Author: Johryn
Rating: PG-13 
Notes: THANKS: I owe a very special thanks to QuiltLady for her suggestions and encouragement on this story. Without her input this would have been a VERY different story. Also, thanks to JilaCosa for her beta reading skills! Without you two ladies, I'd really look foolish. <G>
Part:  1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 |
 

Part Four

Chiana slipped into the docking bay. A pair of DRDs scurried past her on a mission only they and Pilot were privy to. She glanced around quickly to be sure no one else was around then hurried across the room to B'dak's shuttle. She was surprised that the hatch stood open. She distinctly remembered seeing him close it when he had come aboard. She hesitated for a few microts then silently hurried up the ramp and into the alien ship.

When her eyes adjusted to the dimly lit interior she realized she wasn't alone. She could see the edge of Rygel's robe behind a console. A grin flashed across her face and she crept over to where he hid.

"Rygel," she whispered, "what are you doing here? Looking to reacquire the icon?"

He spun around, a look of terror on his face. "You little tralk," he sputtered when he recognized her, "you nearly scared me to death."

"Keep your voice down," she hissed. "What're you doing here? Looking to snurch something?"

"I might ask you the same thing you little thief."

"I'm not here to snerch anything. I don't trust this man." Her voice took on a hard edge as she continued, "I am hoping to find something to give me an idea about why he's really here."

"What do you hope to find?"

"How the frell should I know? But I'll know it when I see it." She said as she began searching the ship for anything out of the ordinary.

Rygel hovered close and asked, "Can I help?"

Chiana cocked her head to look at him, surprised that he genuinely seemed to want to help. "Yeah, you can keep watch."

Disappointed that he wouldn't have a chance to search the Qaran ship for valuables, he started to protest, but Chiana cut him off. "You don't wanna get caught, do ya Ryge?"

He huffed in protest, but hovered across the main chamber of the small craft, positioning himself so he could keep an eye on both the docking bay and Chiana. After a quarter arn, he was getting bored. He turned to tell Chiana he was leaving when he heard footsteps approaching.

"Someone's coming." Rygel whispered urgently before disappearing out the hatch.

Chiana scrambled into an atmospherics duct, pulling its cover closed just as B'dak reached the top of the gangway. "Light. Fifty percent of maximum," he said, stepping through the hatch into the command area. He scanned the small chamber for intruders, then sat in the pilot's chair.

Leaning back in the seat, he activated the communications array and waited for the holo-imager to shimmer to life.

A young man's image took shape. "Prefect. We were becoming concerned. Does all go as planned?"

"Better than planned, actually. I cannot go into detail now, but I have decided to remain aboard the Leviathan until we reach Qaran."

"Is that wise Prefect? What of your vows?"

"I do not relish the idea of being in contact with these aliens for an extended time, but it is necessary B'rin."

"We shall continue to pray for your preservation and the successful outcome of your project."

"We must stay the course my brother. We are growing ever closer to our goal."

B'dak deactivated the communications array and leaned back in the seat, a sly smile on his face. He chuckled softly, pulling a transmitter out of a pocket in his robe. After a few microts he stood abruptly and concealed the transmitter in a hidden storage compartment. He checked to be certain the compartment had locked securely then hurried from the ship.

Chiana waited for several microts before pushing the grate open on the atmospherics duct and slipping out of her hiding place. A grin spread across her face as she approached the storage container. Combination lock? Too easy.

 

"You want to do what?" Aeryn protested. "Haven't you examined us enough for one day?"

"Aeryn, please sit still." B'dak replied with as much patience as he could muster in face of Aeryn's continued protests. "We need one more blood and tissue sample to analyze. Then you and John will be free to go."

"Go where?" John piped up from where Zhaan was working on him. A broad smile spread across his face at the prospect of getting out of the infirmary.

"D'Argo has agreed to show you around the ship." Zhaan explained.

"Oh." John's disappointment was obvious. "I was hoping you'd let us explore on our own."

"Perhaps once D'Argo has shown you the areas where you will be safe and not too much in the way, you can do some exploring. But, I will not promise anything." Zhaan added as John's face lit up again. "Now, sit still and let me get these samples or you'll be here all day."

"We don't need a babysitter. We can take care of ourselves." He complained.

"You two have a knack for getting into trouble even when you know what you're doing." D'Argo chuckled as he walked into the infirmary.

"I'm finished John, you can get down now." Zhaan said as she placed the last of the samples into the analyzer. "Have you found Chiana and Rygel yet?" she asked, turning to face D'Argo.

He shook his head, "No. They both seem to have gone missing. But I've asked Pilot to have some DRDs keep looking."

"Can we go now?" John interrupted, coming to stand next to D'Argo.

