Three Arns, Two Thousand Five Hundred Eighty Four Microts
"Rygel, if anything has happened to her, so help me I will filet you myself," Crichton snarled as the pod settled to the desert floor. He shut down the pod's systems and grabbed his weapons. Over Rygel's protests he had brought a large pulse rifle, several grenades and two pistols which he wore on his hips. It had been a long time since he had worn these weapons. After what had happened on Rylvin V he never thought he'd put them on again. But if ever there was a reason, he thought, this is it.
"Let's go Buckwheat!" he shouted over his shoulder as he headed for the door. He knew the Dominar was angry that he'd been forced to return to the planet, but at this point John didn't much care what Rygel thought. His only thought at this point was to find Aeryn and bring her home.
"Crichton, wait!" Rygel shouted, "Let me go first."
"What? And let you betray me too? No frellin' way!" he shot back as the hatch opened. The intense sun blinded him momentarily and he was forced to shield his eyes from the glare as he scrambled down the ladder. When his eyes finally adjusted, he found himself staring into the barrels of a half-dozen Pahkma plasma weapons.
Crichton froze. This was not what he had been expecting. He didn't know what he had been anticipating, but this was certainly not it. Slowly and deliberately he eased his hands away from his sides and lowered the pulse rifle to the sand.
"There's no need to be pointin' those guns at me boys," he said, accentuating his southern drawl in an effort to sound more casual than he felt, "I'm on your side."
The Pahkma guns didn't waver.
"I told you to let me go first," Rygel sneered as he piloted his throne sled into position beside Crichton. He turned his attention from Crichton's withering glare to the Pahkma resistance fighters before them. "He's annoying but he's not a Peacekeeper. You can lower your weapons."
The oldest of the Pahkma gestured and his soldiers lowered their weapons slightly. "Welcome back Dominar," he said stepping forward, "Who's this?"
"I'm John Crichton," he said, cutting off Rygel's reply. He lowered his arms to his sides but was careful to keep his hands well away from his pistols. The last thing he wanted was to have more innocent blood on his hands.
"Well John Crichton, who are you and what's your business here?"
"I'm just here to find Aeryn Sun then get the hell out of this place. Who are you?"
"I am Bacca. You are a Peacekeeper?"
"Me? A Peacekeeper?" John laughed, glancing from Rygel to the Pahkma squad leader. "Hell no. "
"Why should I believe you John Crichton?"
"Listen guys, I don't give a rat's ass if you believe me or not," he snapped. "But don't you think we oughta be getting under cover here?" He pointed over the Pahkma patrol to a point in the sky where a tiny speck had appeared. "I think we've got some visitors."
"Prowler squad! Move!" Bacca shouted as the small ships streaked closer. He grabbed Crichton by the arm dragging him along. They dove for cover near a rock outcropping just as the ship opened fire on their former position. As he rolled into the relative safety of the cavern Crichton looked back to see Rygel's throne sled spin out of control.
Uncertainty swept through her as she approached the door to Pilot's den. So much was riding on this cure. The very life of her friend, the being she had sworn to protect. What if it was too late? What if there wasn't enough of the serum to fully reverse the effects of the Plague?
Zhaan hesitated before sweeping her hand across the access panel. Time seemed to stand still as she waited for the door to swing open. Saying a silent prayer, she slipped through the widening portal. Though well aware of Pilot's worsening condition, she was unprepared for the scene before her.
The den was shrouded in darkness and an uncharacteristic silence. An eerie light emanated from Pilot's console giving a greenish cast to his usually bronze countenance. DRDs lined the gangways leading to the central console, their antennae bowed as if in grief.
Zhaan closed her eyes and took a deep breath to calm herself. She stepped forward, picking her way through the DRDs.
"Pa'u ... Zotoh ... Zhaan," Pilot whispered, his voice hoarse from pain. "Kill me. Please."
