Author: toadie
Rating: R
Summary: John Crichton is not the man he thinks he is.
Notes Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’
- Friedrich Nietzsche 1886
Archiving: Please contact the author for permission.
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Black & White

Part 7

He felt lost. The pressure upon him was immense. One slip and all he had worked for so far would be destroyed. All gone. He had to succeed, he just had to. The consequences of his failure didn't bear consideration. So far he had pulled it off, mostly. One or two mistakes that were easily explained away, but he had to be careful. If they discovered the truth it would mean death for him.

***

Gemmell sat through the initial briefing for the attack upon the sector capital of the Terran Republic, or rebels as they were being called here. As if after a hundred years they could still be considered rebels. He sat calmly carefully noting details of the plan and asking for clarification at the appropriate places. Inside his mind he was screaming at himself. Every instinct called for him to run as soon and as fast as he could. A cooler part of him reasoned that that wasn't an option, yet. Soon it could be done, his ship was scheduled to patrol several nearby systems. He would never have a better opportunity for escape. He knew his crew was loyal to him and would follow him wherever he led. But this game of 'I know you know but do you know I know you know' was wearing him out. He knew he had to act calmly while every second he expected to be arrested or shot.

 

The warning when it came had been both a blessing and a curse. It allowed him to plan but it also allowed him to worry. Here he was deep in enemy territory, with the enemy knowing he was a defector but not knowing he knew they knew. He also knew that this plan was a decoy at best. A detailed and brilliantly devised decoy though. It would have worked, shattering the Republican Navy and the Republic itself, if the Imperium had been willing to sacrifice a huge chunk of its own navy to do it.

The Republic might only be a tenth the size of the Imperium but its standing fighting force was a quarter of the size. It had to be with such a large predatory empire next door.

 

So for now he sat, taking the appropriate notes and making the right noises as they fed him a wonderfully concocted dish of bullshit, and he had to sit there eating it all up like a good little soldier.

***

 

 

 

Aeryn prowled around her new quarters suspiciously. She had been with her fellow Sebaceans in much less desirable accommodations when she had been pulled out of her cell and escorted here. At first she had thought it was her turn to be examined and felt justifiably nervous after the tales she had been told of the procedures used, but she resolutely refused to show any fear as she was lead away.

 

Instead of a medical examination room she was instead brought to this room. She knew it was no less a cell than her previous quarters but it was an extremely luxurious one. It was comprised of three rooms: a spacious sitting area with comfortable furniture, an even larger bedroom area containing a huge bed and enough closet space to quarter a battalion in, or so it seemed to Aeryn. The closets, though far from full, contained more clothing than Aeryn had seen outside of a quartermaster's storage area. It was this that allowed her to take advantage of the third and final room. The bathroom.

 

The bathroom was almost the same size as the bedroom. It was full of equipment and implements that she could only guess the usage of. But that was secondary. Her full attention was focused on the bathtub. She had seen one before of course, but never had a chance to use one. It wasn't high on her list of things she wanted to experience in her lifetime, but it did rate a mention in the lower third. Therefore she methodically filled the tub, dumping in some other oils that were sitting on a table beside it, obviously for that very purpose, before stripping off her sweaty and now stinking clothing.

 

The heat of the water was comforting if slightly uncomfortable. She knew that the living death was the last of her problems, so she resolutely ignored the sense of being uncomfortably warm and concentrated on the sensuous experience of the warm water. As she lay there she began to go over her experiences to date. She still had no idea why she had been singled out from the others for this, or had she? For all she knew all the others were now also experiencing this. She considered this for a microt before discarding it with a snort. No, as she thought on it, there could only be one explanation. Crichton. He was behind this, somehow.

 

The though of John raised mixed emotions within Aeryn. He was John but the man she had glimpsed in the landing bay didn't act like John. There was something different about the way he moved. The easy confidence was still there but it seemed overlaid by arrogance. Something she knew well but had never seen in Crichton. Until yesterday when she saw him with that blonde tralk who had been practically hanging off his arm. She felt as if he had struck her when he had smiled and waved at her across the bay. It seemed such a contemptuous gesture. He was home now, among his own people. Perhaps that accounted for the change.

 

These thoughts had shattered her mood so she climbed out of the tub and dried herself roughly before entering the bedroom to choose appropriate clothing. With the towel wrapped around her she went through the available selections. She was surprised when she realised that apart for minor differences and different materials all of the clothing was not only her taste but her size as well. She found this fact unsettling as she dressed. Just as she was pulling on her PK issue boots, she felt there was no point in discarding a pair of well-worn in boots, she heard a noise from the sitting area and cautiously went to the door and looked into the room. She started at what she saw.

 

There, sitting comfortably on the long couch, was John Crichton, wearing the grey uniform of his people. Just inside the door were two armed soldiers and a third was just handing him a drink. He took a sip of the long, cool looking drink before glancing up and seeing her standing by the door.

 

"Ah, good. You're finished, I hope you don't mind, but I made myself a drink. Perhaps you would like one?" He gestured toward the cabinet that she had earlier opened and found to contain bottles but little else of interest. She shook her head and stood where she was. "Very well, in that case, Trooper Hasig take your people outside please, I would like to talk to her alone." The soldiers filed out of the room and the door closed with and ominous clunk, leaving Aeryn and John alone together for the first time since they were captured aboard Gemmell's carrier. She refused to initiate this conversation, instead letting him do the talking while she done the learning. The silence lasted several microts before John broke it in a way that caused her to doubt her own hearing.

"Hey."

She licked her lips as she considered her options. This was a comforting piece of the familiar amongst the unfamiliar of these surroundings. Part of her yearned to grab hold of it and see where it would take her. Instead she simply shook her head.

"Now Aeryn, there's no need to be like this. I know these are uncomfortable surroundings for you, but I am sure I'll be able to arrange better for you given time. That is, of course, if you co-operate with me." A lazy smile ghosted across John's face as he said this and Aeryn was certain of just what kind of 'co-operation' he was hinting at.

"Never."

"Ah, so you can still speak. Good, and never is a long time Aeryn. I am sure you'll come around to my way of thinking in time. But for now, you are comfortable I take it?" His accent seemed to be only subtly different, but his manner was completely alien. She knew this wasn't John. At least not the John she knew and, reluctantly admitted to herself, cared for.

"What do you want?" Her tone was harsh and her posture stiff. She knew this, but she wasn't trying to be friendly.

She watched as John glanced around at various fittings on the walls, first the mirrors and then up at the light. He seemed on the verge of saying something and opened his mouth several times as if to speak, but each time he closed it again. Finally he spoke.

