan – even Zhaan with her dark history could not comprehend the depths to which she had sunk in the abyss of her soul. Only one person on this ship could, that Aeryn knew, and he was maintaining with absolute determination that he had lost his memory. Pilot was no more willing to face this than she was, and until now, she had thought that it would favour them both if she just stayed away and allowed the experience to be lulled by time. But time was no healer here – all it did was feed the sickness boring within her and encourage it to grow. No, it had to be done, Pilot had to be faced, whether either of them liked it or not.
Before it destroyed her entirely.
The door to Pilot's chamber swung away before her; Chiana's dark eyes fixed on her, startled and vaguely suspicious. Her expression darkened further at the peacekeeper's declaration that she would taking the next watch, but a brief conference with John and Zhaan over the comm system led to the Nebari giving a reluctant shrug and muttering something about it being upon their own heads as she clambered down from the console and swept out of the door. Aeryn watched her go, watched as the slender grey shape retreated across the walkway, slapping the door control and watching as she vanished behind a sealed wall of gold. Her eyes lingered a microt longer as the door swung to a lazy close and cut off her last escape.
Pilot was watching her.
Aeryn felt discomfort wriggle disconcertingly in her belly. The creature before her was one of her closest friends, the one person on this ship that she had always felt completely comfortable with. They had talked so many times, discussed things that neither would have ever revealed to anyone else. But where was she supposed to start now? Hello Pilot, I know you've been lying about losing your memory. Tell me, do you believe that you have been fooling yourself all these years and that you are really a psychotic killer deep down? Oh yes, that would make a wonderful opener to a sensitive conversation!
"Officer Sun." The sound of the navigator's voice caused Aeryn to start: she fought to cover the gesture but the flicker of Pilot's expression implied it was a little bit too late for that. "This is a pleasant surprise."
"Pilot," Aeryn nodded her head stiffly. Determinedly she forced her legs into motion, striding quickly across the intervening space and pulling herself onto the console. Her eyes distinctly avoided the nearby bulkhead and she noted that Pilot's had done the same.
She carefully selected a safe and neutral opening query. "How's Moya?" she asked with forced casualness.
"Fine," Pilot's reply was almost identical in tone. "She's still tired, of course, but she is recovering rapidly. She'll be much better once we leave tentrite space for good."
"And you?" Aeryn avoided the navigator's curious golden eyes, gazing mindlessly into the dark beyond as she tried to focus her thoughts.
Pilot nodded awkwardly. "Much better. Thank you."
There was a brief uncomfortable pause.
"How's your head?" The navigator ventured finally. His tone was rich with discomfort. When Aeryn's gaze swung sharply upon him, his eyes darted back to his controls. "Crichton said you fell," he muttered awkwardly, trying to ignore her intense examination of his carapace. "I was concerned."
Aeryn bit back a surge of bad memory. "It's improving. I still get dizzy spells if I move too quickly."
"It must have been serious for the effect to last so long." There was a shiver underlying Pilot's words, a painful little shudder that spread from his voice to his softly vibrating limbs. He seemed to be having difficulty concentrating.
Aeryn bit her lip, her eyes examining the panels as intensely as the navigator. "It was a bad fall," she managed.
Silence strangled both their words. The soundlessness stretched, taut and awkward, dragged to breaking point by the rich burn of unspoken emotion. The atmosphere was heavy, choking at them both as the darkness that lingered in both their thoughts sought to grasp their minds.
"Oh, this is ridiculous!" Pilot's head snapped up abruptly, his expression a mixture of discomfort and dismay. "Aeryn, I just want to say that I'm deeply sorry."
Aeryn's eyes rose slowly, sliding up the navigator's worn face until they found his eyes. "For what?" she said softly.
"For eight days ago." Pilot flinched but held her gaze. "For everything I did whilst I was… different. Especially to you."
Aeryn's expression was inscrutable but her heart pounded against her ears like a drum. She had been right…
"I thought you said you'd lost your memory," she whispered with difficulty.
Pilot's features slipped down to the edges of a glare. "You know I haven't," he replied firmly. "You've known for three days. That's why you've been avoiding me."
"I haven't been avoiding you," The lie came instinctively. "I've been busy, that's all."
"Oh yes, really busy." There was a hint of sarcasm in Pilot's tone but it lacked the malicious intent of his earlier persona. "Busy wandering from tier to tier at all hours, staring into nothing, busy ignoring your crewmates and missing your sleep! Sounds like a packed schedule to me!"
Aeryn glared at him coldly. "Stop it."
"No." The refusal was flat and unyielding. "This has gone on for too long already. I know what's going through your mind, Aeryn. I understand."