"Pilot," she murmured, choking back the tears that sprang to her eyes. Her hand wavered as she reached up to caress his cheek. She jerked it back, surprised that it was wet. Tears? "Oh, Pilot," she whispered, "you must hold on. I have the serum. "
"Please Zhaan, it hurts. Let me die."
"I know I promised I would ease you over to the other side, but I will not kill you. Not with the cure in hand. This is what Aeryn sacrificed her freedom for. You have to fight. She would want you to fight for your life."
He raised his head slowly to look her in the eye. "I will try."
Zhaan caressed his cheek again then raised a large syringe, plunging it into his neck.
"Lieutenant Tal, there's a small scouting party less than a quarter metra ahead. Shall we pursue and engage?"
Tal turned toward the young officer. He wasn't a member of Tal's unit but a sub-officer who had gotten wind of their mission and requested permission to join them. Tal wasn't entirely certain he could trust the boy, but he needed bodies if he was going to pull off his plan. And, he thought, if he turns on me, he'll be one of the first ones in.
"Close the distance between us, but do not engage. I want to see where they're headed first."
Sub-Officer Lrak nodded sharply then moved to relay the order. Tal watched with appreciation. He handled himself well, moving with assurance across the desert. Few Peacekeeper soldiers were at ease in the desert, fearing the heat and the Living Death it could induce. But Lrak seemed unconcerned by this and that made Tal suspicious.
As the patrol moved forward, Officer Ayan dropped back to join his commander. It was apparent to Tal that his second in command had something on his mind but he wasn't going to make it easy for him by asking. If Ayan wanted to discuss something he was going to have to have the courage to speak up without prompting. It didn't take long for Ayan to break the silence.
"Sir, what do you know about Sub-Officer Lrak?"
"Why do you ask?" Tal countered.
"There's something about him that doesn't seem right. I can't put my finger on it, but I don't trust him."
"Then why did you endorse his transfer into the unit?"
"Bodies sir," he replied, his voice cold and hard. "We needed bodies."
"Indeed. And someone may need to be sacrificed for this gamble to pay off." Tal replied, a cold smile spreading across his face.
Aeryn's first conscious thought was of pain. Swirling, all encompassing pain. Her second thought was to suppress the pain, to conquer it as she had been taught so long ago. She focused inward; gathering her strength, trying to convince her body that there was nothing wrong ... that there was no pain. Of course it was easy to persuade her mind that the pain was diminishing, but her body was having none of it.
She forced her eyes open and waited a few microts for her vision to clear before attempting to survey her surroundings. Nothing looked familiar. She knew she wasn't aboard Moya, nor was she in the cell that was her last memory. This place was unknown to her and she found it frightening that she had no recollection of how she had come to be here or even where "here" was.
"You're awake at last," a cheery, but obviously tired voice said.
Aeryn tried to turn her head to find the voice's owner only to have intense pain scream through her body. She gasped and closed her eyes in a futile attempt to stop the tears that sprang to them.
"Don't try to move," the voice soothed, "You've had a horrible shock to your system. You were in surgery less than a half an arn ago."
"Who are you?" Aeryn asked as she pried her eyes open again and looked up into the face of young Pahkma male. She was surprised that her voice sounded so small.
He smiled and sat on the side of her cot. "My name is Waban. I guess you could say I'm the chief Med-Tech here."
"And just where is 'here'?" she asked, struggling to sit up. Only then did she notice the restraints that pinned her to the cot. "Why?" she demanded.
"Lie back now." Waban soothed, pushing her back to the bed. "They aren't my idea. The others don't trust you. They insist you be restrained until we can determine your loyalties."
"My loyalties?" Aeryn snapped, anger flaring despite her pain. "I damn near died in that Peacekeeper cell trying to save one of your people."
"And I thank you for that; Varga means a great deal to me," he replied in an even tone. "Our leaders are cautious -- they have to be. They believe you could be a Peacekeeper plant so until they are convinced otherwise, you will stay here, isolated and restrained. I am sorry."
