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 6

B'rin stood on the small observation platform outside of his chamber. This was the only personal luxury he allowed himself. Since he had joined the order of Porimma, he had led an essentially ascetic lifestyle, one that allowed him to focus all of his energy on his devotion to the goddess. This wasn't something that was required by his order; it was a personal preference. But he had insisted on having this observation platform. This was where he came when he needed to think, when he needed to clear his mind.

He was confused. He should be celebrating with Prefect B'dak and his followers. The day they had worked for had arrived. Following B'dak's address at the Qanesset the opinion polls broadcast by the news media showed that nearly eighty percent of the population agreed that it was time to rid Qaran of all alien influence. This was what they had worked toward for cycles. So why am I not satisfied?

When he had watched his mentor stand before the membership of the Qanesset just arns earlier he had been filled with pride. But as he had listened and watched B'dak he became increasingly disillusioned. There was something in the tone of his voice, the look in his eye that had shaken B'rin. And when it all ended and B'dak locked eyes with him, he felt as if the world as he knew it had come to an end.

He turned his eyes toward the spaceport where the only activity he could see was that of outgoing ships. Massive crowds had filled the streets following B'dak's announcement of the icon's theft. What had started as peaceful demonstrations had quickly turned ugly as more and more people had flooded the central market. Inevitably, conflicts had erupted between Qaran and alien. And now the off-worlders were leaving the planet en masse.

This is what we have worked for. So why am I so upset about all of this? Why do I suddenly feel as if we're making a mistake? Why do I feel as if Qaran will never forgive us for what we've begun?

 

The mood in Moya's center chamber was cold. Chiana, D'Argo and Zhaan were gathered for the evening meal, but none of them were eating. For the most part, they merely played with their food. Occasionally one of them would look up as if to start a conversation only to stop without a word being spoken.

"Zhaan, D'Argo, Chiana, I think you need to hear this." Pilot's voice came over their comms, breaking the icy silence.

"Have you heard from Rygel?" Chiana asked hopefully.

"No. I'm sorry to say I have not." Pilot replied as his image shimmered into view. "But because we haven't heard anything I decided to monitor planetary communications channels."

"You've found out something, haven't you?" Zhaan asked, moving closer to the viewer.

"Yes, I have. I'm patching the transmission through. It appears to be from some kind of informational transmission."

Pilot's image shimmered away to be replaced with the image of a Qaran woman. Her image was superimposed over a chaotic scene that showed tongues of flame shooting into the darkening sky while ships of myriad design streaked toward the upper atmosphere.

"This is the scene from the main spaceport as off-worlders are fleeing in large numbers in the wake of the anti-alien sentiment sweeping through the city. According to the Ministry of Security rioting began shortly after Prefect B'dak addressed the Qanesset. In the surprise speech, B'dak revealed that the most holy icon of the goddess Porimma had been stolen by off-worlders several days ago and that those responsible are returning to Qaran to face sanction."

The scene before them shifted suddenly as the Leviathan's Transport Pod settled to the ground and powered down. Ministry of Security soldiers immediately surrounded it, their weapons drawn. The members of Moya's crew watched in helpless silence as the hatch opened and three small figures stepped into the fading light.

 

Everything seemed to move in slow motion as Rygel, John and Aeryn descended the steps. The instant their feet touched the ground a small group of soldiers moved forward to surround them.

"Hands on your heads ... aliens!" the troop's leader commanded harshly gesturing with his plasma rifle. Stunned by this turn of events, they didn't respond immediately. The commander stepped forward and the remaining members of the contingent raised their weapons, pointing them at their prisoners.

Rygel, who stood slightly ahead of John and Aeryn, raised up to his full height and extended his short arms out to the side in a gesture of submission. His young charges followed his lead and obediently locked their fingers together on the top of their heads.

"We are to meet Prefect B'dak." Rygel said in his most officious voice.