"I owe you a debt. One I can't repay, unfortunately. Not that I would anyway." Aeryn watched as John leaned back into the comfy chair, drink in one hand, the other resting comfortably on the arm of the chair. In his hand Aeryn thought she glimpsed something, but it was gone before she could get a good look at it. "Still I feel that we could come to an…amicable…arrangement for us both."

Aeryn stood, silent and resolute, her arms crossed in front of her chest and her face tight with anger. She wanted to wipe that self-satisfied smirk off his face here and now, but she also knew that the guards were just outside her door and any aggressive move on her part would no doubt bring them in. So she stood and waited.

John sighed and shook his head before standing and straightening his uniform. "Well I should be going I suppose." With these words the door slid open without even a gesture from John, confirming her suspicions of the room being under surveillance. "I'll leave you to think over my offer, Aeryn. Perhaps next time we meet you might actually like to talk." With this he left Aeryn to her troubled thoughts.

***

 

"So what do we do?" Gillian asked.

"Well first I thought a little wine, maybe even dinner, on the promenade. That good with you?" Scott Gemmell replied as he walked back over to the couch and sat beside his Flag Captain.

She leaned over and hit him hard on the arm as he sat. "That's not what I was talking about and you know it. This is serious, Scott. They know, and you saw what they did to the others they caught. They'll kill us."

Gemmell sat rubbing his arm with a feigned wounded expression upon his face. "Yes, I do know this is serious, love, but they obviously want something from us. That's why everything is still normal. They are using us to feed false information to the Republic which can only mean they do intend to attack, just not where we have now informed the Republic they intend to." He levered himself back to his feet and started to pace the room. "We need to find out what they intend to do in the next five days and if we can't, we need to at least get a warning through that the attack is a diversion for something else."

"Can't we just use the Comm Array onboard the Reprisal to send warning?"

"Oh we will, but only once we have already started running like buggery for our lives. If we attempt to do it before, we could show our hand to them and not escape at all." He stopped his pacing and knelt in front of Rameriez, taking her hand in his. "We have survived worse, not much perhaps, but certainly worse. We'll survive this. And do you know why we will survive? Hmmmm?" He paused several seconds, a grin blooming on his face and an answering one appearing on Gillian's. "We'll survive because," he paused dramatically until Gillian slapped him on the top of the head.
"I have a plan." He finished weakly, rubbing the top of his head with indignation while he watched Rameriez collapse back onto the couch laughing hard.

***

 

"That's your plan? Are you completely mad? A first year ensign with a death wish couldn't come up with a plan as bad as that and that's what you want us to do?" As she was speaking her voice was rising higher and higher. "You are mad. I should just shoot you here and now and have it over with. At least that way I would be able to wipe that smug expression off your face." Gillian stood, hands on hips and foot tapping directly in front of the chair Gemmell was currently warily observing her from.

Gemmell raised his hand in a placating gesture. "Now calm down Gillian and let me explain. It's not as crazy as it first sounds." He slowly rose to his feet and carefully lowered Gillian into his vacated seat while he pulled a convenient side table over and perched on that in front of her seat.

"First and most importantly, we need to start transferring the less reliable members of our crews dockside, assign them duties that will keep them on the station or give them short leave to go onto the station. Then when that's done, we need to start transferring supplies to the Reprisal, engineering spares, weapons, the whole nine yards."

"Someone will notice the increase of our requisitions and start to ask questions,"

"This is the Navy dearest. One thing you can rely upon is that efficiency isn't the byword that the Quartermaster's office works to. When they eventually get their collective heads out of each other's asses we'll be long gone. Besides, I'm going to fudge it a little bit more by sending some of the supplies to our escort, it'll be months before anyone down their twigs that they no longer exist and starts to wonder where all these supplies are going."

"I still think it is unnecessary. This risk is totally unneeded. We should simply bide our time and run for it when we get a chance. All this plotting complicates a simple plan. We wait and then we run. Now that plan I like. Yours means we open ourselves to detection and greater risk."

"I know this, but I feel it is necessary. I just need you to trust me. I can pull this off, with little or no risk."

"The spares I can sort of understand, but why do you want to rescue those Sebaceans?"

"Their technology is behind ours. But I have looked into the principles behind much of it and they seem sound. In fact, applying our tech to their know-how could produce a whole new generation of defensive and offensive systems. That's not something we want to allow the Imperials to get unmolested." He stood and started to pace about in a tight circle, his arms gesturing wildly as he spoke. "Granted, they have all the raw data, but if…when…our plan works, the Republic will not only have the information but the tech samples and people who know how it works."

Gillian stood from the chair and reached out and stopped him in his tracks. " Ok ok, you're preaching to the converted here." She studied his face closely before adding, "there is another reason isn't there?"

Gemmell looked her in the eye and said, " I have no idea what you mean."

"You feel guilty don't you? About what is going to happen to them if we don't get them out."

"There might be an element of that I admit, but…"

"You big softy," Gillian broke in. "Ok we'll do it your way. BUT." She poked him in the chest to emphasise the word. "But if this goes wrong, I am going to kick your butt all the way to hell."

"You'll take any opportunity to touch my butt won't you." Gemmell said before ducking the fist Rameriez sent his way.

***

 

"I don't like it." Dietz paced her and John's quarters like a caged tiger. If she had a tail, John was certain it would be lashing violently by now.

"Relax, Amy. You know we have to wait, it's part of the plan." John stood and wrapped his arms around her, stopping her endless pacing.

"But they have already transmitted the data, we don't need them anymore." She leaned her forehead against his shoulder, relaxing into his comfortable warmth. She knew she had a pout on her face as she spoke and was thankful her face was buried in John's chest. She hated to think she was acting like a spoiled child but this waiting didn't suit her at all. She could practically see Gemmell's destruction but for now she had to smile every time she saw him and make nice. Well, perhaps not smile, that would definitely alert him to the fact that something was wrong.

"We know there are other spies in our ranks. If we take them before we are ready to move, then word might reach the rebels that we have captured them. From that they could guess that we now know they know that we know they know, ad infinitum." Amy gave a snort of laughter at John's statement. It was rare that he displayed any sense of humour at all, but when he did it was always worth the wait. "That's a risk we can't afford to take quite yet. Surely you can wait seven days. That's not a long time." John put his hands on her shoulders and pushed her away slightly so he could look at her face.

Amy stuck her tongue out at him and sighed. "I suppose so, but I don't like the idea of sending them out on the local systems patrol."

A grin flickered across his face and he released her and sat back down on the couch, patting the seat beside him. "It's their turn, it would be suspicious if we didn't. Come on, all we have to do is act normally until the jaws of the trap close around them. After that we can gloat all we want."