"In a microt John." D'Argo replied absently then turned back to resume his conversation with Zhaan.

John looked up at the towering Luxan. He's gotta be over seven feet tall! Man, what he could do in the NFL ... He leaned around the big man and caught Aeryn's eye. B'dak had just finished his tests, leaving her sitting alone on the exam table. John grinned and sauntered over to her.

"So, you wanna blow this pop stand?" he whispered. She looked at him, a confused look on her face, unsure of his meaning. He chuckled lightly and asked again, "You wanna get outta here?"

"What? Without permission?"

"Yeah." he answered, surprised that she had even suggested asking. "What? You've never done anything without asking permission first?"

"No. I am a soldier John. I follow orders. It's what I do. It's who I am." she replied firmly.

"Well, there's a first time for everything, isn't there?" John said, a broad grin spreading across his face. "If we wait for them, we'll be waiting forever. Let's just go take a look around on our own."

Aeryn looked over to where Zhaan, D'Argo and B'dak stood deep in conversation. She hesitated briefly, then jumped down from the exam table. "Okay," she smiled tentatively, "let's go."

 

Chiana slipped through the corridors intent on reaching her quarters. She was disappointed that she hadn't found any physical evidence that B'dak was misleading them. But after overhearing B'dak's conversation, she was more convinced than ever that he had a hidden agenda.

As she rounded the last curve in the corridor before her quarters she stopped suddenly. What was that? "Is someone there?" she called, ashamed at the quaver in her voice. She waited a few microts. No answer. She glanced around. Nothing. No one. I must be imagining things. She closed the distance to her quarters in a few microts, palmed the door open and slipped inside.

As the door swung closed behind her, she let out the breath she didn't realize she had been holding.

"Ah ... he... he ... hem." Rygel cleared his throat loudly and Chiana nearly jumped out of her skin. She spun around to see him hovering just inside the door.

"How long have you been there you little toad?" she hissed, moving toward him.

"Long enough." He smirked and hovered quickly out of her reach.

"Where did you disappear to back there?"

"You forget, I can go up as well as forward and back." He grinned broadly and waggled his earbrows. "What did you find?"

"Nothing."

Rygel's earbrows drooped at the news. He loved a good conspiracy and had also begun to suspect that the situation was not exactly as B'dak had portrayed it.

"I may not have firm proof, but I still don't trust him." She said in a conspiratorial whisper, moving closer to relate the conversation she had overheard.

 

"Okay, I give. Where are we?" John asked as he stopped in the middle of the corridor. He spun around, trying to get his bearings, but everything looked the same.

"I don't know. Nothing looks familiar." Aeryn answered, looking around.

"I thought you knew your way around here." John challenged.

"What made you think that?" she sniped back.

"Well this is your world."

"Don't blame me. This was your idea after all. I wanted to stay in the infirmary and wait for D'Argo, but no ... you wanted to explore."

"You didn't have to come along you know. You could have stayed there like a good little girl." he taunted.

"How dare you ..." she said, her voice low and menacing. She took a step toward him, her anger flaring, blinding her to what she was doing. How dare he accuse me of being afraid? He's the one who was cowering in terror before.

"Whoa... whoa ... whoa." John said, taking several steps back. He held his hands up as if to ward off blows. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. Jeez, you didn't have to take it so seriously!"

"You should not say things you do not mean." She replied in a hard, angry voice.

John crossed his arms and looked at her curiously. She was at once vulnerable and fearless. A strange mixture in one small girl. Interesting. She's nothing like any of the girls I know. I like her. She could be a good friend if I can get her to trust me.

"Listen. I'm sorry. I'm scared, okay," he admitted. "I'm hungry and tired and I just want to find someplace where I'll feel safe."

Aeryn opened her mouth to reply, but stopped when a white skinned alien came around the curve in the hallway.

"What're you two doing out here alone?" Chiana asked, a playful grin on her face.

"What are you?" Aeryn blurted out.

A pout formed on Chiana's face as she realized that they once again had no recollection of her. She cocked her head to one side, regarding the two young people before her. If the situation weren't so serious, she thought, this could actually be fun. "My name is Chiana. I'm a Nebari."

"Nebari? I've never heard of that species."

"Well, we're only just reaching this far into the Uncharted Territories." Chiana chuckled. "So, why are you two out here alone? Do D'Argo and Zhaan know where you are?"

"They probably haven't even noticed we're gone, yet." John replied; a touch of sadness in his voice.

"We are trying to find somewhere to get some food." Aeryn volunteered quickly to cover John's sudden mood change. She wasn't certain of her motives, but she felt the need to protect him and keep this Nebari away from him.