"Why didn't you just let me die?"
"They wanted me to," he replied. After a moment's hesitation he added, "But I couldn't. All life is valuable -- even that of a Sebacean." He grinned and the look in his eyes reminded her of John at his most playful. All of her self-righteous fury dissipated in the face of his good humor and she relaxed, sensing that he would look out for her.
"I'll inform the leadership council that you're awake," he said, standing to leave. "I'm sure they'll want to talk with you."
A stiff, hot wind drove sand and debris in the faces of the two men as they approached the edge of the cliff. From this perspective they would be able to survey several hundred square metras of desert floor. Jorrin had been true to his word and had helped D'Argo find Baryn Tal ... or at least his unit. D'Argo wasn't certain that Tal still lived, but everything pointed to that fact. A cold smile crossed the Luxan's face as he promised himself that he would personally correct the situation if he did indeed still live.
D'Argo dropped to the ground and crept to the edge of the overhang. He knew Jorrin was right behind him though they hadn't spoken more than ten words to each other since leaving the city. Jorrin had explained that sounds carried great distances in the hot thin air of the desert so they relied instead on hand signals.
The desert floor spread before them. Less than a metra ahead, a small body of Peacekeeper soldiers picked their way through the scrubby undergrowth. They moved slowly but steadily forward, closing the distance between them and the scouting party they pursued. D'Argo felt a wave of helpless rage sweep through him. The Peacekeepers would overtake the Pahkma soon and he knew the slaughter would be swift and brutal. And there was nothing they could do to prevent it.
D'Argo glanced to the side to where his companion lay in the sand. His face was twisted in anger. What must he be feeling, D'Argo wondered, watching his people being tracked and annihilated by the Peacekeepers but being unable to do anything to help. He leaned close and whispered, "We can try --"
"No," Jorrin interrupted. "There's nothing we can do. We all understood the danger when we joined the Resistance."
"No!" he shouted then lowered his voice, "D'Argo, there's nothing we can do to help them without endangering the entire Resistance. Don't you understand? The entrance to the new Resistance base is down there. We can't help them. It would attract too much attention."
"But we can't ... I can't just let them die without doing something."
Jorrin studied the big Luxan for a few microts then eased back from the edge of the escarpment. He pushed himself to his feet and retrieved his weapons. "We will do something," he said, surprising D'Argo with the steel in his voice, "we will be witnesses and will avenge their deaths."
Three Arns, One Thousand Four Hundred Eighty One Microts
Chiana paced the command deck, checking one console after another. For the past quarter arn she had sensed that something was different, but she was unsure of the source. Suddenly she realized that an eerie silence had settled over Moya. The characteristic hum of her systems had all but disappeared. Strange, Chiana thought, when I first came aboard Moya the constant noise bothered me, now its absence has the same effect.
She checked the read-outs on the systems console. Except for internal atmospherics, resources for all of Moya's systems were being redirected somewhere. But where? Chiana ran a quick diagnostic, but with the systems powered down she was unable to determine the destination or the cause.
Panic gripped her. Could Pilot be dying? Had Zhaan been too late? She tapped her comms, "Zhaan? Zhaan? What's going on up there? Zhaan?"
Static was the only response.
"Frell!" Chiana cursed aloud, needing the reassurance of her own voice. "Comms are down. I should have known. Guess I'll just have to go to the den and check for myself."
"Rygel!" Crichton yelled as the last of the Prowlers streaked out of range. He dove out of the cavern and raced toward the Hynerian's throne sled. Dropping to his knees in the sand, he pulled the inert Dominar from under the smoldering wreckage. Oh God, he pleaded silently, let him be all right.
"Rygel," John repeated as he examined the limp body of his Hynerian companion. There were no external wounds to account for his condition, but he knew there could be internal injuries. Unfortunately John had very little knowledge of Hynerian physiology. Hell, he admitted to himself, I don't even know how to check his pulse.
