Three Arns, Two Hundred One Microts
"Pendak! Get Lieutenant Tal in here now!"
"Captain Sindaris, I'm sorry, but we haven't located him yet. He appears to have left the compound." The young clerk ducked his head and began backing toward the office door as he gave his report.
"Then find me his second in command. What's his name ... Officer Ayan."
"Sir, he's not in the compound either. It seems his entire unit plus a few other soldiers have disappeared," Pendak reported, his voice barely above a whisper. He had thought being assigned to Captain Sindaris would be a plum assignment, but he was beginning to question his fortune. In the few monens since Sindaris's assignment to Pahk what had been a slight uprising had turned into open rebellion. Sindaris was taking it personally and everyone around him became a target for his wrath.
"AWOL?" Sindaris spat.
"We don't know sir. There's some scuttlebutt that he was putting together a raiding party to go after the Pahkma resistance leaders, but there is no official confirmation."
Sindaris rose from his seat and moved around his desk. Pendak back pedaled quickly to maintain the distance between them, feeling like a coward as he did so, but knowing that it could mean the difference between life and death. The captain had become increasingly erratic since arriving on Pahk and wasn't above killing the messenger when the actual object of his anger was beyond his reach.
"Stop!" Sindaris snapped. Pendak froze.
"I want Tal and his unit found and I want their sorry asses up on charges. Do you understand me, mister?"
Pendak nodded, turned on his heel and all but sprinted from his commander's office, glad to have survived another encounter with his skin intact.
An eerie silence shrouded Pilot's den. Zhaan and Chiana maintained their vigil on opposite sides of the massive symbiont. He neither moved nor made any sounds and had they not been in physical contact with him, it would have been impossible to tell that he breathed. All around them, DRDs waited in silent anticipation of his next order. But no orders came.
Chiana looked through tear clouded eyes at Zhaan. She had never seen the Delvian this upset; this frightened. Not even when they had been forced to burn Moya to rid her of the Metalites. Chiana watched Zhaan, marveling at her devotion to her Goddess, even in the face of this trial.
"Zhaan," she whispered, fearful of intruding upon the Delvian's prayers, "Zhaan?" The chanting continued unabated. Uncertain if Zhaan had heard her, Chiana asked again, this time more loudly. "Zhaan?"
"What is it child?"
"Is he - "
"No child." Zhaan opened her eyes, her pale blue eyes boring into Chiana's black ones. She didn't move, didn't break her contact with Pilot. "He is not dead ... neither is he improving."
"What ... what can ... what can I do?"
"You can dry your eyes." She smiled, but there was no happiness or joy in her eyes. "And you can pray."
"No Zhaan, I need to do something useful." She regretted the words as soon as they were spoken.
"Why do you all believe that prayer is not useful?" Zhaan's voice was flat, hard and Chiana knew that she had stepped over the line. But the words were spoken. There was nothing she could do to take them back - no matter how much she wanted to. And she did want to. She ducked under Pilot's massive claw to stand closer to Zhaan who still had not broken her contact with him.
"I'm sorry Zhaan. I didn't mean that the way it sounded. I just don't think your Goddess will listen to me. I'm not exactly on speaking terms with deities you know."
"Ah child," Zhaan sighed. She reached out to lay her hand on the Nebari's cheek but before she had the chance, Moya rocked violently throwing the both to the deck.
Chiana clamored to find Zhaan in the dimly lit den, bumping into Pilot's console several times before finding the prone Delvian. "Zhaan? Zhaan, are you all right? Are we under attack?" Terror clawed at the pit of Chiana's stomach. She had found her companion, but there was no response.
She was alone. Alone in this giant leviathan. Alone. And very afraid.
Bright light burst into John's face as he emerged from the dark tunnel. For the second time in less than an arn he was temporarily blinded and he didn't like it. He suspected that when his vision adjusted to the bright light that he would be in trouble up to his mivoncks ... again. He was not disappointed - unfortunately.
"Are you insane Bacca? Bringing a Peacekeeper here?"
"Stand down Tammat. He says he's not a Peacekeeper." Bacca pushed forward, standing between John and the Pahkma weapons leveled at him. "And he is unarmed."