"Silence. You will speak only when directed to do so." The commander barked. He gestured with his weapon and soldiers moved forward. They swiftly secured John's and Aeryn's hands behind their backs then turned to the diminutive Hynerian. When his hands were secured the commander pushed his three prisoners forward.

 

B'dak stopped outside of the containment area in the Ministry of Security building. He was so close to the culmination of all of his planning, all of his dreaming. Can I do this? Stop it. Now is not the time for doubts. This is my dream. This is my legacy.

He took a deep breath, pasted on a fake smile and entered the containment area. It was quiet. Abnormally quiet. The corridor off of which the cells were arranged appeared to stretch forever. It was dimly lit and the air was cool. Too cool for B'dak's preference, but he wouldn't be staying long. He had arranged to have the containment center emptied so that only two cells were occupied. He'd have preferred to have three cells occupied, but decided it was better to keep Aeryn and John together. He'd found they were easier to control when they were together.

When he stopped between the two occupied cells, he found the Hynerian seated on the low bunk. Rygel turned to face B'dak, a look of disgust on his face.

"So, your true colors are finally revealed." He sneered up at the Qaran. "I knew you couldn't be trusted."

"Why Dominar Rygel," he said in as innocent a tone as he could muster, "I don't know what you mean. You, John and Aeryn are here under protective custody. Surely you saw the rioting when you landed. There is anti-alien sentiment running rampant through the city. I felt it best to have you brought to a secure location where you could be protected."

Rygel's eyes narrowed in anger as he looked up at the man who had returned him to a prison. Smooth. This provacto is smooth. "You may have been able to fool Zhaan and D'Argo with your pretense," he hissed, "but I am not so easily duped. I know you are up to something and I promise you, I will reveal you for the lying bastard that you are."

"I am sorry you feel that way Your Eminence," B'dak replied smoothly. "I only want to see that justice is served."

He turned away from the Hynerian's cell, searching for John and Aeryn in the cell on the opposite side of the passageway. He found them huddled together in a corner, barely visible in the dim lighting. Perhaps they are merely innocent victims. Am I making a mistake with these two? No. No. Blessed Porimma, give me strength.

"Aeryn? John? Why are you hiding in the corner? Surely you don't think that I would try to harm you?"

"C...c...cold." John whimpered through chattering teeth.

"Yes, it is a bit cool. I will see that you have blankets." B'dak replied, hoping to regain their trust.

"Why have you done this to us?" Aeryn demanded as she rose and walked toward the front of the cell. Her steel blue eyes drilled into B'dak's. At her intense gaze he felt a wave of doubt sweep through him. That one's dangerous. She's strong. But not strong enough. He closed his eyes to break the connection and swallowed hard.

"As I told Dominar Rygel, you are under protective custody. I am merely trying to ensure your safety."

"That's dren. We may be children, but we're not stupid." She snarled then hurried back to John's side. She sank to the bunk beside him and pulled him close, hoping to conserve the warmth of their bodies.

 

"D'Argo, you can't go down there!" Chiana shouted, pulling on the Luxan's arm as he strode into the hangar. "They've closed the spaceport. They'll shoot the Prowler down before you get within ten metras of the surface."

"I cannot stay here and do nothing!" he raged as he whirled to face her. His eyes held a mixture of anger and guilt.

"I'm not asking you to. I know you feel responsible, but getting yourself killed isn't going to help any of them."

"If only I had listened to their doubts. To your doubts."

"It's too late for that D'Argo. Self recrimination is not going to help John, Aeryn and Rygel," she said firmly. "We need to think this through and come up with a plan that does not include getting us or them killed."

 

"Why? Why are they doing this to us?" John asked in a plaintive whisper.

"Shhh ... shh ... shh." Aeryn whispered, hoping to calm him. "We'll be okay."

"But ... but ... why? We didn't do anything."

"I know John. I know. This isn't what we were expecting when we came here, but we'll be okay."

"How do you know? How do you know Aeryn?" He whined.