Ignoring his offer to sit beside him Amy instead sat on John's lap, putting her feet up across the rest of the couch. She sighed as John shifted her weight slightly to get more comfortable as she rested her head under his chin. "I know. I'm sorry John, but he humiliated me aboard his ship, in front of all his officers. I take that personally and I want to see him suffer."

She felt more than heard the laughter that welled up from John at her statement and stiffened slightly until he spoke again. "That's my girl, stop worrying so much. We have him, he just doesn't know it yet."

"John…" she drawled softly, one hand idly tracing patterns upon his chest. "Uncle Dimitri said the oddest thing to me yesterday. When I was about to tell him my suspicions about Gemmell he said you had already talked to him about something else. But the way he phrased it was that he wasn't a pimp or a marriage counsellor. What did he mean?"

She felt him stiffen slightly at her question before relaxing again. "Oh you know Uncle Dimitri, always there with a colourful phrase at the most inopportune moment. I simply asked him a small favour and he was more than happy to help out."

"What favour?" Again she said it quietly, her hands still tracing shapes upon his chest, but this time they were far from random, her favourite touch was the dagger over his heart.

"A surprise is all, darling. And that's all I am going to tell you." She felt John wrap an arm about her waist, while the other was moving slowly across her abdomen, in an attempt to distract her, she had no doubt.

She decided to push the issue a little more to see if he would tell her what he was hiding "A surprise? For me?"

"Who else?"

She started to squirm in his lap as he began to tickle her in earnest, she couldn't break away since he had her firmly by the waist. Besides she didn't want to get away just yet. But she did have one final shot at worming his secret out of him. "That's good. For a moment I thought you might have another woman tucked away somewhere."

Johns rich laugh sounded out in the room and he slid out from underneath her and pinned her to the couch. Slowly he lowered his mouth to her ear before whispering in it. "I think I know better than to do that. Besides you're all the woman I can handle."

She simply smiled and thought, well there's more than one way to find out a secret. But I do like this method.

***

 

In her room, her cell, Aeryn sat deep in thought. She knew she would never give in to his demands. Never. Carefully she went through her memories of John savouring each one and carefully detaching them from the reality that was now John. Her John, that annoying erp man, was dead and in his place was a monster who masqueraded as him. It was only at her admission that the John she knew was gone for good that she realised that she had truly loved him. She knew she had cared, but the pain of his loss drove home just how deeply that care ran.

***

 

He had to get away. He could feel the pressure upon him, never yielding simply crushing down upon him with ever increasing force. The harder he struggled the more it bore down upon him. He had sold his soul to the devil and he was unsure if he could ever redeem it, but the truth was, it would be a small price to pay if he could just succeed. He had to, there was no other option.

***

 

"So how are we doing?" Gemmell asked quietly as he and Rameriez stood in one corner of the quiet bridge area.

"Good, I have started to authorise leave for the unreliable members of our crew and the equipment is starting to arrive. We are already starting to run out of room in the storage bays, soon we are going to have to start stowing material in the flight bays and people are going to notice that." She put her hands on her hips in that universal sign all men recognise as 'she's pissed at something'.

"Have Trish close launch bays one through eight and have the material moved from the storage areas into them during downtime, that way when more supplies arrive we can have them stowed directly in the hold. That should keep some of the brighter idiots from guessing what's happening." He spread his hands and raised his eyebrows, hoping that this would get him off whatever hook he had inadvertently stumbled upon during his absence.

"I know I agreed to this but you never did explain in much detail what you were planning to do with it." Her voice was sugary sweet, which, in itself, was a warning sign and Gemmell racked his brain as to something he had done or hadn't done. In the end he decided to brazen it out and hope for the best.

"Ah, it's a surprise, just do as I say and all will work out fine." A grin was etched on his features as he said this, taking any possible sting from his words.

"This is my business you know." Her less than amused tone belied the gleam Gemmell could clearly see in her eyes. He breathed a quiet sigh of relief. He was forgiven, for what he was unsure, but that's a woman for you.

"I know, but a guy's got to have some secrets. Otherwise how could I be all cool and mysterious?" Her bark of laughter caught the attention of the deck crew, who all turned to see who was making the noise and just as quickly turned back to their duties.

"My idea about shooting you is getting more and more attractive every time you open that ever so cool and mysterious mouth of yours." Warmth and resignation filled her voice as she shook her head. He was grinning at her like a little boy with a new toy to show her.

"Oh you know you wouldn't. It would be such a loss to womankind that you would never survive the backlash from all the poor denied women that pine for me all their waking hours."

This time Gillian smothered her laugh at this statement and simply shook her head in resignation. "And back in the real world…."

"Ok I do have a small problem, regarding the prisoners we're going to break out. It seems one of them has been taken to the VIP section."

"VIP?" She thought she knew what that acronym meant but it made no sense in this context.

"Very Important Prisoner. I am not sure why, there aren't even any rumours as to why, which in itself is strange."

"You think it's a trap?" she asked sharply.

"I doubt it, that would mean they were gambling on my compassion, a trait that I, as an Imperial officer, should have none of. No, it's not a trap. But it is damned odd."

"So you are going to leave him? Her?"

"Her and no. Where we can fake one movement order for prisoners, we can fake two. I'll send Stammell for them once we start to board the others."

"This is starting to get complicated, Scott," she said in a hushed tone, concern etched on her face as she reached out and touched his arm.

"I know. Ain't it great. I love it when a plan comes together."

***

 

 

"Look Amy, I'll only be gone a few days." John in a placating tone. "I'm leaving on a transport ship to earth through the Knossos portal. I spend a day or so familiarising myself with the Captains of my ships, then come back through the portal again. We're talking three days at the most."

"But I want to come. I haven't been back to earth for years." She wheedled, fingers playing with the front of his uniform tunic. She knew he hated it when she did this and he would agree to just about anything to get her to stop.

"You know you have to stay and watch over Gemmell and his crew." He said firmly, stepping back from her touch and resolutely not looking her directly in the eye. "You would never forgive yourself if you weren't there to see him take the fall and you know it."

"Yes, but there are almost six days until we are scheduled to arrest him according to the plan. We'd be back in plenty of time for it." She coaxed, knowing he was right but still wondering just how far he would let her push him.

"Since when did you become a great believer in plans? You know as well as I do that as soon as you turn your back the plan goes to hell in a handcart. Someone has to stay and watch over it." Saying this he turned his back on her and walked back over to the bed where his half packed bag sat waiting to be filled. She caught the meaning of this gesture - conversation over - and sighed.

"I suppose you're right." She surrendered finally as she watched him pack.

"Darlin' don't you know by now I am always right?" John's voice reached her, the mocking tone evident to her.