"And because he says he's not a Peacekeeper you believe him?" Derisive laughter filled the small chamber carved from the rock wall.
"Guys ... guys," John interrupted. He stepped around Bacca to face the man he had called Tammat. "You can fight over me later, okay? Right now, Rygel needs medical attention."
"Dominar Rygel?" Tammat asked, pressing toward Crichton who cradled the inert Hynerian. "What have you done to him?"
"I didn't do anything." Crichton snapped. "He was hurt when we were strafed by the Peacekeepers. Ask your boy here."
Tammat looked to Bacca who nodded curtly. After a cursory examination, he signaled two of his companions who lowered their weapons and moved as if to take Rygel from Crichton's embrace. He jerked back protectively. Tammat's eyes narrowed as he studied John's reaction. "Give him to them. They will take him to our med-unit."
John looked from Tammat to Bacca to Rygel then lifted Rygel closer and whispered, "Don't you die on me Fluffy. Don't you die on me." He then reluctantly allowed one of the Pahkma soldier to lift Rygel from his arms. His heart leapt into his throat as he watched their retreating forms. Rygel would have been safe aboard Moya right now had he not forced him to return to the planet.
Rough hands grabbed Crichton's arms, snapping his attention back to his own situation. "Whoa, whoa, whoa ... you don't need to do this," he protested, struggling to free himself.
Bacca pushed through the phalanx of soldiers to stand at Crichton's side. "Tammat, please don't do this. He risked his life for Dominar Rygel and for us."
"I want him confined," Tammat snapped, "Too many of our people have died because of his kind. It's risky enough having one Sebacean here, let alone two."
"There's a Sebacean here?" John asked only to have his burgeoning hope tempered by the feel of cold metal closing on his wrists.
D'Argo's eyes swept over the sun-bleached landscape alert for movement of any kind. The wise thing would have been to leave the dead Pahkma where they lay, but Jorrin had steadfastly refused to even consider it. He had insisted on preparing the bodies of his fallen comrades for funeral rites. When D'Argo discovered that those rites included lighting a funeral pyre he put his foot down. The resulting smoke would alert any Peacekeepers in the area to their presence. Instead, he had helped Jorrin build a platform on which to lay the dead and to which they could return when it was safe to do so and give them the honor they deserved.
With every passing microt D'Argo feared they would be discovered. He was impatient to move on but reluctant to press Jorrin. He had known several of the dead personally and seeing their lifeless bodies had ripped a hole in his soul that would never heal. D'Argo knew that hurt well. He had felt the same in the aftermath of his first battle campaign. But he had learned to go on. It was a difficult lesson, but one which Jorrin would learn ... in time.
"We must go Jorrin." He had seen a flash of movement in the distance and could only assume it was of Peacekeeper origin.
"Just a few more microts D'Argo."
"No. We must go now. There's someone out there. If we linger and are caught their sacrifice won't mean anything." His words were harsh; some would say cruel; but he knew it was the only way to remind Jorrin of the danger they faced. The eyes that turned to face him were rimmed in deep purple. They had seen too much horror in too short a time.
"I know this is hard Jorrin," D'Argo said, laying his hand on the youth's shoulder.
"You're a warrior!" Jorrin batted D'Argo's hand away. "You don't understand how I feel. They were my friends."
"I wasn't always a warrior," he said in a voice that was barely a whisper. "I was a farmer once ... many cycles ago."
Jorrin cocked his head, gazing up at the big Luxan. Without a word, he shouldered his weapon, turned and headed into the desert.
Aeryn paced the length and breadth of the cell, reveling in the feel as her muscles responded. There was pain, yes, but pain meant that, for the moment at least, she was alive. She glanced at the girl cowering in the corner. The moment Aeryn's feet had hit the floor Varga had retreated within herself. She had neither spoken nor made eye contact of any kind. I have to find a way to snap her out of this, Aeryn thought. If only Crichton were here, he'd know how to handle her; he'd know how to get her to talk.
"Varga. You must tell me what happened. You owe me that much." Aeryn demanded as she sank to her knees before the sobbing girl.
"Everything," Varga murmured into her arms, her voice thick and tired, "I told Lieutenant Tal everything."