"Well, you're in luck. I'm on my way to the Center Chamber to get a snack myself. Come on," she smiled and moved toward them. She reached out to place her arms around their shoulders, but Aeryn moved quickly to place herself between Chiana and John. Even now ... Chiana grinned at Aeryn's protective behavior. Too bad she can't admit to herself or to Crichton how she feels.

 

"Pilot, do you have a location on them yet?" D'Argo demanded as he paced the Command deck. A DRD scurried past and D'Argo growled, but stopped himself from venting his frustration on it.

"There is movement on your tier, but I cannot confirm that it is John and Aeryn."

"Don't your DRDs have vid capabilities?"

"Yes they do Ka D'Argo, but there are no DRDs in that area." Pilot replied calmly. "Perhaps you should search for them yourself."

D'Argo snarled a response that Pilot's translator microbes were unable to handle, which was probably for the best. Chamber by chamber, corridor by corridor D'Argo searched for his two missing shipmates all the while berating himself for having let them sneak away. Perhaps if I hadn't ignored John earlier they wouldn't have gone off on their own. If anything happens to them ...

As he rounded another curve in the corridor he heard laughter in the Center Chamber. He hurried forward and burst into the room to see Chiana, Aeryn and John. They had a wide assortment of foods and beverages spread on the table before them and Chiana was regaling them with stories of their adventures. As he watched them interact, he felt a mixture of relief and rage flow through him.

"Where have you been?" He demanded.

The silence was palpable as Chiana, Aeryn and John turned to face him. He was surprised to see fear etched on the faces of John and Aeryn. He thought they had moved beyond that in the infirmary.

"They got lost," Chiana said, defending her two shipmates, "which wouldn't have happened if you hadn't ignored them."

"I did not ignore them. They slipped out while Zhaan and I were talking." he replied, then turned to face John and Aeryn. "Had you waited as you were told to you wouldn't have gotten lost."

John looked down at the table as shame flooded through him. He had disappointed the big man and he felt that for some reason that was something he didn't want to do. He looked up into the big man's eyes and tried to speak, but found himself unable to get the words out. He could feel the color rising up his neck to his face and looked back down at the table.

"Give 'em a break D'Argo!" Chiana urged. "You're not helping the situation. Can't you see they're afraid? And you shouting at them is not going to help."

"They must learn to work within certain bounds. It is for their own good."

"Calm down D'Argo. They're just kids."

"Will you take responsibility for them then?" D'Argo challenged Chiana. He was surprised that she had taken John and Aeryn's side and fully expected her to back down with this challenge.

"Yeah." Chiana replied with a grin. "I think it'd be fun."

 

At last, some privacy. B'dak stood facing the view port in the quarters he had been assigned. He was relieved that they had seen fit to give him a chamber that had a solid door rather than one of the lattice gates he had seen on so many of the rooms, especially those of the crew. Strange that they have all chosen to remain in their former cells.

Though he looked out the view port, he didn't see the stars they were passing. His mind was elsewhere. Unable to contain himself any longer, he began to pace. I cannot believe the arrogance of these aliens. To believe that they are worthy of my help merely because two of their number have been affected by one of our artifacts. Pah! Had they never come to Qaran this would not have happened. These off-worlders believe they have the right to contaminate any planet they choose. They bring disease and death. They bring violence. They bring false beliefs and false gods. I cannot stand idly by while they destroy our culture. The infidel must be exterminated. And it must begin with these pathetic aliens.

Gracious Porimma forgive me for wavering in my devotion to you and to our cause. I have been among these heathen for far too long. I have allowed the innocence of the young ones to distract me from the true and right path. Give me strength to endure until we return to Qaran. Protect me from the seduction of their false ways. Keep me safe from temptation.

B'dak's heart was pounding and he was breathing heavily when he finally stopped pacing. He breathed deeply for several microts to calm himself before opening the door to his chamber. He stepped into the corridor, looking both ways before setting off for the infirmary.

As he rounded a curve in the corridor, Rygel eased out of the shadows and slipped unnoticed into B'dak's chamber.

 

"Pilot, how much longer until we reach Qaran?" D'Argo asked as he checked the readouts on the console again.

"Ka D'Argo," Pilot replied as patiently as possible, "we will arrive five hundred microts sooner than the last time you asked."

"There is no need to be sarcastic Pilot. I am merely concerned that we should arrive at the planet as soon as possible."

"I am concerned about John and Aeryn as well." The large creature said softly. "At our present speed, we will arrive at Qaran in just under twelve arns."

"Can we accelerate? Arrive at the planet sooner?"

"We are already traveling at Hetch Seven. An increase in speed to Hetch Nine will cut our journey only slightly."

"How slightly, Pilot?"