"Sure you are." She replied sarcastically. "Oh well I suppose I could spend those three days you plan leaving me alone to try and find out what my surprise is." She heard him sigh dramatically and watched as he turned and sat on their bed shaking his head.

"Ah ah ah." He waved a finger at her. "Bad girls don't get surprises you know."

"I thought you liked it when I was a bad girl?" she said coyly, joining him on the bed.

***

 

Gemmell stood on the observation deck watching the gleaming hulls of yet another attack group assume station relative to the command node. These ships were to form the hub of yet another fleet destined to attack the sector capital of humanity's only serious known threat in this galaxy. Humanity. The irony caused a brief chuckle from Gemmell. We are our own worse enemy. These battles were always the worst. Humans versus aliens were easy in comparison. Human versus human was a completely different matter.

There had yet to be discovered another species that had such an overwhelming capacity for mass destruction while dressing it up in ideals. The Peacekeepers came close but not close enough. As he was musing these thoughts, Rameriez joined him at the observation window. Without preamble he started to talk.

"Three days to go and we still know nothing about their actual plan. I even pumped that idiot Elton in operations, but all he could do was babble, where anybody could over hear him, how he looked forward to seeing the delights of Takara prime."

"So what do you think it means?" she asked, looking out onto the massive collection of ships amassed for this attack.

"I'm not sure, darlin', and that's what has me worried." Gemmell shook his head and sighed wistfully. He was sure there was something he was missing, something simple, hidden in plain sight. "I think they do plan on attacking Takara prime but they must know that the Republican Navy is waiting for them."

"Maybe that's the idea?"

"A diversion you mean? An awfully complicated plan, if that's what it is." Could it be that simple? "Unless, hmm you know I never considered that. Why would the Imperials commit an eighth of their entire navy as a diversion? To make the Republic weaken the defences of an unthreatened area. The hell of it is, even when we tell them that might be the plan, there is nothing they can do." The truth seemed to unfold in front of him, the simplicity of the plan took his breath away. With all the pieces in place the republic was in a lose-lose situation. "If they withdraw forces from the Takara system to shore up defences elsewhere, the Imperials will just roll over whatever defence force is left and take the planet even if that wasn't their original intention."

"What can we do about it then?" Worry tinged her voice as she looked across at him. He was clearly surprised at the revelations he had just experienced. He had a look of shock on his face and she could have sworn she heard him mutter something about being carried away with his own cleverness under his breath.

"Nothing. That's what makes me so mad. They used me to set this up and even when I inform Command, there is nothing they can do. Whatever the real target is will come under attack with little or no warning." He leaned his forehead against the chill surface of the armour-glass observation window, as if trying to cool his anger at being duped in such a fashion.

"This does make sense of some information I got," Gillian said thoughtfully.

"What information?" he asked sharply pulling his head from the window and turning to face her.

"Your favourite person, the newly minted Cohortach Crichton, is travelling to Earth to meet up with his new command before returning here in three days."

"Here? Why do they need more ships here? They already have a large chunk of the Fleet here. In fact all ships listed to be involved in the operation are already here and that's not even counting the regular sector fleet, so why more ships? I think we may have found the key to what's going on. Have you any information of what kind of ships?" Gemmell's mind was racing; he, too, could see the importance of this information. Before it would simply have been another bit of trivia, but in the light of his new found knowledge. It was obviously much more important.

"Apparently they are "warlock" class dreadnoughts," she said, watching his puzzled reaction to this news.

"What the hell are "warlock" class dreadnoughts?" he asked simply.

"I have no idea. Apparently neither does anyone else, and there is also no information on them in the data stores either. I didn't go any further than general access though, I didn't want to seem too curious about things I probably shouldn't know about."

"You did the right thing. Do you think you could get an exact time for when Crichton and these ships are supposed to return?" Gillian could practically see the wheels start to move inside Scott's head. She knew he was reformulating his escape plan in light of this new knowledge. Why he felt he needed to do so escaped her, but she had long ago learned to trust his instincts and planning. No matter what she said to his face.

"Yes…" she said cautiously. "Why?"

"Because I have just had a brilliant idea." A huge grin stole over his face with this announcement and Gillian cursed to herself.

"Why am I not filled with glee? What madness do you want to inflict upon me now?" Gemmell could tell she was less than enthusiastic about him altering the plan at this late stage in the game. He also knew that she would back him up in it all the way to hell if necessary.

"Just a way to create maximum confusion and panic to cover our escape with all the prisoners."

"I thought we already had a way to escape."

"Well, I was never very happy with that plan. This one is much better." The look on her face was priceless as he said this. He truly wished he could have recorded it for posterity but he guessed he wouldn't have survived the attempt. "I'll have to go and have a chat with Trish in engineering about it, to see if it will fly or not. So my quarters in two hours?" And with that he was gone, not quite racing down the adjacent corridors.

***

 

Ensign Milla Williams was slightly disappointed at her first journey through a Knossos portal. Nothing happened, well nothing in the sense that she felt anything. She had heard horror stories from people who had travelled through it before, how it made you feel like you were being stretched and squeezed at the same time as your internal organs tried to become external organs. Still it was exciting, she thought. One second you were in one place the next halfway across the Imperial sphere at Earth.

To make it doubly exciting, she was on her way to her ship posting. She had been posted to the Psyrix Command Node fresh out of the academy and now barely a year later she had been transferred to a ship, the 'Warlock'. She had tried to find out as much information as she could about the ship when she had received her orders but there was nothing to find. That meant it had to be a new ship. She just hoped and prayed it wasn't an in-system patrol ship. Nothing exciting ever happened in the home systems.

As she had been standing looking out the observation port on the upper deck of the transport Earth had grown from a tiny speck to about the size of an orange and was rapidly getting bigger. She could quite clearly see the ring around the planet. The largest structure ever created by man or any other known species. It had taken over a hundred years to build and over twenty simply to design. It had only been completed in the last year. It was also the reason nothing ever happened in the home system. The biggest concentration of firepower known in the galaxy backed up by thousands of parasite ships assigned to the defence of this system.

"So have they finished it yet or are they still 'revising' the plans?" A man's voice said from behind her. Curious at his ignorance of the completion of the defence grid, she turned and found herself face to face with Cohortach Crichton. Her jaw dropped even as she braced herself at attention. Standing in front of her was a man who was so far above her as to be considered a god by a lowly ensign. She finally managed to stutter out that indeed the grid had been finished in the last year. He simply nodded and turned to leave the room. Just before he exited the room he stopped and looked over his shoulder at her still standing at attention. "Relax, Ensign, I won't eat you. Not so close to dinner at least." With that he left the blushing Ensign alone once more in the room.

