Chapter 9 – Endgame
"Let me get this straight?" John asked, shaking his head. "To kill this thing, we've got to get within arm's reach of it?"
"I'm afraid so…" Zhann confirmed, nodding.
"Frelling great…" Chiana snapped, shaking her head. "This thing nearly kills Aeryn and John. Twice. And to kill it, we have to get close enough to let it attack us? That's farbohtz…"
"Very farbohtz…" Rygel agreed, nodding.
"Hey, no one's asking you to volunteer, Sparky…" John assured him.
"Well, you and Aeryn are in no shape…" D'Argo began.
"Hey, I'm doing this…" John told him firmly. "It's personal at this point, D."
D'Argo shook his head in disgust. "Zhann, tell him that he's in no shape…"
Zhann nodded in agreement. "He's right, John. Whoever does this runs a not-inconsiderable risk. You have been attacked twice by this creature already. It will take better than a quarter of a cycle for you to fully recover. A third attack could be fatal."
John sighed and shook his head.
"Can we at least agree that Aeryn is not going to be the one to do this?" D'Argo suggested.
"Definitely." John nodded firmly. "A second attack could kill her at this point."
"And a third attack could kill you…" Chiana pointed out, shaking her head. "Crazy human…"
"Chi…" John began, only to be cut off by Zhann.
"She's right, John…" the Delvian told him gently. "It's not safe for you."
"It's not safe for any of us!" John pointed out, shaking his head. "I say we draw straws for it."
"No!" D'Argo said firmly. "You are not doing this. Aeryn is not doing this."
"You plan on doing it?" Chiana asked, frowning. "Come on, D'Argo…"
"I am not as susceptible to dehydration as the rest of you…" D'Argo pointed out.
"That's not entirely true…" Rygel muttered in a low voice. Aware that everybody was staring at him, he shrugged defensively. "I'm amphibious."
"Shouldn't that make you more susceptible?" John asked, frowning.
"Hyneria has long drought periods. We've evolved to be able to withstand prolonged deprivation…" he admitted.
"Prolonged deprivation is not the same as rapid, forced dehydration, Rygel…" Zhann pointed out gently.
"Don't remind me, you blue-assed bitch…" Rygel sighed and shook his head. "I might change my mind."
"You're actually volunteering?" Chiana asked, startled. "You?"
Rygel hesitated for a split-second before nodding. "Yes. That's exactly what I'm doing." He looked at the others proudly. "It is what any Dominar of my House would do to protect his allies."
Zhann smiled faintly. "You do your ancestors proud, Dominar Rygel."
Rygel smiled faintly. "So, what does this involve?" he asked, doing his best not to sound nervous.
Zhann held up the small, converted medical-scanner. "This emits the proper radiation wavelengths. Exposure at close range should kill the creature."
"How close?" Rygel asked, nervousness creeping back into his voice.
Zhann sighed. "It needs to be touching the creature when you activate it."
"That's suicide…" Chiana whispered, shaking her head.
Although he was inclined to agree, Rygel pretended not to have heard. "How am I to lure this creature to me?"
"It seems to have developed a taste for John…" Zhann began quietly, laying out the plan that he had proposed.
"Yo, Officer Sun!" John shouted as he and Rygel walked down the corridor towards Pilot's den. For a number of reasons, it had been settled on as the ideal place for the ambush. "Incoming!"
"Tell the entire ship, why don't you?" came the reply.
"That's kind of the plan!" he shouted back, laughing. "Remember?"
In Pilot's den, Aeryn rolled her eyes and clutched her pulse-rifle more firmly in her hands. The entire plan was suicidal. Rygel and Crichton would probably both end up dead, a fact which she found mattering to her more than she knew it probably should have. A real Peacekeeper would enthusiastically have embraced the plan, she knew. Possibly sacrificing one or two individuals to save an entire crew was a more than fair trade, after all. But Aeryn could not shake her fond feelings for either of them. Even the Hynerian slug had grown into, if not a friend, at least an ally. And he had given her water when she had needed it most.
Now, against all reason, the normally opportunistic and cowardly Dominar was putting his own life on the line to protect the others. She shook her head in confusion. From the human, she could understand that kind of pointless, suicidal behavior. It was just the kind of thing he did. Reason simply did not enter into his mind very often. That she was used to. But Rygel? Too much time with Crichton, definitely. There was simply no other explanation for the Hynerian's second altruistic act in under a week. He had that effect, not just on Rygel, but on all of them.
In her own mind, Aeryn was not sure whether to call Crichton's influence good or not. Admittedly, his off-kilter way of looking at things got them out of trouble at least as often as it got them into trouble, but… It was just hard to judge. Everything she had ever been taught to believe told her that the human's way of behaving was wrong, but, deep inside, she was beginning to wonder at the veracity of those teachings. If they could survive where the Marauder crew had not, where no other crew had before them… Might there not be something to the human's way of behaving?
"You seem… troubled, Officer Sun…" Pilot ventured quietly.
Aeryn shook her head. "No, Pilot. Just deep in thought. Wondering at the chances of our surviving this."
"Much improved, I should think, not that Zhann has developed a weapon that can destroy the creature."
Aeryn nodded slowly. That, too, flew in the face of everything she had ever been taught. Science prevailing where military might could not? Techs were the lowest of the low in Peacekeeper society, and yet it was Zhann, a scientist, a Tech, who had discovered what might well end up being their salvation. A weapon developed by a Tech and a suicide-run by two members of 'lesser species'… a Tech to whom she owed her life, lesser beings who were her friends… Hard as it was to simply dismiss sixty-odd cycles of indoctrination, she had lately been forced to admit that much of what she had always believed was, if not wrong outright, at least questionable.