"It will still require eight arns to arrive at the planet at that speed but I am not certain Moya could sustain that speed for that long a time."

"What about Starburst?"

"I am afraid that would not solve our dilemma either. Moya is unsure that she can make that direct a Starburst. She could overshoot her destination, putting us even further from Qaran than we are now."

D'Argo growled low, venting his frustration. He turned away from the console just as Chiana entered Command, trailed by John and Aeryn. He smiled at the awestruck expressions on their faces, remembering how often a similar expression had been pasted on Crichton's face when he had first come aboard. But he had never seen Aeryn look that way. It suits her somehow.

"Are you finished with your tour of the ship?"

"Yeah. This place is cool! I've never seen anything like it. I've never even imagined anything like this." John gushed. "This is better'n anything on Star Trek!"

"D'Argo, why don't you show them around Command. You understand it so much better than I do." Chiana purred, sidling up to the big Luxan.

He looked down into her dark eyes, which burned brightly and smiled. "What do you want Chiana?"

"Why do you think I want something?"

"You do, don't you?" he countered.

"Well ... I was wondering if you could keep an eye on John and Aeryn for a little while. I have something I need to do and ..."

"And they'll be in the way?"

"Not really in the way ..."

"We can take care of ourselves." Aeryn injected in an effort to stop their bickering. "We know where we can and can't go."

"I don't know Aeryn." D'Argo replied.

"Please D'Argo." John asked. "We'll stay out of trouble."

D'Argo looked at his two shipmates. They looked so innocent, so vulnerable. He knew that Aeryn could take care of herself even though she was a child, but he was concerned about Crichton. There were times D'Argo wondered if he could take care of himself as an adult, but now ... now he was truly worried about his human friend. But, he reasoned, there didn't appear to be any imminent danger so perhaps he could let them entertain themselves for a time.

He looked down into two pairs of eyes, both of whom looked at him expectantly, and sighed deeply. "Alright. But don't remove your comms. I don't want you two disappearing on us again."

"Thanks big guy!" John shouted over his shoulder as he and Aeryn raced from the room.

D'Argo smiled at their obvious delight and turned to Chiana. "Now, what do you have to do that you couldn't take them along?"

Chiana looked up the Luxan. They had once been so close and had shared everything, but they had begun drifting apart recently. She wasn't sure she should - or could - trust him with her suspicions about B'dak.

"It's nothing you can help me with," she said quickly, making her decision. "I need to take care of this on my own."

"Chiana ... " D'Argo began.

"No D'Argo." She cut him off. "I have to do this alone right now. If I need help, you'll be the first to know."

 

"So, whadda ya wanna do?" John asked as he and Aeryn wandered aimlessly down one of the corridors.

"I don't know. Maybe we should find Zhaan and ..."

"You're kidding right? You want to find Zhaan? You want her to tell us what we can and can't do?"

"Well, it would be safer to listen to them," she offered self-consciously.

"That's not gonna be any fun." He smiled broadly and grabbed her hand. "C'mon." She pulled against him and he turned to look at her. "What's the matter Aeryn? You chicken?"

"Chicken? What does that mean?"

"It means coward. C'mon Aeryn. Let's go have some fun before Dr. and Mrs. Frankenstein come looking for us."

"I don't know what you just said, but nobody calls Aeryn Sun a 'chicken' and gets away with it." She turned, pulled her hand away from John and ran down the corridor. As he raced after her, their laughter rang through the corridor.

 

Several arns later, they slipped inside one of the access shafts leading to the maintenance bay.

"What was the name of that game again John?" Aeryn asked as she leaned back against the wall of the shaft. "That was fun!"

"Tag." He panted sliding down the wall to join her. They had been running through the corridors and access shafts for nearly an arn and he was hot and tired. And he was starting to get hungry again. "We should head back to the Center Chamber pretty soon. The others are bound to start looking for us."

She nodded and chewed her lower lip nervously. "John," she began hesitantly, "I'm afraid."

He cocked his head and looked at her intently. "Why? What're you afraid of?"

She looked down at the floor between her feet, then looked up to meet his intense gaze. "I don't know how to live like this. I was born into a structured world. A world of orders and discipline. That does not exist here John."

"Maybe that's not supposed to be your life. Maybe this is." He answered; his voice quiet and pensive.

They sat silently for several minutes then Aeryn stood abruptly and moved to the end of the shaft. She tugged on the grate but it wouldn't move. As she struggled to move the grate she could feel angry tears burning at her eyelids. No! I will not cry. A Peacekeeper does not cry. I am a Peacekeeper. I am a soldier. It's what I was born to. It's who I am.