***

 

 

Aeryn had been alone in these rooms for two days now. At first she'd been glad she had had no more visits from him. But her isolation was starting to get to her. She had found herself wishing that he would appear just for the sake of having someone to talk to for a little while. She knew this was probably the idea and cursed herself for her weakness but she had never truly been alone in her life. When she had been forced to run from the Peacekeepers she had found it hard to adjust to having so few people about, but at least there had been someone. Here, alone she felt frightened in a way she had never experience before. So when the door finally opened she found that she was actually looking forward to talking to him. Only it wasn't him standing there. It was her. It was Dietz.

They stood staring at each other for several seconds before Amy spoke. "Well, well, well. This is a surprise. Of all the things I thought John might be hiding, I never suspected it was you." Aeryn watched as she strode in and slowly walked around Aeryn as if scanning every inch of her. "How like John, he always did have a habit of collecting pets, but I think this is the first time he brought one home with him."

Aeryn glared indignantly at Amy. "I am nobody's PET!" she spat. "Least of all his!" she hissed vehemently. She squashed the urge to lash out at the tralk for this insult.

"Not yet at least, but knowing him, he's wearing you down slowly but surely. Isn't he?" Aeryn knew this was no question, just a simple statement of fact. What was worse, she knew it was true. When that door had opened she had actually been hoping it was him.

Amy walked over to the couch and sat, then gestured towards the only other seat in the room. "Why don't you sit down? I have the feeling you and I have much to discuss." With a feeling of trepidation, like a fly that knew there was a spider's web somewhere nearby, Aeryn cautiously made her way over to the seat.

***

 

"Welcome aboard the Warlock, sir. I am Centurion Haig Talsorian and I am to be your Flag Captain." Haig reached out and shook Crichton's hand before introducing him to the other captains waiting in the docking bay. "These are Centurions Douglas Walker, Janet Fraiser, Imran Kumari, Stephen James and Sonia Hammel. They will be commanding the remaining ships making up your squadron." Haig had heard a lot of things about this man, few of them complimentary but he was determined to be fair and give him a chance to prove himself. Once the greetings were over and official introductions were done with, they all crowded into the briefing area of the ship. Haig watched as Crichton glanced around at the room and knew exactly what he was thinking.

"I found it odd as well, sir. For all the apparent size of this ship we actually have slightly less crew space than a standard Dreadnought. The new weapons systems are extremely space intensive." He felt that Crichton's noticing the slightly smaller dimensions of the room was a positive sign. Still he felt a curious itch that he was soon going to hear something he didn't like from the man. He hoped he was wrong.

"So I see, Centurion. Still I am sure we'll be able to survive." With that he sat at the head of the table and the others all sat down at their appointed places around it. "Now to business. What is your current state of readiness?"

"We are still working up the ships systems, sir. Shake down trials are scheduled to commence in four days, they should last a week. After that, possibly a further month sorting out whatever goes wrong during the shakedown maybe more, and we should be fully combat ready." Haig felt justifiably proud of this statement. He knew that they were on time and on target for being commissioned on schedule. No mean feat considering the plethora of new tech that had to be integrated with current shipboard and weapons systems. The next statement destroyed his feeling of complacency like an anti-matter warhead.

"Two days." Crichton said simply. He pulled out a stack of flimsies and slid copies to each of the Captains present.

"Excuse me sir?" Shock resounded around the table. All of the other Captains stared at the information presented to them before all staring at Haig, as if begging him to tell them this was a joke.

"We have two days to find and fix any faults with these ships before we test them in a combat situation." Crichton simply stated, leaning back in his chair.

"But that's madness, sir. The Leonidas just left the construction bay last week. They have barely finished integrating the internal systems, never mind had time to work the kinks out of them. There is no way we could even start to find, never mind fix, faults in that time."

"I am afraid, Centurion Talsorian, that is all the time we have. We are scheduled to lead an attack in five days time. I have full confidence in you and your people's ability to make this happen, but I would suggest you start working fast and hard. Two days is all you have." Haig felt sick to his stomach and he was sure all of the others felt exactly the same way. They were being asked to do the impossible in an improbable timeframe. He glanced again at Crichton who simply shrugged his shoulders and looked mildly sympathetic. "I know it's impossible, people, but we have been dictated to and we have to try to meet the given orders. All ships should be ready to move out in fifty hours from now."

***

 

"Trish reports she has done as you asked Scott. Although I think you might be going a touch too far with this plan. Stealing equipment and freeing prisoners is one thing but this?" she spoke confidently on the bridge, crowded as it was with personnel. She knew and trusted each and every one of those present and, more importantly, knew they trusted Gemmell implicitly. Otherwise they wouldn't be doing this.

"You must admit it will cause confusion and allow us a greater chance to make it to the nebula undetected. Plus it has the added bonus of giving us at least two hours before they can even try to leap frog ships in front of us with the Knossos device." Gemmell sat quietly studying the current disposition of the huge fleet around the Command Node. Planning the most inconspicuous route out was Gillian's guess as to why.

"I understand the reasoning I am just not so sure about killing all these people just to escape." She knew Scott took no pleasure in killing, unlike some, but he could be ruthless when it was necessary. This however was slightly more ruthless than she had ever hoped to see from him.

"Oh we won't kill them, I had Trish place a shut down command just before the reactors enter a detonation sequence. But the confusion created will be immense." Gillian felt a wave of relief pass over her. This was more like a plan Gemmell would create. Distraction and evasion were his strong points.

"Still…" She said simply. Gemmell turned in his chair to face her, a small smile on his face. He reached out and patted her shoulder.

"Too late to have doubts now, baby, we are 'go' as soon as the Knossos device powers up to bring Crichton and his mystery ships through. Which should be fifty-two minutes from now." He turned back to the scanners watching for signs of an earlier than scheduled power up of the Knossos device.

"What about Greg?"

"Tetrarch Greg Stammell and his men are standing ready aboard the Node. They are awaiting my signal to retrieve the prisoners and the Peacekeeper tech samples," he replied, not taking his eyes off the scan data. Gillian smiled slightly at his concentration on such minutia, it was obvious he was more nervous over this than he planned to have others know.

"Isn't that risky having them aboard already?"

"Nah, they are just sitting in the assault shuttles. That bay is so big, I doubt they would notice if I parked the Reprisal there." A small grin appeared briefly on his face then vanished into the streams of data from the scanners.