Varga's confession struck Aeryn like a blow. She could well imagine the treatment that Varga had received at Tal's hands. It would have been cruel and relentless. Physically. Emotionally. And she had been under Tal's control for monens. That she had survived at all was testament to her strength, but perhaps it had also been her downfall.
Aeryn slipped into the corner beside Varga and impulsively put an arm around the girl's shoulders and pulled her close. Varga recoiled at the contact but Aeryn refused to let her pull away. Instead she pulled her closer while gently rocking her, as one would to comfort a terrified child. "Tell me what happened," she whispered, "tell me what he did to you."
Heat shimmered off the desert sand lending an otherworldly aura to the landscape. Tal squinted into the intense sunlight taking a long pull on his water bottle. He was worried. The longer this mission took, the more chance there was that Captain Sindaris would note his unit's absence. They had already spent far too long chasing the Pahkma scouts without having anything to show for it and Tal knew that if they came back empty handed, there would be hell to pay. He signaled to Officer Ayan who scrambled to his feet.
"That bitch said we'd find the rebels at the Caves of Tarn," he snarled as Ayan snapped to attention beside him, "I want those caves found and I want them found fifteen microts ago."
He was pleased that Ayan didn't waste any energy responding. He had chosen his second well. Ayan was a man he could depend on to get the job done, no matter how distasteful the job. When they had attacked the Pahkma patrol, Tal hadn't had to get his own hands bloody; Ayan had seen to that. Unfortunately he had been too efficient, too ruthless. Tal had wanted to take at least one of the Pahkma alive, to question or to use as leverage. But Ayan had been over-zealous in obedience to the order to attack and there had been no survivors.
Tal's skin crawled as he watched Ayan head out with the other members of his unit. He feared that the image of the attack's aftermath would be forever etched in his memory. He'd never been squeamish about battles or the consequences; as a Peacekeeper he didn't have that luxury, but the kind of senseless brutality he had seen this day would haunt him for a very long time. As if trying to shut out the horrific sight he squeezed his eyes closed. After a few microts he shook his head, squared his shoulders and opened his eyes, searching for Ayan's profile in the distance.
"You will never leave this planet, Ayan. I will personally see to it," he vowed, though no one could hear his words.
Waban slumped heavily onto the nearest bench. The population of the med-unit had quadrupled with the influx of refugees from the city. Many of those who had left the city had been wounded during the assault on the Peacekeeper headquarters. Many of the wounded bore burns from pulse weapons that continued to fester and burn into their flesh. He and his staff did everything they could to ease their pain, but it wasn't enough. Within a few days most of them would be dead, a cruel twist of fate, a consequence of Pahkma physiology.
Even though it had resulted in Varga's freedom, he couldn't understand why the leadership council had agreed to such a foolhardy and costly mission. All for the life of a Sebacean and a few hundred thousand kretmas with which to buy more weapons so that they could kill and be killed.
He rubbed at his eyestalks tiredly, wishing he could have a few microts alone. More than anything he wanted to sleep. No, he thought, that's not true. I want to talk to Varga; I want to know that she's all right. But between his patients and her refusal to talk with him he had little hope that he would have that assurance any time soon. He leaned against the cool stone wall and closed his eyes trying to block out the horror of the past few arns. He felt himself slipping into unconsciousness and embraced it.
"Master Waban. Master Waban. We need you sir." The voice sounded as if it came through water, thick and garbled. He tried to push away the hand that shook his shoulder but wasn't able to.
"What?" He asked blearily as he forced himself awake.
"Sir, two soldiers just brought in a Hynerian. He's been injured. Councilor Tammat wants you to see to him."
Waban shook his head in an effort to clear the fog of his brief nap. "A Hynerian? Here?" He pushed himself off the bench and staggered forward. "What happened to him?"
"Peacekeepers. In fact, Bacca's patrol brought one in. He's on his way to containment now."
Rattlers. Crichton's gut was full of them. The few people the small contingent passed in the passageways stopped to stare and Crichton assumed that he was one of the few "Sebaceans" to have seen the inside of the complex. His guards were all business as they escorted him to the holding cell. They learned well from the Peacekeepers, John thought. He suspected they wouldn't appreciate the comparison.