"Lemme help." John said, coming to stand behind her. He reached around her, putting his hands beside hers on the grate. She tensed at his closeness and turned to look him in the eye. He smiled to reassure her and she relaxed slightly. She wasn't sure what it was, but there was something in his smile that made her feel comfortable with him.

"On three. Pull as hard as you can. We can do this together." He said. The confidence in his voice was contagious and she grasped the grate more tightly.

"Here we go. One ... two ... three ... pull." They tugged on the grate in unison. It resisted then gave suddenly sending them to the floor of the access shaft in a tangle of arms and legs. Laughing, they pushed the grate aside and untangled themselves.

Aeryn rolled over and pushed herself onto her hands and knees, grinning down at John. She stood and reached down to help him up.

"So why'd you want that thing outta there?" John asked as he came to stand behind her at the edge of the opening. He looked down into the maintenance bay, estimating the distance to the floor to be about fifteen feet. He turned to look Aeryn in the eyes, "You're not planning to jump are you?"

"What's the matter Crichton? Chicken?" She grinned at him.

"Not chicken, but I'm not stupid either."

"Come on. Follow me." She shouted as she leapt forward.

"Aeryyyyyynnnnnnn!" John cried as she disappeared from view.

 

Zhaan raised up from the samples she had been examining. She rubbed her tired eyes, battling the exhaustion that was threatening to overtake her. Looking over to the other workstation, she smiled as B'dak mirrored her actions.

"Prefect B'dak, perhaps we should take a break from this. I do not believe we will find anything in these samples to explain this transformation."

"As much as I hate to admit it, I must agree with you. There appears to be no scientific explanation for what had occurred. We must turn to the spiritual, the supernatural."

"What do you mean Prefect?" Zhaan asked. This was the first he had mentioned to her that this transformation could have anything other than a medical cause.

"I have been hesitant to broach this idea with you, it is so unlikely, but there is a possibility that the icon your companion took from my people is the cause of their change."

"How could you wait so long to bring this up?" Zhaan asked, struggling to control the anger she felt rising within.

"I am sorry Pa'u Zhaan. I have been trying to find another explanation for this transformation because it is considered an abomination to my people for one of our icons to have been handled by an off-worlder. For the power of the goddess Porimma to have been wasted on infidels ... it is unthinkable, an intolerable situation. Many of our people are intolerant of off-worlders and the influence they have had on our people."

"But surely they would not think that John and Aeryn did this deliberately." Zhaan protested.

"You have a trusting spirit Zhaan. There are factions among my people who will say that they did this to mock our gods and that they have been punished for that with the loss of their memories. This incident, if it is revealed to the general public could bring about a rebellion, a civil uprising. That is why I have been so reluctant to offer this explanation for recent events."

Zhaan considered his words carefully, trying to understand how a people could be so intolerant. There were conservative factions on her own homeworld, but they were usually tolerant of those whose beliefs were different than their own.

"Will you speak on their behalf Prefect? You know that this was a misunderstanding."

"I will see that Qaran justice is carried out Zhaan, of that you need not fear."

"Forgive me Prefect, I need to meditate, to consider your words." She said as she swept past him.

As he watched her leave the infirmary, a satisfied smile flashed across his face.

 

Chiana pressed herself into the shadows of the corridor, hoping to avoid being seen by either Zhaan or B'dak. She had been heading for the infirmary to talk with Zhaan when she had overheard the conversation between the Qaran and Delvian. As she had listened to B'dak's description of the Qaran political factions her skin had begun to crawl. Added to the conversation she had heard in the shuttle, she was becoming convinced that B'dak was not the altruistic soul he portrayed himself to be. But how do I prove it. If I go to the others with my suspicions they'll dismiss me. I need hard evidence or I need to get him to tip his hand somehow.

Movement in the corridor caught her eye, pulling her from her thoughts. She watched as B'dak hurried from the infirmary in the direction of his quarters. When he had disappeared from view, she slipped out of the shadows and turned toward the crew quarters. Rygel. He'll help me. He doesn't trust him any more than I do.

 

John scrambled forward on hands and knees and peered over the side of the access shaft fully expecting to see Aeryn lying injured on the floor of the maintenance bay. Instead she swung from a cable several feet from the wall lowering herself to the floor below. When she was within a few feet of the floor she released the cable and dropped the remaining distance, landing lightly. She stepped away from the cable and looked up to where John watched from the opening above.

"Cool," he grinned, "it's just like the swimmin' hole on Granddad's farm!"

She grinned and called up to him, "What're you waiting for? Come on!"

"I'm comin'! I'm comin'! Just keep your shirt on!" He shouted down to her. "Ya wanna stop that thing from swinging so much? You don't wanna be scrapin' me off the floor down there!"