Bacca was suddenly at his side. Without a word he took Rygel's body from his arms and laid him on the ground. Crichton watched in silence as Bacca rested his hand gently on the Hynerian's chest. The Pahkma closed his eyes and tilted his head as if he were listening to something only he could hear. A thin smile crossed his lips and he leaned back on his heels.
"He will recover."
"How can you tell?"
"His heart is beating as it should be. There are no internal injuries. He was merely rendered unconscious by the impact."
"You could tell all of that just by touching him?"
"I was a healer before the Peacekeepers turned me into a soldier," Bacca said as he lifted Rygel from the ground. "Come, we must hurry. The Prowler patrol saw us, we must not be here when the ground troops are sent in."
Varga stood outside of Aeryn's cell. She wanted to thank Aeryn for saving her life, but was unsure how she would be received. Because of her sacrifice she had merely traded the Peacekeeper cell for a Pahkma one. Varga had tried to persuade the leaders to grant Aeryn her freedom but they had been unmoved. In fact, they had gone so far as to accuse her of collaborating with the Peacekeepers to save her own life. Had Waban and Perin not spoken so passionately on her behalf Varga knew she would be locked in the cell with Aeryn. Instead she stood in the passageway trying to gather up enough courage to face the woman who had saved her life.
She took a deep breath, stood up straight and pasted a smile on her face then before she should change her mind, turned and activated the access panel. The door slipped open with a soft whoosh and Varga stepped inside. Panic swept through her when she heard the door close and the lock engage. When she had been freed from the Peacekeeper jail she had promised herself that she would never be locked up again. But here she stood, locked in voluntarily. I must be insane, she thought.
"Whoever it is, go away."
"Aeryn Sun. It's Varga. I came to thank you." She walked the short distance from the door to the cot on which Aeryn lay.
"You can thank me by undoing these restraints," Aeryn said looking the younger woman in the eyes. "I am not a threat to your people. You know that."
"Yes, I know that. I have tried to speak on your behalf, but the leaders won't listen to me. They don't trust me any more than they trust you."
Aeryn looked long and hard at the Pahkma girl until Varga began to squirm under her scrutiny.
"They think I'm a collaborator," Varga said in response to Aeryn's unspoken question.
"Are you?" Aeryn asked flatly.
Varga stared at Aeryn, taken aback by the bluntness of the question. How could she ever explain everything that had happened to her to this Sebacean? In all likelihood she would be leaving this planet, this war behind, but Varga would be staying. She had to live here. She had to survive.
"I asked you a question Varga. Are you a collaborator?"
Varga sank to her knees beside Aeryn's cot. "I am a survivor," she breathed.
"What have you done?"
"What I had to do," Varga admitted.
"Untie me." Aeryn asked. "I can't help you tied to this bed."
"It's too late Aeryn," she sighed, "it's too late."
Sub-officer Lrak eased forward, his eyes sweeping the desert before him. The untrained eye would see little out of the ordinary but Lrak's practiced eyes saw the telltale signs that a small force had passed this way less than two hundred microts earlier -- bent grasses, broken twigs on the sparse brush and sand that appeared to be too smooth. He estimated the scouting patrol included eight to ten Pahkma and they were travelling fast. Fast enough that if he didn't report back to Lt. Tal soon it would be difficult for them to pick up the trail again.
With grudging respect Lrak crept down the dune. Part of him wanted to let the patrol get away but he also knew what would happen to him if Tal discovered he had done so. Tal's vengeance would make the Living Death seem comfortable. Lrak had heard stories about Tal and his unit. They were ruthless and effective. That was one of the reasons he had wanted to be a part of what they were planning. He knew they could be his ticket off of Pahk -- if they didn't get him killed first.
He slipped quickly across the desert sand leaving little evidence of his passing. In just a few microts he stood before Lt. Tal and his second in command, Officer Ayan. He wasn't sure which one he disliked more, but they were his superiors and he would show them the proper respect no matter how difficult he found the task.