"Will you stop it!" she snapped loudly. "You are eleven cycles old! Too old to act this way. I know you're scared, but it's not going to help to give in to your fear." As she shouted she rose from the bunk to stand over him. "Now get up and help me find a way out of this cell."

He looked up into her eyes, which blazed with anger as she glared at him. He could feel a chuckle begin to well up and the corner of his mouth started to twitch as he tried to hold it in. No. I won't laugh. I can't. If I start to, I'm gonna lose it. C'mon John ... knock it off. Get a grip!

"Okay. Okay. I can do this. I can do this." He muttered under his breath as he pulled himself up from the cot. "What do you have in mind?"

"We have to find a way out of here before B'dak comes back. You check that side of the cell for weaknesses and I'll start here. There has to be some way out of here."

They spent the next quarter of an arn examining the cell, checking and rechecking every possible weakness. Despite her best intentions, Aeryn could feel herself becoming more frustrated and more frightened.

"Maybe we need to admit that there isn't any way out of here." She said dropping heavily onto the bunk.

"What about up there?" John asked, pointing at a small vent near the ceiling. "Do you think we could get out if we could get the grate off?"

"Do you know how high that is?" Aeryn asked, getting up to take a better look.

"I'd guess about seven feet." He answered absently as he studied the wall. "We can do this. If we pull the cot over to this side I can stand on it and you can climb up and stand on my shoulders. You should be able to reach the grate then."

"Are you fahrbot Crichton?" She hissed. "That's the worst plan I've ever heard."

"Do you have any better ideas? " He asked as he grabbed one end of the bunk and started pulling. "C'mon, help me, this thing weighs a ton."

 

"Yes sir, I understand. I will take care of it for you immediately." B'rin snapped off the comm unit and slumped back in his bed. He was tired. The past few days had been incredibly stressful and all he wanted was to sleep. But Prefect B'dak had given him an assignment. Since he had pledged his loyalty to the Prefect, B'rin knew it was his duty to obey. And so he rose reluctantly from the bed's comfortable warmth and started pulling on his clothing.

As he stepped into the street he noted that the city was finally quiet. Since B'dak's speech at the Qanesset there had been rioting and violence, most of it directed at any off-worlders still on the planet. And there were a stubborn few who refused to leave. Most of them had actually been born on Qaran and didn't consider themselves to be aliens. Their DNA might say they weren't Qaranac, but their hearts, their beliefs, their dedication to Qaranac tradition all proclaimed that they were. These were the people he pitied. They were the ones who would be displaced or killed in B'dak's holy war.

B'rin walked quickly to the Ministry of Security building. It was late so the streets were largely deserted. As he mounted the steps to the main entrance a wave of uncertainty washed over him as he realized that he would finally be coming face to face with the three aliens from the Leviathan. Until now they had been faceless pawns in B'dak's game of strategy. But that was about to change.

Blessed Porimma, give me wisdom. You know I have served you and your servant B'dak faithfully, but I am filled with uncertainty. You are the Mother goddess ... can you really want to sacrifice children to achieve your goals? This has been an exercise in strategy and cunning until now. Now it is becoming personal. Show me what you want me to do. Show me what is right.

Even as he prayed he had continued to walk toward the containment area; his footsteps an ominous echo in the deserted corridor. He reached for the door handle and was surprised that his hand was trembling. Stop it. Open the door. Do as you were instructed.

He grasped the handle quickly, before his resolve faded, and pulled the door open. Moments later he stood outside of the cells occupied by B'dak's prisoners. He glanced at the Hynerian who lay on the bunk, snoring loudly. What a disgusting species. But does that make him worthy of death?

B'rin turned his attention to the opposite cell where he expected to find the two children sleeping peacefully. Instead he was presented with the rather comical sight of John standing on the bunk with Aeryn standing on his shoulders trying to reach a ventilation cover that was just out of her reach.

"I thought you said we'd be able to reach this thing!" She hissed angrily.

"So sue me. I underestimated the height. If you weren't so short ... "

"Don't you dare call me short Crichton!"