He watched as Aeryn stopped the cable's swing, trying to gauge how far he'd have to jump to reach it. He didn't relish the idea of missing the cable and landing in a heap on the floor below. That floor's gonna be a lot harder than the swimming hole if I hit it!

He took a deep breath and dove toward the cable. As the floor fell away beneath him he feared he had made a terrible mistake. Realizing it was too late to turn back, he desperately stuck his hands out and caught the cable.

"Woo hoo hoo hoo hoo! Did you see Aeryn? Did you see?" He shouted gleefully.

"Lower yourself down!" Aeryn shouted, a broad smile on her face.

He began lowering himself hand-over-hand toward the floor. The cable's swing made it hard to control and his hands started to slip. "Look out Aeryn!" he shouted as he lost his hold and plummeted toward the floor.

He closed his eyes, wishing he hadn't let his pride override his better judgement. Just as he expected to hit the floor, he hit something else; something hard. But that something gave with the force of the impact. He lay on the floor gasping for breath. Nothing's broken? Nothing's broken!

He finally pried his eyes open and found himself draped over D'Argo who was the "something" that had broken his fall. He scrambled to his feet, backing away from the big man who sprawled unmoving.

"D'Argo? You okay? D'Argo?" he asked. He looked from D'Argo to Aeryn then back to D'Argo. "Is he breathing?"

"I don't know John." she replied as she moved to get a closer look.

"Oh God, what have I done?" John whispered. I was so busy trying to be the big man ... what am I gonna do if I killed him? Why didn't I think before I did something so stupid.

Suddenly D'Argo inhaled sharply and his eyes snapped open. He sat up and looked around him as if trying to figure out where he was. When he caught sight of John and Aeryn his eyes narrowed and he stood slowly.

Aeryn and John backed away as the big man stood. He hadn't said a word and they were both dreading the moment when that would change. They tried to ease around him so that they had unimpeded access to the door in case they needed to make a quick getaway, but he was too quick for them. His hands flashed out as he grabbed each of them by a wrist so that they couldn't get away.

"What were you doing?" he asked, his voice low and angry. "Don't you know you could have been badly hurt?"

D'Argo was surprised that they didn't struggle in his grasp, but stood almost motionless before him. The angry words he had been preparing died in his throat as he looked at the pair before him. Aeryn's chin was quivering as if she was fighting to hold back tears and John's cheeks blazed red. A slight smile tugged at his mouth at the sight, which reminded him of Jothee when he'd been caught in some mischief as a young boy. His gaze softened, as did his grasp on John's and Aeryn's arms.

"Look at me," he ordered softly.

John and Aeryn pried their gaze from the floor and looked up into his eyes fully expecting to be chastised for their rash behavior.

"First of all, are you both unhurt?"

They nodded almost in unison, neither of them able to find their voice.

"Good. Do you realize that you could have been hurt? Seriously hurt?"

Again they nodded wordlessly.

"Explain to me what you thought you were doing," he asked, looking from one to the other.

John swallowed hard and opened his mouth as if to speak, then clamped it shut again. Aeryn merely shuffled her feet, uncomfortable under his intense scrutiny.

"I expect an answer," he added, his impatience beginning to show.

"We were playing in the access shaft system and decided to find a shortcut down here, I thought I could hold the cable, I didn't think anyone'd get hurt." John blurted out all in one breath.

"There are certain things that you can and cannot do. For your own safety. And the safety of the entire ship. Do you understand that?"

Once again, they nodded, their eyes locked on the floor.

"Come on. It's time for dinner, after which I think you should find something a little less dangerous to occupy yourselves with." He turned toward the corridor, keeping his grip on their arms. As the maintenance bay doors slid closed behind them, he released their arms and was surprised when they fell in a step behind him, following him without a word to the Center Chamber.

 

B'dak entered the docking bay and hurried to his shuttle. Several DRDs were in the area, but he disregarded their presence, assuming they were performing routine maintenance on one of the other ships in the bay. The only noise in the bay, other than the telltale mechanical hum of the DRDs as they went about their work, was the sound of his own footsteps as he mounted the shuttle's gangway.

As he stepped inside he raised the illumination level and had the computer run a quick sweep to ensure there were no unwelcome visitors. When the computer gave him the all-clear he closed the hatch and activated the communications array.

"Status report B'rin." He demanded as the holo-imager shimmered to life before him.

"All goes as planned Prefect." The younger man replied. His eyes blazed as he continued. "We have alerted the Believers. When the infidels arrive on the planet and you reveal their blasphemy it will set in motion your plans to ignite a Holy War. We will drive the unbelievers from our planet."

"Excellent ... excellent. You have done well B'rin. Your part in this crusade will surely bring you reward from the goddess Porimma."