"What?" Tal demanded without preamble.
"Sir, the Pahkma patrol is less than two hundred microts ahead of us. They are moving fast. If we don't overtake them now I fear we never will. They are moving like animals that are close to home."
Tal's head snapped up at Lrak's last few words. He studied the Sub-officer through narrowed eyes. Lrak stood motionless under the scrutiny. He knew his words had made an impact, he just wasn't certain if that was a good thing. It had been a gamble; one he hoped would pay off.
"Officer Ayan, tell the men to move out." Tal turned to his second. "Tell them we're going hunting. Sub-officer Lrak will take point."
The corridors were dark and silent as Chiana raced from Command to Pilot's den. The omnipresent DRDs were eerily absent sending a chill of foreboding through her. While the DRDs were present to service Moya, it was Pilot who exercised control over them and if they weren't moving ... Chiana forced that thought from her mind. She couldn't -- she wouldn't think about that possibility until she had to.
As she passed through empty corridor after empty corridor she realized just how big Moya was. The Leviathan's size had never been an issue before, filled with her shipmates and life, but today her size was overwhelming. Chiana wondered if she would ever get to Pilot's den.
At last she reached the door. It was closed. She reached out to activate the control panel but pulled her hand back abruptly. Did she want to know what was on the other side? She wasn't sure. But she had to know. Squaring her shoulders she swept her hand across the control and waited impatiently for the door to open far enough for her to slip through.
She stopped just inside the door stunned by the scene before her. DRDs lined the walkways leading to Pilot's console and the lights were low. Pilot lay slumped across the console. Zhaan leaned against him, her hands on either side of his massive head. Had her lips not been moving Chiana would have worried that she was dead.
Chiana stepped through the DRDs being careful not to make any noise lest she distract Zhaan from her prayers. She hoped that they were prayers for healing, not prayers for the dead. Rounding the console she slipped in beside Zhaan and rested her hand lightly on the Delvian's arm. Zhaan's eyes flew open at the contact and she turned to face the young Nebari.
"What can I do to help?" Chiana offered, afraid to ask the question that burned in her heart.
"Stay with me," Zhaan replied as a single tear trickled down her cheek.
"Is he ..." She couldn't voice the word.
Zhaan shook her head. She lifted one hand from Pilot's face and placed it tenderly on Chiana's cheek. "I don't know if I was in time. We must wait."
"What do you mean it's too late? Varga, answer me." Aeryn demanded as she struggled to loosen the restraints holding her down.
"There was nothing else I could do," she mumbled, staring at her hands. "How could I know they would order an attack on the jail? I wanted him to stop. I had to tell him."
"Varga, look at me!" Aeryn snapped. The command in her voice broke through the girl's haze and she raised her eyes to meet Aeryn's. "What did you do?"
"I saved myself," she whispered, tears springing to her eyes, "and condemned everyone else."
"Untie me. Now!"
Varga stared at Aeryn for several microts almost as if she hadn't understood the words. Then, without a word, she reached for the cuff on Aeryn's left wrist.
A few microts later Aeryn swung her legs over the side of the cot. Pain coursed through her but she forced it back. She suspected Varga had betrayed the members of the resistance and the location of the Pahkma base but she needed to confirm it. If she was right, she knew they would have to act fast to undo what had been done.
D'Argo and Jorrin covered ground as fast as possible without revealing their presence. It was obvious to D'Argo that Jorrin knew this terrain very well so he let him lead the way. He set a blistering pace and D'Argo found himself struggling at times to keep up with the Pahkma.
After nearly half an arn of hard travel D'Argo was grateful when Jorrin finally called a halt in the shade of a massive rock jutting from the sand. He handed the Luxan a water skin from which he drank deeply while trying to catch his breath. D'Argo had always thought he was in good physical condition but he was discovering that life aboard Moya had made him soft. This diminutive Pahkma could easily run him into the ground, especially in the desert heat.