He was impressed with what little of the compound they allowed him to see. It looked as if they had been building it for some time, which wasn't really surprising. Rygel had told him that the civil war between the Pahkma and the Peacekeepers had been going on for nearly fifty cycles. Apparently the fighting flared up occasionally only to be suppressed by the Peacekeepers. But from what he'd seen in the short time that he'd been planet-side he expected this would be the final battle. Either the Pahkma would drive the Peacekeepers from their world or the Peacekeepers would grind them into permanent submission. There would be no middle ground this time.
His guards halted before the only door Crichton had seen since entering the cavern. The rattlers in his gut started kicking up a storm again as one of his guards removed his shackles while another keyed in the access code. After everything he'd been through in the past few cycles the thought of being locked in a cell terrified him. The only thing keeping him from losing it was the possibility that Aeryn was on the other side of the door.
The door slipped open with a soft whoosh. One of the Pahkma soldiers shoved him roughly and he stumbled forward into the cell. He whirled around only to see the door slip closed. A lump formed in his throat at the telltale sound of the lock engaging. He leaned his forehead against the cool metallic surface and closed his eyes, willing himself to be calm.
"It must be a gift."
Crichton's eyes snapped open and he spun toward the voice. "Aeryn? Oh God Baby, you're all right." Tears welled up in his eyes as he crossed the distance between them.
"What are you doing here Crichton?" Aeryn demanded, rising to her feet. Her shaking voice belied her angry words. "You were supposed to stay on Moya. You could have been killed."
Color flooded his cheeks and he ducked his head to hide the smile that crept to his lips. "I'm glad to see you too Aeryn," he murmured. "And what do you mean, it must be a gift?"
"Well you do have a knack for getting into trouble whenever you leave Moya," she deadpanned. He noticed that her hand trembled as she raised it to his cheek.
"Hell honey, I don't have to leave Moya for that." He grinned broadly at her, relieved that she appeared to be all right. "Who's your friend here?"
Aeryn glanced quickly down at Varga who had pressed even further into the corner. She dropped to her knees beside the frightened girl and laid her hands gently on her shoulders. "Varga, this is my friend John. He's won't hurt you."
"Peacekeeper." Varga whispered.
"No, Varga." Aeryn leaned in close, trying to break through the wall Varga had put up between them. "He's not a Peacekeeper. He's my friend. Remember? I told you about him when we were in the prison. He's here to help me; to help us."
"Can't help. No one can help. Too late. Too late." Varga sing-songed, rocking back and forth on her haunches.
Tammat hurried toward the Med-unit. So far, both of his contacts from the Leviathan had been injured. He had personally guaranteed their safety while on Pahk and he had failed miserably. First the Sebacean woman had been taken and tortured by the Peacekeepers, now Dominar Rygel lay in a coma. How could it all have gotten so out of control? Had his desire to see the Peacekeepers driven from his world overridden his judgement? Perhaps if he hadn't deferred to the Dominar when he had insisted the Sebacean accompany him. No, he chastised himself, what's done is done. I can't go back and do things over. All I can do is see that Dominar Rygel is well taken care of.
He rounded the bend in the corridor in full-stride, nearly bowling over Waban. His chief Med-tech looked exhausted, eyes rimmed in deep purple, his body slumped, his movements sluggish. Tammat grasped the young man's shoulders and steadied him.
"Dominar Rygel? What's his condition?" he asked without preamble.
"He's stable. There wasn't any permanent damage, but his body's taken quite a beating."
"Could you determine the source of his injuries?"
"He appears to have fallen from about three fennecks and has some minor burns. It would appear that he was wounded by a pulse weapon."
"From close range?" Tammat asked, determined to find out if the Peacekeeper Bacca had brought in was responsible for Rygel's injuries.
"No sir." Waban bowed his head, massaging his neck. He looked up to meet Tammat's steely gaze. "The burns were electrical in nature and my best guess is that the pulse weapon was fired from a distance, possibly from a prowler or other aircraft."
Tammat studied the younger man trying to determine if he was telling him the whole story. He'd known Waban for several cycles, had been prepared to welcome him into his family as a son when he and Varga were wed. But now he found himself questioning his veracity. What is becoming of me, he wondered.
"Can I see him?"
"He is unconscious Tammat," Waban replied stiffly. He hesitated then asked, "Have you seen Varga yet?"