"Thank you Prefect." The novitiate bowed his head, attempting to hide the blush of pleasure that B'dak's praise had brought to his cheeks. It was not seemly to be so affected by the words of his superior and he knew it meant he had much yet to learn.

He looked up and asked, "Do they suspect anything?"

"No." B'dak replied with a bitter laugh. "They are a trusting group. Surprising, actually, for ex-prisoners. Though I suspect the two who would have been the most suspicious are the ones who have been affected. Surely this is a sign of the goddess's blessing upon our mission." he continued, a cold smile creasing his features.

"When will you be returning to us?"

"I will not be returning to the ship B'rin. As I told you before, I will be remaining aboard the Leviathan until we reach Qaran."

"But surely you do not want to appear to have been compromised by the infidel." the young man persisted.

"Do not fear, my young friend. When we are within one arn of Qaran I will leave this ship, taking my shuttle back to the surface. I will tell these fools that I must go ahead to consult with the religious leaders in preparation for their arrival."

B'dak noticed a look of uncertainty flash across the younger man's face as they talked. He would not have one of his elect doubting their course. If B'rin were not up to the challenge, he would have to be replaced. There were many others who were devoted to the cause who could easily take his place.

"B'rin, I sense you have some misgivings about this endeavor." he challenged, hoping to draw out the young man.

"Not misgivings Prefect. Concerns. We have had word from homeworld that the more moderate factions are gaining popularity with the people and are building strongholds within the Qanesset. I fear we may have more opposition than you anticipate."

B'dak was relieved that his fears about B'rin were unfounded, but was surprised at the news. He had been cut off from news of the homeworld for less than two solar days. Could the climate have changed that much in so short a time?

"B'rin, continue monitoring developments on Qaran. Contact me with any changes in the coalitions. As you say, these developments could pose a threat to the success of our undertaking. Those fools in the Qanesset will destroy our world for the sake of so-called prosperity. We cannot allow that to happen. We, the true faithful, will not permit them to destroy our world and our way of life!"

 

Rygel swept into the Center Chamber in anticipation of the evening meal. He had always found that conspiracy increased his appetite and having spent the afternoon checking out B'dak he was famished.

He was surprised to find the room empty except for Chiana. She stood unmoving before the large view port, apparently unaware of his arrival. He hovered close to her, yet she still didn't acknowledge his presence.

"Where have you been, Chiana?" he asked.

"What's it to you, Frogboy?" she snapped.

"Merely curious my dear, we have much to discuss."

She snorted humorlessly. "Do we Ryge?" she asked, turning toward him.

"We do. But not here. And not until I have eaten. Conspiracy does indeed work up an appetite." He smiled and waggled his earbrows at her.

"Well then," she chuckled, "let's take care of that hunger of yours."

Rygel pulled himself up close to the table as Chiana began laying out food for their dinner. She was just finishing as D'Argo walked in, followed closely by John and Aeryn. They took places at the table without saying a word. John and Aeryn merely played with their food, while D'Argo ate in sullen silence.

Their mood had a sobering effect on Chiana and Rygel and an uncomfortable silence hung in the air when Zhaan entered a short time later. B'dak was the last to arrive, finding the room quiet, despite everyone's presence. He took a place at the table near John and Aeryn who sat slightly apart from the others. He tried to make conversation with them, but was unable to draw them out.

"We have much to discuss," Zhaan said, hoping to break the tense mood in the room. "We will be arriving at Qaran in less than eight arns. We must decide what to do when we arrive."

"What do you have in mind?" D'Argo asked.

"I have been in contact with my people to explain the situation. They have suggested that I precede you to the surface to make arrangement for your arrival." B'dak offered.

"What sort of arrangements?" Rygel asked between bites of smoked grovlak. Something in the way B'dak had spoken up so quickly struck a nerve with the Hynerian He seems a bit too eager to help. This one bears watching.

"I must consult with the priests. The transformation that has affected John and Aeryn is most likely caused by exposure to the artifact you took from our planet. I am hopeful that when they hear of this, they will help me bring this to a fruitful end."

As the conversation continued, Aeryn found herself feeling somewhat anxious. She wasn't sure what it was, but something in the way they talked about her and John as if they weren't there angered her. She looked up just in time to see John slipping out of the room. Since the conversation hadn't missed a beat she suspected the others hadn't noticed his departure. She rose and followed him.

As she followed him, she noticed he didn't have a particular destination, but seemed to be wandering. Rather than force her company on him, she decided to practice some of her Peacekeeper training and shadow him to see how long she could remain undetected.