"Oh really?" It was Aeryn's turn to be sarcastic. "Do you sleep?"
Pilot looked slightly taken aback. "You know I don't!" he replied, his tone filled with confusion. "But what does that have to do with…"
"Everything." Aeryn leaned forward, her blue eyes intense. "You don't sleep so you don't dream. So you do not have to face the memory of what you are and what you did every time you close your eyes! Every time I sleep, I'm back there again, torturing Crichton, wanting him dead, every time I'm there again! And you wonder why I don't want to sleep?"
Pilot took a deep breath. "Aeryn, it's just a memory. It was not your fault. You weren't yourself."
"But that's the point, isn't it?" Aeryn fought back the tears welling against her eyes. "What if it was me? I'm a peacekeeper, trained to be a killer from birth. When I was…" She broke off, breathing hard but Pilot's eyes encouraged her to continue. "It felt right," she whispered softly, desperately. "It felt good. I felt as though I had let myself free for the first time in my life. And all I wanted to do was inflict pain take the lives of others. Is that me? Is that what I really want to be like, deep down?"
"No," The word was soft, simple but penetrating. "The radiation…"
"…Did nothing more than bring to the surface what had been there all along." Aeryn's interruption was sharp. "Haven't you realised that too? How could it have happened if it hadn't have been there in the first place?"
"Of course I realise," The navigator's voice was a smooth hush. "In case you have forgotten, I learned the lesson about not deluding myself the hard way."
Aeryn glanced up. Pilot's expression was intense, his eyes shining with gold fire as he fixed his gaze upon her. "It's there, Aeryn, in all of us." The words came softly, but they seared like a knife to the soul. "The poison, the desire. We devote lifetimes to trying to ignore it, to pretend those feelings aren't a part of us, but deep inside we know we never will. Most people never face them – they simply thrust them down and leave them to rot at the soul. We've faced ours and we've come through it. By my reckoning, we have won a victory and we can be better for it."
"Won?" Incredulity flickered across Aeryn's face. "How can you say that? We almost wiped out every person on this ship!"
Discomfort creased Pilot's features; he sighed deeply. "This isn't easy to explain in terms that you can understand," he stated softly. "I have always known I was capable of… unpleasant things." A shadowed memory played across his eyes. "But I have leaned from my experience that hiding from yourself and your emotions will only make things worse. When I willingly turned to face death a quarter cycle ago, I also faced myself. I know exactly who I am now and I have accepted that. And I know because of this that the person you saw eight days ago, was not, and never could be me. Circumstances beyond my control created a monster from my darkest soul; but when those circumstances are removed, I can suppress that monster. If it was truly me, do you think that, once unleashed, it would ever be willing to retreat?"
He smiled at the peacekeeper softly. "Do you still wish the others harmed? Do you still want them dead?"
Aeryn's features contorted. "Of course not!"
Pilot's golden eyes fixed upon her. "Then that person was not you. A part of you perhaps, but not you at the core, not you where it matters. You are not a monster, Aeryn Sun. And provided that you keep that at the forefront of your mind, you never will be."
Silence stroked the darkness. Eyes of sapphire and gold gazed upon each other. No movement stained oblivion, no sound split through the black, the absolute quietude of self-contemplation. Two very different beings that had shared in one very disturbing experience pondered it alone but together in the silence of their minds.
Aeryn's voice was a whisper that undulated through the quiet as though to pass unseen. Pilot's shimmering smile rippled to join it.
"Consider it a favour returned," he murmured in reply. "You save my soul, I save yours."
In spite of herself, Aeryn smiled. Ghosts flitted away from her eyes to be swallowed by the darkness. Suddenly, she felt much better.
"Did you and Crichton plan this?" she inquired.
"Not intentionally," Pilot's eyes began to stray towards the pulsing glow of his console. "But he might have picked up on the hints I dropped about wanting to see you." He smiled again. "I was not very subtle."
Aeryn gazed down at the flashing welter of lights, fingering the lattice grooves of the panels thoughtfully. "Weren't you at all… nervous about seeing me after what we did? I was petrified of seeing you."
Pilot's eyes glanced across her features. "Of course I was. But we could not have avoided each other forever, even on a ship the size of Moya. I knew this business would not be resolved until we had spoken. And I was sure we would both be the better for it."
Aeryn's expression softened distinctly in the rainbow of light and shade. "You were right."
Pilot met her gaze. "I'm glad. You just need to assert yourself again, Aeryn. You will be fine."
The peacekeeper's smile became rueful. "Don't use that word," she advised dryly. "It's caused enough trouble."