***

 

"Well, Aeryn, as ever, it has been an enjoyable visit. Unfortunately I have to go now and prepare a, suitable, welcome home for John. It will be interesting to see which of us he visits first, don't you think?" Aeryn had become used to Dietz's scathing remarks over the last few days. At least once the initial hostility had dissipated between them they talked. Mostly about John. What he had been like aboard Moya, how he behaved and acted. Whether Aeryn noticed a marked difference in him since his return or not.

In return Dietz had explained to Aeryn John's history. Why it was he had been sent so far from home and how it was he had changed so much in such a short time since they had been separated aboard Gemmell's ship. Aeryn had wept the night Amy had explained exactly what had happened. She now knew he was gone forever, never to return to her. For her. Instead there was someone who walked and talked like him but wasn't him.

Aeryn had found Amy a surprisingly nice person at times, but she could make an unconscious remark about her duties and previous assignments that would shock Aeryn. For all her apparent pleasantness Amy had a dark and bitter core that oozed to the surface with regularity. Aeryn had known people like this while in the Peacekeepers, they use and abuse and think nothing of who they harm in the process. Not only that but they are normally drawn together like magnets. The fact that Amy seemed content to stay with John spoke volumes to Aeryn about his true personality, even before she had heard of his history. It unsettled her that she knew someone who had inflicted genocide upon an entire planet. She knew that it wasn't John who had done these things, but him, only it was sometimes hard to separate one from the other in her mind.

"Aeryn?"

Amy's touch upon her arm startled her from her introspection and she blinked rapidly, clearing her mind of the clutter of her thoughts. "I'm sorry, Amy, I was just thinking."

"Ah?"

"It just shocks me sometimes that John isn't John, and about what he has done."

"Oh that! Don't let that bother you. John is a passionate man and sometimes he can get carried away. Still, I am sure he has learned not to launch nukes at planetary targets. At least not without permission this time." With that and a cheery wave goodbye Amy left Aeryn's 'quarters'.

***

 

"Knossos device powering up, sir."

"Send the signal to Stammell and initiate the reactor overload on the Command Node." Gemmell ordered briskly.

Aboard the station, Greg Stammell received the go signal and so stood and walked to the front of his shuttle where the door controls were located. He hit his command frequency that connected him to his men in the other shuttles. "You have all been briefed and know what to do and by when it has to be done by. Anyone not back in thirty minutes is left behind. Alpha squad stay with the shuttles and make sure that only our people and material board them. Bravo and Charley, your objective is to secure the Sebacean prisoners from the holding area. Transfer orders will arrive there shortly so you should have no trouble. Delta, you are to secure the tech samples from engineering. Again, falsified transfer orders will make your job easy. Echo squad you are with me." With that he hit the controls to lower the ramps just as a cacophony of alarms started to sound, soon superseded by the reactor overload alarm and the evacuation alarm.

Aeryn's head jerked up at the sound of the alarms. She had no idea what they were but so many different ones couldn't be a good sign. Microts went by with no discernable changes. Suddenly coming from outside her door and audible even over the alarms she heard angry voices, followed by what could only be weapons fire and the heavy thuds of bodies hitting the deck. She watched as the door opened to admit several men carrying assault weapons and dragging the corpses of the men who had been guarding her.

"Who are you?" she asked calmly.

The man obviously in charge took his helmet off and turned to face her. "I am Tetrarch Greg Stammell and I am here to rescue you."

"Why would you rescue me?"

"I have no idea. I do as I am ordered. I am to get you and the rest of the Sebacean prisoners and get them off the station, at which point we run like hell and hope we escape. Now you coming with me or not?"

Aeryn decided that anything had to be better than where she was right now, so instead of answering she simply walked out the door much to the Greg's amusement.

"Whoa, wait for us. We know they way." And with that she found herself surrounded by heavily armed men and women

Aeryn looked around her with interest. Everywhere she looked there seemed to be someone running this way or that. Nobody seemed to be panicking but nobody seemed to be doing anything constructive either. Suddenly she found herself seized and pulled down a corridor. She struggled until she heard Stammell hiss at her to be quiet. She stopped and as soon as she did she heard heavy thuds almost like that of someone running but much too heavy. Suddenly in the corridor they had just vacated she saw huge man-shaped blurs run past.

"Damn, they must be onto us. Someone must have heard the weapons fire. We'll have to double time it to the launch bay and hope we don't run into anything we can't handle." With that they all started running headlong down the corridors, Aeryn being guided by Stammell.

After several close calls and one out and out fire fight, Stammell's squad made it back to the shuttle. Theirs was the only one left and the members of Alpha squad surrounded it. "We had about given up on you, Stammell."

"The other shuttles?"

"Loaded and left, everything went down like a Talaxian hooker. Nice and easy."

"Well, I have to make sure you get the easy jobs. otherwise you'd only make me look bad when you fuck up." With a shared grin they entered the shuttle followed by Aeryn and their men.

"Tetrarch Stammell reports his shuttle has landed, sir."

"Thank God for that. Ok people, we're out of here." With that the Reprisal slid smoothly through the chaos surrounding the command node. Shuttles and ships jockeyed with each other for space as the evacuation of the Command Node continued. Nobody noticed the Fleet carrier moving away. They simply presumed it had embarked all the people it could and was now moving to a safe distance outside the blast radius of the Command Node. The automated traffic monitoring system did however make a note of the ship leaving as well as its course and heading.

On the evacuation went, people getting more and more desperate as time ticked away and ships started to leave the blast radius without a full complement of refugees, simply to ensure their own survival. As the final seconds ticked away the alarms fell silent and the over rides that had previously failed to work kicked in, shutting down the reactors and voiding the emergency. Once again, chaos ensued as the mess of the evacuation was being sorted out. It wasn't until the arrival of Crichton's ships through the portal that anyone noticed that the Reprisal had failed to check in.

John, having the only ships currently unburdened by additional crew, was dispatched along the last known vector of the Reprisal. Following that course led them straight into the remnants of a dying nebula. It was there that they found floating space wreckage, but not enough to account for a Fleet carrier. It was only an hour later and the recovery of pieces of the thinly scattered 'wreckage' that revealed the truth. This was a decoy to gain time. With these facts reported, Crichton returned to the command node. From the nebula the Reprisal could have headed almost anywhere. It was likely it would end up in Republican territory, but Crichton was sure the route taken would be the second least suspected. After all everyone knows to check the least suspected route first. A wry grin appeared and disappeared on John's face as he enjoyed the humour of this thought.

***

 

He found it hard to believe. They had escaped and had done it without leaving a trace. It was the one bright thing, the first glimmer of hope he had experienced for too long.

***

 

Dietz sat beside John as recriminations flew back and forth across the room between the others as each accused the other of incompetence bordering on treason. Amy was furious that Gemmell had been allowed to escape but she did grudgingly have to admire his style. Although she thought he should have allowed the Command Node to explode. That would have given him days if not weeks before it was discovered he had vanished without a trace, taking with him valuable information and test subjects.