She followed him through Moya's corridors for nearly a half arn before he stopped. He looked around as if trying to get his bearings then suddenly turned, setting off with determination. His longer legs and determined gait made it difficult for her to remain hidden in the shadows and she was forced to break into a jog to keep up with him. She was surprised when she rounded a curve in the corridor that he was nowhere to be seen. I know he came this way. How could I have lost him?

She stopped, hoping to hear his footfalls in the corridor ahead. Nothing. No sounds save the muted hum of Moya's systems. Disappointed in herself, Aeryn turned to go back the way she had come. John stood directly in front of her, blocking her way.

"Why are you following me?" he demanded, his eyes blazing.

"I ... I ... uh ... that is ... " she stammered, then clamped her mouth shut. I will not make any more of a fool of myself.

"Spit it out Aeryn. Why were you following me? Did D'Argo put you up to it?"

"I ... John, I'm sorry. D'Argo didn't send me. They probably don't even know we're not in the Center Chamber any longer." She explained, smiling slightly, hoping it would calm his anger.

"Then why were you following me? Why were you trying to hide from me?"

"Peacekeepers are trained to observe others without being seen ourselves. I was testing my skills," she replied, looking down at her feet. Why does he make me feel so unsure of myself? "I guess I need a little more practice," she added, looking up into his eyes.

He smiled in response. "Nah. You did fine. I didn't know you were there until I heard you start running to keep up with me."

"Where were you going in such a hurry?" she asked, surprising herself with her sudden boldness.

"I was headed for the quarters Chiana said were mine when she showed us around earlier," he paused, blushing slightly, "but I kinda got myself turned around. When I finally figured out where I was I decided I'd better get there as fast as I could or I might get lost again. These hallways all look the same to me you know."

"Me too," she agreed with a giggle. "Mind some company?"

"Nah, come on."

 

"That is totally unacceptable!" D'Argo raged at Prefect B'dak, who sat unflinching before him. "We will not allow John and Aeryn to go to the surface without at least one of us as an escort."

"I understand your desire to protect your shipmates, Ka D'Argo, but the presence of a warrior such as yourself could be seen as a provocation by some members of the Qanesset. There are those among them who favor the expulsion of all aliens from our planet. If you were to arrive escorting two off-worlders who have been affected by one of our religious icons, it could spark a confrontation."

"Then I shall accompany them," Zhaan interjected. "Surely, my presence would not be seen as a threat."

"No dear lady, it would not be seen as a threat to our security, but our religious leaders would feel threatened. Some of the more conservative might feel insecure in the presence of a Delvian priest of your power. Your presence in our temple could be seen as sacrilege by some members of the religious community." He paused, observing the look of hurt disbelief on Zhaan's face. "I am sorry Zhaan, but some Qaranac are not tolerant of others' beliefs. Your presence in our temple could be the catalyst to an uprising."

"I would not want my presence on your planet to cause trouble. While I do not subscribe to your beliefs, I respect them. I will remain aboard Moya." Zhaan replied; her voice heavy with fatigue and frustration.

"Then, I'll go." Chiana offered.

"You?" D'Argo asked, surprised at her willingness to step in.

"Why not?" she asked, glaring at him.

"I am sorry Chiana, but I do not think you would be an acceptable escort either." B'dak cut in.

"And why not?" she asked, turning her anger toward him.

"Chiana, do not take this the wrong way, but you are exactly the type of alien that our more fundamentalist factions object to."

She looked at him, a mixture of consternation and curiosity etched on her face. "What do you mean?"

"There are those among my people who object to the carefree attitudes and promiscuity of many of the alien races who have come to Qaran since we opened our border to trade. These attitudes have begun to make inroads within our culture and I fear that the religious leaders could refuse to help your friends if you are their escort."

"But ..."

"I know, it is not fair Chiana. I am simply trying to explain why John and Aeryn should go unescorted to the surface."

"No. They will not go unescorted." Rygel spoke up.

"Rygel?" Zhaan, D'Argo and Chiana asked almost in unison.

"I will accompany them. My actions caused this, it is only fitting that I act as their escort at this time."

They all looked to B'dak, expecting him to object to Rygel's proposal. He hesitated as he considered Rygel's words. "Dominar Rygel, there are many reasons why it would be best for you to remain aboard Moya. For instance, the very reason you believe you should be their escort - you are the one who removed the icon from our world. And while I realize this may sound strange, I believe that is the very reason you should return to Qaran.

"But I warn you. You will face opposition to your presence for that very reason. There are those among my people who desire your head on a pike for your actions. I would understand if you chose to remain here rather than endangering yourself for your shipmates."

Rygel looked from B'dak to Zhaan to D'Argo to Chiana. "No. I will go."

B'dak bowed in acquiescence to Rygel's decision, a faint smile playing at his lips. My plan is going well, going well indeed.

Part 5

 

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