Pilot's expression was mystified. "I beg your pardon, Officer Sun, but which word do you mean?"
"Assert." Aeryn grinned. "That was the advice I gave you just before all this began, remember? That you should try and assert yourself?"
Pilot laughed softly. It was quite a pleasant sound. "True. And it was good advice. It was just the timing that was rather… unfortunate."
Aeryn regarded him for a moment. "Are you thinking of following it after all?"
There was a distinct amusement to Pilot's expression. "I'm not sure that it would be particularly wise under the current circumstances. But I shall certainly bear it in mind."
"Perhaps it's best," Aeryn nodded, a smile also curling across her cheeks. "But at least one good thing may have come out of all of this. I don't think the others will be taking you quite so much for granted in the future."
There was a vague hint of irony in Pilot's expression. "I would not be so sure of that, if I were you. Once they feel safe with me again, I am certain the old order will reassert itself quite rapidly."
Aeryn fixed the navigator with an incredulous gaze. "After all that's happened, do you really believe that things will just go back to the way they were?"
The declaration shattered the cool quiet of Pilot's vast chamber. With an exaggerated roll of his eyes, Pilot turned to the comm system.
Rygel's irate voice hurled itself from the comm system. "There is a yotz of a DRD buzzing in the vent over my chamber and I am trying to sleep! I insist that you remove it immediately!"
It was Aeryn could do to keep herself from laughing at the look on Pilot's face. The navigator seemed to be having difficulty keeping a straight face himself – the Sebacean was extremely impressed by the manner in which he managed to hide every hint of his feelings from his voice as he responded.
"I do apologise, your eminence. I'll see to it at once."
"I should frelling well think so!" With a huff, the comm link terminated.
Pilot's gaze fixed relentlessly upon Aeryn, his head tilted slightly to one side as he regarded her with a hint of amusement twitching at the corner of his mouth.
"You do not believe things will go back to normal, Officer Sun?" he said with a smile. "I believe they already have."
Sunday 4th August 2002.
Give me a minute. I'm in shock. *g*
And I have good reason. This fic has been, by turns, one of the great joys, releases, frustrations and banes of my life since that fateful day in the first week of September, in the year 2001, when I sat down in the bunk of a grounded canal boat in Yorkshire, waiting for British Waterways to come to our rescue for the second time that day (I kid you not *g*) and first wrote the fateful line, "This is intolerable!" In the eleven months that have passed since then, my life has undergone some pretty drastic changes; just two weeks later I was struck down with a serious illness, which, although mostly behind me now, is still giving me trouble every now and again. I've been in a car accident, got a new job, been given another new job within the first one (but alas with no extra money), been on three holidays (including the one on the aforementioned canal that lacked rather in that most vital commodity for a canal – water), sighed up for a postgraduate degree in Literary studies this October and of course, watched the entire third season of Farscape *g*. When I began this, I had only seen SOD. Now season four lurks on the horizon here in the UK.
I had intended to finish Breaking Point by Christmas 2001. Yeah. Right.
So my timekeeping isn't up to much. *g*
I love this fic. I've been meaning to write in some form or another since I first saw TWWW and it occurred to me just what Pilot could get up to if he ever snapped. But it has been, in the nicest possible way, absolute Hezmana to write. IT WOULD NOT END. Every section I thought would be short and easy would turn out to be a monster. I had intended it to be a two parter, would you believe. Two became four, four became five, five became six, and then part six went and overran and spawned parts seven and just this week, eight. When I felt finally felt well enough to write after Christmas, I decided to put on a spurt and finish before the end of season three in the UK. At this point, I was in part three and still thought part four would be the last. I posted parts one and two at fanfiction.net to spur myself to finish the rest as soon as possible. S3 finished for me in February. In case you hadn't noticed, it's August.
So much for that.
But I was absolutely determined to have it done before season four. I hit one goal anyway! *g*
But I'm blathering (I do that a lot, you may have noticed) I really just wanted to get across just how much this fic has been involved in the twenty-second, and probably most eventful year of my life. And now it's over and it feels so weird, I just need to tell someone about it. Short straw, guys. :)
So: for every hardy soul who has made it this far (both through the fic and this so called note *g*) THANK YOU. Your feedback has cheered me along immensely and I'm very grateful for all of your nice comments. My especial thanks go to Jade and the guys at TheFarscapeLounge mailing list for being my unofficial beta readers and to all of the regulars at the BBC board and Pilot Paradise for putting up with me alternately whining about and promoting this fic to death. Thanks guys. You've been very tolerant. *g*
That's it really. I hope you enjoyed following this journey with me. In spite of myself, I have enjoyed taking it.
Jess Pallas. :)