"What?" Tammat asked. He looked at Waban as if he'd hardly heard him.
"Have you seen your daughter yet?" Waban asked, his voice etched with anger.
"No. No, I haven't seen her."
"She's changed Tammat. Perhaps instead of being so concerned about Dominar Rygel, you should check on your daughter." Waban turned on his heel and stalked away.
Tammat stared after the Med-tech, startled by his abrupt departure. In all the cycles they had known each other Waban had never raised his voice to him or treated him with anything other than respect. What could have happened, he wondered, to make him so angry?
"Zhaan! Zhaan?" Chiana shook the Delvian roughly hoping for some sign that she wasn't dead. "You can't leave me too Zhaan! Please Zhaan, please wake up," she cried. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she shook the Delvian's lifeless form. Nothing.
She rocked back on her heels and sank to the deck beside Zhaan. Pulling her knees up, she buried her face in her arms. Silent sobs shook her little body. For all of her bravado and claims of self-sufficiency, Chiana was afraid of being alone, especially of being alone on this giant ship with a dying Pilot.
Cold fingers of fear clawed their way up her spine. I'm alone, she thought. Trapped. I'm going to die here. Die like Pilot. Die like Zhaan. She pressed her face into her knees more tightly as sobs once again wracked her frame.
She felt something bump against her leg. Her eyes snapped open and she found herself staring into two bright lights waggling on antennae. It backed away, spun around several times then pressed forward again bumping her leg. Chiana sniffled and brushed the tears from her eyes.
"You want me to follow you?" she asked, cocking her head. It chirped and twirled around in response and she felt a giggle bubble in her throat. Frell, she thought, I'm starting to talk to the DRDs like Crichton. She scrambled to her feet and followed the manic robot.
"Hey!" she shouted, running to catch up to the racing DRD. "Slow down! I can't see you without any lights!" The DRD never slowed its pace, but almost immediately the lights in the passageway began to flicker giving limited illumination to her path. She was so focused on keeping the DRD in sight that she paid little attention to the direction they traveled.
After several microts it stopped and began chirping and spinning. By the time Chiana caught up to it she was breathing hard and she slipped to floor beside the DRD, effectively blocking its path. "Okay," she gasped, "enough. We're going to use Crichton's method here. I'm gonna ask you questions and you're going to blink once for yes and twice for no. Do you understand?"
The DRD blinked once.
"Great." Chiana smiled ruefully. "I'm losing my mind. I'm talking to a frelling DRD like it can understand me." She paused, gathering her thoughts. She had so many questions, but where to begin?
"Is Pilot dead?"
The DRD blinked twice.
"Is Zhaan dead?"
The DRD blinked twice.
"Where are you taking me? No wait. You can't answer yes or no to that one." She hesitated a microt, studying the DRD, her mind whirling with questions and possibilities. "Moya? Am I talking to you?"
The DRD blinked once.
Her heart began to pound. Oh my Gods, she thought, Moya is communicating with me. This cannot be happening. The DRD's chirping and bumping her to regain her attention interrupted her thoughts. She cocked her head at the little robot and asked, "Moya, do you need me to help you regain control of internal systems?"
"Do you want me to go to Command?"
"You want me to follow the DRD, don't you?"
"Why not. It makes as much sense as anything else on this ship," she mumbled, pushing herself back to her feet. "Just don't get so far ahead of me this time."
The DRD blinked once then raced ahead of her again.
Jorrin raised his right hand. It was clenched into a tight fist, signaling D'Argo to stop. The Luxan crouched low and crept forward to join his companion near a rock outcropping. Without a word, Jorrin pointed skyward. Hundreds of birds were launching themselves into the air. Something had disturbed them.
They eased back into the shadow of the rocks. Waiting. Listening. Watching. Time seemed to stand still. D'Argo was impatient to reach the caves, to have a chance to fight the Peacekeepers, to kill Baryn Tal. But he couldn't risk Jorrin's life any more than he already had. So he waited. It galled him to have to hide like this, cowering in the shadows like a child.
Attempting to calm his frayed nerves, he leaned against the rock wall and inhaled deeply. A cold smile split his dusty face as a familiar scent assailed his nostrils.