"Why hasn't it attacked yet?" she asked Pilot, shaking her head. The entire plan depended on the obviously-intelligent creature taking bait that was obviously bait. "This is never going to work…" she muttered, shaking her head.
"Zhann would advise you to have faith…" Pilot pointed out.
"Faith?" Aeryn repeated, shaking her head. "Not exactly something that Peacekeepers are brought up to appreciate, Pilot."
She opened her mouth to speak again when she heard a warning-shout from Rygel, followed by a scream from Crichton. She raced from the den as fast as her legs would carry her, diving under the door moments before it slammed shut. That entire section of corridor had been similar sealed, leaving John, Aeryn, Rygel, and Caize trapped together. Unable to escape, the creature was forced to attack. He went for John first, only to be distracted by a well-placed shot from Aeryn's pulse-rifle. Enraged, he spun to confront her, instead, regretting that he had not finished her when he had the chance.
John had been weakened by the initial attack, but was strong enough to cover Aeryn's retreat with several well-placed shots of his own. Rygel observed, biding his time as he had been told to. His job was, perhaps, the most dangerous, and no one wanted to take any chances. As the creature vacillated between attempts to finish Aeryn and John, Rygel watched, staying out of the way and waiting for his own chance to strike. It came quickly, though not in a way that anyone would have hoped for. A curse from John drew everyone's attention as he squeezed the trigger of his pulse-pistol several times without effect.
"You're out of chakan oil?" Aeryn demanded, incredulous, grabbing him and trying to haul him to safety only to be thrown across the corridor by the creature. She hit the wall solidly and slumped to the ground, dazed.
Caize spared her a glance before turning his attention to the funny-tasting one. Draining him would be a sweet satisfaction indeed. As Caize closed on John, Rygel, unnoticed, closed on him. As he bent over John, prone and weaponless, Rygel struck, burying his own weapon deeply in the creature's back and activating it as Zhann had shown him. The ear-shattering howl knocked all three crew members to the ground and told them that the weapon was doing its job.
Caize was soon reduced to a puddle on Moya's deck. Aeryn assured herself that Rygel was unharmed before scrambling over to John, who was still lying on the ground, unmoving.
"Frell!" she hissed, tossing her pulse-rifle away in disgust and feeling for a pulse. It was there, rapid and weak. "Zhann!" she called, activating her Comm. The lack of Comm-ghosts made her momentarily sure that it was not working, until she heard Zhann's response, clear as day.
"On my way, Aeryn."
"Pilot, get these hatches unsealed!" Aeryn ordered, bending over the human and shaking him. "Come on, Crichton…" she muttered, shaking her head.
To lose him now, like this, after his plan had saved them all… It could not be allowed. As she moved aside to let Zhann work, she returned silently to Pilot's den, feeling strangely hollow. As unacceptable as the Peacekeeper she had been raised to be should have felt it, she had grown to regard him as a friend, and the thought of life without him was a dismal one. She sat in silence with Pilot, who seemed as despondent as she felt, each comforting the other through their simple presence.
John's first conscious thought was that death would have been preferable to the kind of pain he found himself in now. His next thought was that Zhann's hands, gently smoothing a wet cloth over his face, where remarkably gentle. When he finally managed to open his eyes and found himself staring into eyes black instead of blue, he smiled.
"Did it work?" he coughed.
"Mmm…" Aeryn nodded. "Yes, it actually did, by some miracle."
"I thought you people didn't believe in miracles…" he teased, smiling weakly.
"Was suicidal…" she corrected him firmly, dipping the cloth back into the basin of water. Dabbing it against his bare chest, she added grudgingly, "And it worked."
"Rygel?" John asked quickly.
"Just fine. Enjoying more credit than he probably deserves." Aeryn smiled and shook her head. "Chiana is cooking all of his favorite foods as we speak."
"Remind me to avoid the galley for a few days…" he laughed. "That smell…"
Aeryn made a face and nodded. Placing the wet rag down, she checked his IV, changing his bag.
"Where's Zhann?" he asked, surprised that Aeryn was doing it.
"She's performing some kind of funerary rite for all of the creature's victims. She's been chanting non-stop for three days now."
"I've been out for three days?"
"Four…" Aeryn corrected him quietly, injecting something into his new IV. "It was… touch and go. We nearly lost you, Crichton."
"Nah." He shook his head. "I'm a tough guy to kill. Too stubborn to die."
Aeryn allowed herself a faint smile. "Yes, you are remarkably stubborn. Remarkably lucky as well. Zhann is quite convinced that some very powerful gods smile on you."
John smiled and shrugged. "Never know."
Aeryn shook her head. "Superstitious, too, hmm? Figures…" She picked up the rag again and resumed sponging his dry, fevered skin.
John closed his eyes, enjoying the gentle care. As whatever she had injected into his IV worked its way into his system, the pain faded, replaced by a sense of calm and well-being.
"So, we got it?" he asked, yawning.
"Yeah." Aeryn nodded. "We did." She worked in silence for a few more minutes, until it was quite clear that the human was almost asleep. "I was pretty scared…" she admitted quietly.
"Really?" he yawned. "When?"
"When it looked like you might not make it…" she admitted, not looking at him. Luckily, he was too far asleep to make much sense of the comment, but it felt good admitting it, if only to herself.