"Okay! Okay! You'd better get down before you ... " he trailed off as she started to lose her balance. She and John tumbled to the bunk in a tangle of arms and legs. As they landed they started giggling. To B'rin, who watched from the shadows, the sound of their laughter seemed so incongruous in this setting. Yet, he thought, there was a hint of hysteria in the sound. He took a deep breath and stepped out of the shadows.

"May I ask what you were trying to do?" He asked in a soft voice. It sounded almost timid, even to him.

"Who are you?" John asked as the two young prisoners scrambled to their feet and faced him.

"I am called B'rin."

"And what do you want from us?" Aeryn asked.

"My mentor, Prefect B'dak ... "

"Sent you to keep an eye on us." Rygel interrupted angrily.

B'rin spun around to face the Hynerian. He cursed himself for having been distracted. His carelessness could have been disastrous under other circumstances. I must be more attentive.

"No. He sent me to see if you needed anything and to bring you these blankets." B'rin replied as he passed the blankets through the cell door to John and Aeryn.

"We need our freedom. That's the only thing we need from you." Rygel snapped.

"I am afraid that is the one thing I cannot do. You should get some sleep. Tomorrow will be a long day."

"What's gonna happen tomorrow?" John asked as he wrapped himself in one of the blankets.

"You will face trial at the Qanesset."

"Trial? For what?"

"Prefect B'dak has charged you with stealing the icon of the goddess Porimma from our temple and using it to rejuvenate yourselves."

"That is not what happened." Rygel protested. "But I suppose the truth is of no consequence to you and that Prefect of yours."

 

The Guide's solitary figure knelt in the heart of the temple's massive central chamber. Shadows danced on the high stone walls, cast by hundreds of candles that had been lit arns earlier. Attendants occasionally replenished the candles and incense, but he took no notice of them.

T'mir had been chosen as the Guide nearly one hundred and fifty cycles earlier. It was unusual that a man of his youth would be chosen for so lofty a position, but his fellow priests had sensed greatness in him and had pressed him into service. He had never sought to be elevated; indeed, he had often rebelled against the constraints of his position. But everything had come into focus for him on this day. As he had watched Prefect B'dak whip the Qanesset into a frenzy, it all made sense. This was the day he had been preparing for since his induction into the priesthood. This was the day his life would truly begin.

And so he had come to the sanctuary to pray, to cleanse his heart in preparation for the storm that was about to begin. That had been nearly six arns earlier. He knew the moment was coming. But he also knew that he had to wait for the one who would set it all in motion. Soon. Very soon. I need only be patient a short while longer.

 

B'rin sat down heavily on the top step in front of the Ministry of Security building. He had spent nearly an arn talking with B'dak's prisoners and had been visibly shaken by their account of the past few days' events. He had known going in that Prefect B'dak hadn't told him everything, but he never dreamed that his teacher, his role model, his mentor had lied to him. It would be easy to discount the prisoners' account of things were it not for the nagging doubts he had been struggling with since B'dak's return from the Leviathan.

What should I do with this information? Can I, in good conscience, ignore what I have learned? Can I allow these aliens to be sacrificed for the cause I have devoted my life to for so long? Is this what the goddess would want? Would she willingly destroy these lives for so petty a goal? Can she bless the deception and lies of B'dak? If so, can I continue to worship her?

He sat, head in his hands, for a few more microts as he wrestled with his thoughts. Making up his mind, he stood abruptly and ran down the steps.

 

The morning sun burst through the window cutting a bright swath across the room. Prefect B'dak stirred as the light penetrated his tired mind. He had been busy late into the night and had only retired to his home a few arns earlier. He lifted one arm and dropped it over his eyes to block out the brightness, but found himself unable to fall back to sleep. After several microts he swung his long legs over the side of the bed and rose to face another day.