These thoughts lead her onto John's reaction upon learning from her that Aeryn had also escaped with Gemmell. He had simply shrugged the news off as if it were nothing and refused to talk about it further with her. Amy was furious with him for bringing his indiscretions home with him but reasoned, barely, that he hadn't actually planned upon it. More, it was thrust upon him when they were both taken prisoner aboard Gemmell's ship.

She was so involved in these thoughts that she was caught off guard when John stood and shouted for quiet. "This is all well and good, but it is a done deed. Alerts have been issued for the Reprisal and if we find her location we can send ships to capture or destroy her. That is secondary. Right now we have an operation in chaos which is due to start in less than two days."

The furore died down slowly as each officer digested these facts at his or her own pace. Eventually all was silent, more or less. "Thank you, Cohortach Crichton, for that kick in the ass. He is right, ladies and gentlemen, we have an operation to carry out. But not in two days. I plan to launch it in twelve hours." Startled voices raised protest at this but were quickly silenced by Arch-Strategos Winkler's stern glare. "We launch the operation early as we know the enemy expects us in two days so we arrive early to gave a measure of surprise. What will be a surprise to most of you is that this attack is purely diversionary. If possible, I plan to get in and out without a shot fired. The real attack will be lead by Cohortach Crichton's ships, backed up by a dozen assault ships carrying a battalion of Imperial Marines. The purpose of our diversionary attack is to draw away as many ships and soldiers from the real target as possible."

"But you said they knew of this attack? Isn't it likely that they now know it's a diversion as well?" asked a Centurion from the back of the briefing room.

"Yes, but a diversion from where? Not only that, but if they weaken the defences around Takara to strengthen defences elsewhere, we might not get our intended target but I think Takara Prime would be ample compensation for this."

"If I may ask sir. What is the intended target if not the Takara system?" the same woman asked.

"To put it quite simply, Cohortach Crichton is going to lead an assault on Hell itself."

***

 

Central Command
Takara Sector

 

Grand Admiral Matthews cursed as he received yet another report of Imperial ships skulking about his system. The information he had been given by intelligence was right on the money. The Imperials had committed at least an eighth of their entire fleet to this operation, which was why he had half of the Republican fleet in-system at this moment. Intelligence also seemed correct that this was a decoy, if a damned big one. He'd had to strip the Republic to the bare minimum in order to have the ships to successfully repel this attack, which the Imperials apparently had no intention of launching. Just as he had no intention of attacking them. They just sat and stared at one another across parsecs of empty space, pinning his fleet in place while they caused mischief elsewhere in the Republic, and right now Grand Admiral Matthews would dearly love to know where.

***

 

Admiral Gabrielle Benson's head snapped up as a scanner tech called out in shock. "Sir, scanners have picked up six ships of unknown class and a dozen assault vessels on course for this planet." She simply nodded and asked for clarification of the unknown ships. "The computer is tentatively classing them as Dreadnoughts sir, but they are half again the size of the standard Imperial class."

"Estimates on their firepower?"

"About the same ratio ma'am, one and a half times standard."

She had six Dreadnoughts of her own but a dozen heavy cruisers backed these up. That would put the balance of fire squarely in her favour. Assault ships were basically armoured boxes carrying lots of shuttles and life support a dozen such ships represented at least a full battalion. Which meant they were serious about taking Hell away from her. Personally she would be glad to give them the damned place if it weren't for the fact that Hell was the main R&D centre for the Republic.

"Send word to Commodore Franklin, he is to engage the enemy at his earliest connivance. Priority to those Dreadnoughts. We can deal with the assault ships if they make it this far."

"Yes sir."

***

 

"Looks like they are coming out to meet us sir," Haig said over the relay to John's Flag Bridge.

"Yes it does. I pity them, Haig, I really do. They have no idea what they are walking into." John was sitting in his command chair, a resigned expression across his face. He looked almost bored to his staff.

"No sir, they don't. They probably think they have the advantage in firepower with those heavy cruisers they have with them." Haig was puzzled by the lack of enthusiasm Crichton was displaying toward the imminent destruction of the enemy ships.

"Most likely."

"Your orders sir?"

"Engage and destroy at your discretion, Mister Talsorian. Engage and destroy."

"Aye sir"

For the Republican ships the battle was a nightmare. Their ships were no matches for these new leviathans of war constructed by the Imperials. For the Imperials had finally mastered the control of anti-matter weaponry while the Republic was still struggling with it. Hugely powerful missiles swatted heavy cruisers like bugs and did terrible damage to the Republican Dreadnoughts. Their answering fire was shrugged contemptuously aside by enormously powerful shielding. While the exchange was terrible at missile range, when energy range was finally reached it only got worse for the surviving Dreadnoughts of the Republic. From the Imperial Fleet came an energy weapon the likes of which had never before been witnessed in battle. To an outside observer, it appeared as if the Republic's Dreadnoughts had been turned for a microsecond into small suns, which burned brightly and briefly, and when they died nothing was left behind. With nothing left to oppose them in space the dreadnoughts made for the planet, closely followed by the assault ships.

***

 

With her space forces destroyed so contemptuously Admiral Benson knew she was looking at a planetary invasion. Thankfully while Hell had a large civilian population they were scattered in small towns and cities across the continents. By and large they would be left alone all that would basically change for them would be who they paid their taxes to, that is until the Republic came and took the planet back that was.

No, she knew the main thrust of any invasion would be at Breacon city as this was the location of all the research stations. That was the only thing Hell had to offer, other than high temperatures and humidity.

"Ma'am, scanners report enemy has established orbit, so far no sign of him launching assault shuttles."

"Strange that he would allow us time to dig in even more than we already are. Well that's his problem. Have all the demo charges been set on the computer cores in the research stations?"

"Yes sir, they are ready to be blown at your order." She simply nodded her acknowledgement. These were good troops and would follow her orders to the letter. Still it never hurt to make sure.

"Ma'am, we are receiving a signal from the enemy commander in orbit." The Comm officer called out.

"Patch it through to me here."

"Yes sir" She walked over to the portable holo imager and watched as an officer in Imperial Greys appeared above it. With out preamble he spoke.

"I am Cohortach Crichton of the Terran Imperial Navy. I presume I am addressing the Rebel officer in charge down there?" Her eyes narrowed at the arrogance that seemed to drip from those words, a typical Imp drone, she thought.

"I am the Republican Ground Force Commander, yes." She stressed the word Republican. She still found it hard to grasp the fact that after a hundred years of almost constant skirmishes the imperials still thought of her nation as rebels.