The two men sat in silence for several microts; each lost in his thoughts. D'Argo knew they had closed the distance between them and the Peacekeeper squad but was uncertain about the Pahkma patrol's location. He wanted to press on, to find out if Baryn Tal was part of that squad, but he was also concerned about the safety of the Pahkma scouts they had seen. This concern surprised him. He had only been on Pahk for a short time, but he had come to believe in their cause. He wanted it to succeed. He wanted the Pahkma to defeat the Peacekeepers, and not just because it would be a defeat for the Peacekeepers. He wanted these people to be free.
"Listen." Jorrin whispered, breaking into D'Argo's thoughts.
"What? I didn't hear anything."
"I thought I heard a shot."
D'Argo moved forward, edging away from the rock face. As he stepped around the side of the boulder he heard it. The telltale sound of Peacekeeper pulse weapons being fired.
Jorrin and D'Argo looked at each other and without a word raced forward. They could easily be running into a trap, but D'Argo knew they could also make a difference for the scouting patrol. And that was a risk he was prepared to take. Then as suddenly as the firing had started, it stopped.
D'Argo stopped and Jorrin pulled up beside him. Through a series of hand signals they worked out a strategy and started forward again. D'Argo pulled his Qualta blade and Jorrin unholstered his plasma weapon. They split up and advanced toward opposite flanks of the firefight's location.
D'Argo crept forward, moving from boulder to boulder, trying to avoid unnecessary exposure. His heart was pounding even as the stench of charred flesh reached his nostrils. He stopped, trying to differentiate the odors that assailed him. Were there Peacekeepers? If there were they were dead he determined after a few microts. He stood and rounded the boulder.
Jorrin stood across the battlefield, his plasma rifle hanging loose. From the stunned expression on his face D'Argo knew he'd never seen this kind of carnage. Though only eight Pahkma bodies lay before them, the scene was one neither man would forget anytime soon. It appeared to D'Argo as if they'd been run to ground like animals then slaughtered for sport. He'd always hated the Peacekeepers, had known they were capable of great cruelty, but even he hadn't thought them capable of such an act.
He picked his way through the fallen Pahkma to stand beside the shocked Jorrin. Laying his hand on the boy's shoulder he said softly, "We must see to them." The eyes that looked up to meet D'Argo's were cold and empty and D'Argo realized that the last vestiges of Jorrin's youth were gone.
Crichton was amazed at the speed with which the Pahkma moved through the desert. What made their pace even more amazing was that when he glanced back, he saw no evidence that they had been there. They traveled in a loosely configured line so he assumed someone behind him was covering the tracks he left. As he surveyed the expanse of sand, it reminded him of the planet Arrakis from Frank Herbert's Dune. On a whim he took a deep breath. No cinnamon scent, he thought. Good, no worms.
A massive cliff rose out of the sand ahead of them and John expected they would skirt around it. Instead his companions headed straight for it. The fissure through which they passed was so well camouflaged that he would never have found it had he not been with the Pahkma.
The temperature dropped sharply once they entered the fissure. Sheltered from the blazing sun it must have been ten to fifteen degrees cooler inside than it was on the desert floor. The group paused to allow their eyes to adjust to the dimmer lighting and to replenish their liquids after their trek through the heat.
Crichton stripped his weapons off and shed his coat, shaking the sand from it. When his eyes had adjusted enough to pick out Bacca he approached the man who was obviously the group leader.
"I know you don't trust me and frankly I don't blame you, but I am not here to harm you. My other weapons are lying by the entrance. Here," he said pulling his pistols from their holsters, "take 'em."
"Why would you do this John Crichton?" he asked as he took the offered weapons.
"I don't want any more innocent blood on my hands. I just want to get help for Rygel and to find Aeryn Sun."
Bacca nodded to one of his subordinates who gathered up Crichton's coat and the abandoned weaponry. He turned and headed into the corridor without a word. In spite of the voice in his head telling him he was a fool, Crichton picked up Rygel's still body and followed.