"Good. I require that you surrender to me immediately, leaving all buildings, materials and computer cores intact." Her eyes widened with shock at this. Did this fool actually expect her to surrender leaving everything intact? If he did then he would be sorely disappointed.

"Are you insane? Of course I won't do that, it is against my oath to the Republic to do so."

"Your oath also requires you to protect your citizenry, does it not?"

"Yes, it does." She replied cautiously, not liking the direction this conversation, if you could call it that, was taking.

"Very well. Unless you surrender, as I have previously outlined to you, in one hour I will destroy a city. For each additional hour, another city will be destroyed. The choice is yours." With that communications were cut.

Her officers stared at her in shock. Humans just didn't issue that type of ultimatum against each other. "It's a bluff. It has to be, he won't fire on human civilians, not even Imperials are that crazy."

***

 

"Are you serious sir? You plan to nuke a human city?" Haig was shocked and outraged by the suggestion that Crichton planned to treat a human populated world as if it were populated by inferior aliens.

"Of course not. I just want to see if I can make her believe I would. And judging from your reaction I would say I have a fair chance of doing it." Haig saw a cold smile crawl across Crichton's face. No matter what the man claimed, Haig wasn't one hundred percent certain Crichton wouldn't follow through his outrageous threat.

Time passed slowly for Haig as he observed Crichton calmly sitting and occasionally giving an order. Finally the hour was up and Crichton contacted the Republican Ground Commander once more. Crichton had come down to the main bridge to have this conversation, he claimed he liked it better than his own for this due to its ruthlessly efficient design.

"Well Admiral? What is your decision?"

"You won't do it and we both know it."

"No?"

Crichton signalled the comm channel should be cut, before turning to Haig. "When I was reading the specs for this ship's heavy weaponry I noticed that it could be used in a ground attack role. I want the targeting scanners fired up and focused on, oh, that town over there." He pointed at a smudge on the planetary holo map revolving nearby. "Make a big show of it. I want our friend down there to know exactly what it is we are doing and where we are targeting."

"You're planning to do it, aren't you?" Haig could not believe he had spoken out, but this was madness. It was a Human city Crichton was proposing destroying. Never in the history of the Imperium had they made war upon civilian humans. It was perhaps the only middle ground both they and the rebels agreed upon.

"I have given you an order, Centurion Talsorian. Need I repeat myself?" A chill permeated Haigs soul, orders were orders but these?

"No sir." He walked away before returning moments later. "Target locked in, sir. I have powered the targeting lock to the maximum. It should even be visible to the naked eye under the right conditions."

"Good, Haig. That's what I want. And to answer your earlier question, I have never had any intention of launching against that or any other city or town." Haig relaxed somewhat as he read the sincerity in Crichtons pose and voice. "Now open that channel back up. Lets see what she has to say now."

On the screen Admiral Gabrielle Benson appeared once more. Her face was set in resolute firmness. "You're still bluffing. I will never surrender to you just as you will never fire upon that city."

"Is that your final answer?"

"Yes."

"So be it." Crichton turned away from the screen and communications were cut. "Well that's that. It seems we'll have to do it the hard way after all." He turned back to the revolving world holo image and sighed. "Let's rattle her cage a little more, Haig. Send a ranging pulse down our target lock. Then terminate the lock."

"Aye, sir." Haig grinned as he walked over to the fire control console and ordered the ranging pulse fired.

"Oh and Haig join me in the briefing room, it seems we have an…" in the background Haig clearly heard the fire control officer confirming his order that he was firing the ranging pulse. The sudden jerk given by the ship however came as a surprise to everyone. It was the usual action of a ship in combat when it fired its missiles but not in orbit…

"God, no! Abort the missile! abort the missile!" The cry was ripped from Haig as he rushed towards the fire control station where the officer in charge was desperately try to do something, anything, to avert the disaster that was unfolding in front or their eyes.

***

 

"What now, ma'am?"

"We prepare for a conventional assault of course." She said coolly not wanting her subordinates to know just how shaken she had been by the madman Crichton's threats. She had been ninety-nine percent sure he wouldn't fire, but there is always that one percent.

"Sir!" a frantic voice called out to her. "The enemy has sent a ranging pulse down their target lock."

"Relax, they are just trying to shake us."

"Missile launch. Oh my God! They have launched a missile."

"What? No they can't have." But the information on the plot was clear. A missile had been launched and its target was the city the lock was established on. She looked in the direction the city lay just in time to see a blinding flash of light followed twenty-two seconds later by a pressure wave that, though weakened by great distance, ripped through the command post and was still powerful enough to uproot nearby trees and toss vehicles and people about like toys.

He had done it. That butcher Crichton had murdered hundreds of thousands of people just to get hold of some research and a planet only a farmer could love. What was more, he would do it again if she didn't surrender. She knew in the end what part of her oath was more important.

***

 

Silence and shock ruled aboard the Warlock. Nobody moved, hardly anyone seemed to breathe. They had just been responsible for the deaths of a hundred thousand or more people. The fact that it was an accident made little difference to most people, they had been responsible. As human minds do they sought out someone else to blame and the obvious target was their commander. He had ordered the target locked in. He had ordered the ranging pulse. So it followed he was responsible. The quicker minds among the crew took it one stage further. He had engineered the 'accident' he had wanted to do this all along. He had just deliberately killed thousands of people and managed to make them accomplices in it.

"Signal from the planet, sir."

Crichton stood in the centre of the bridge, seemingly the only one unaffected by the tragedy. "On screen."

The woman who appeared on the screen only looked marginally similar to the one he had talked to earlier. He eyes were red and puffy and tears streamed down her face. Her hair was in wild disarray and her uniform stained and creased. "You murdering Butcher. You bastard. You killed them. You killed them."

"Do you surrender?"

"Of course I surrender, you Butcher. But know this: I'll see you come to justice for this."

"I'm sure you will. However, for the present you know the conditions. My troops will begin their landing shortly. Crichton out."

For what seemed like an eternity Crichton stood facing away from Haig, When he did eventually turn, his face was normal. Not a trace of shock or any other emotion was on it. "Haig, I want that fire control board ripped apart and the fault found. I want it documented and signed by you, the chief engineer, and the operator. And I want it done yesterday. If you need me I'll be in my quarters."

Angry mutters started as soon as Crichton's back was turned and Haig heard the word butcher uttered more than once.

***

 

The doors to Crichtons quarters closed silently behind him. He stood in the entranceway and tears began pouring down his face. He collapsed to his knees, his arms wrapped around his chest as if he were in great pain.

"Oh God, Aeryn. What have I done?"

 

On to Part Eight

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