He began the day as he did every day, moving effortlessly through the discipline of Vypareta Qarana, a series of movements designed to focus one's thinking and stimulate blood flow. As he moved through the poses, he found his mind wandering as he thought of what the day would hold. He became so distracted that he began to confuse the poses and finally gave up entirely. Frustrated, he hurried to take a shower and grab a quick meal.

While he ate, he prepared his remarks for the opening of the trial at the Qanesset. This was the day he had been working toward for as long as he could remember. The day that the alien influence would finally be wiped from the face of Qaran. Never again would anyone be passed over for a job because they were a native born Qaran. Never again would anyone be subjected to the indignity that his father had been forced to endure. He would see to it.

His private comm unit beeped loudly, startling him and sending a chill through him. No one would dare interrupt him at this hour unless it was urgent.

"What is it?" he snapped, expecting to see his protege, B'rin on the view screen.

"Forgive me Prefect," a very nervous young initiate said, "you asked to be notified if there was any change in the status of the prisoners."

"Yes, yes. Do not waste my time repeating my orders." he replied angrily. Sometimes, he thought, instilling fear in subordinates was more a bother than an advantage.

"Yes ... yes sir. We've just had a report that the Guide has ordered the prisoners moved to the Temple."

"What?" B'dak shouted as he leapt from his chair. He snapped off the comm unit before the young many could reply, gathered his papers and raced out the door.

 

John looked up at the tall men who had opened their cell doors. Outwardly they looked like all of the other Qaran soldiers he had seen, but there was something different about them. They held themselves differently, with a confidence that the others didn't possess and they didn't carry weapons.

"You are to come with us," the commanding officer said simply. It wasn't a command. It was merely a statement. John and Aeryn exchanged a glance, but moved to obey even as Rygel did the same.

"Where are you taking us?" Rygel asked. "Are we to stand trial so soon?"

"I know nothing of a trial. The Guide has ordered you be moved to the Temple. Beyond that I know nothing."

"The Guide?" John asked timidly. "Who's the Guide?"

"He is the spiritual leader of our people. Now, enough questions. Everything will be explained when you meet with him. We must hurry."

He turned sharply and walked swiftly toward the door to the containment area. His squad fell in place around John, Aeryn and Rygel who had no choice but to comply. When they reached the door, the commander opened it and directed them to take the passageway to the left, which would lead them to a waiting transport.

As the small group hurried out of the doors they were met by another group of soldiers, all of whom carried weapons.

"Stop right there. Who gave you permission to move these prisoners?" The leader of the patrol demanded as he stepped toward them.

"We are under orders of His Eminence the Guide to bring these people to the Temple." The commander of the Temple Guards said, moving to stand toe to toe with the other man. He locked eyes with his counterpart and stared at him unblinking.

"That's enough Commander," Prefect B'dak said as he stepped around the front of the waiting transport vehicle. He turned to the commander of the Temple Guards and studied him for several microts before continuing, "Under what authority does the Guide issue this order?"

"That is not my concern Prefect. I was given my orders and I obey them without question. If you wish further clarification you should contact the Guide yourself."

"Oh I shall Commander. I shall." He looked past the officer to where the prisoners stood in the midst of the Temple Guards. They look so small and insignificant. Is this what we are fighting over? He smiled thinly and added, "For the sake of harmony, I will accompany you to the temple where we will get to the bottom of this."

 

"I am sorry Pa'u Zhaan, there is nothing that I can do." Pilot stated, hoping to calm the agitated Delvian before him. "All communications with the planet have been disabled. They are not receiving communications from off-world."

"Surely there must be something we can do Pilot. Had we not been so taken in by Prefect B'dak this would never have happened."

The large symbiont looked at the woman pacing before him. During the cycles in which they had been together he had seen her distraught, but never quite like this. He truly wished there were something he could do to ease her pain, but he knew there little, short of the return of Rygel, John and Aeryn, that would accomplish that end.

"Zhaan, perhaps the best thing you can do right now is to pray to your goddess for their safe return. Allowing your guilt to cloud your judgement will do them no good."

Zhaan stopped dead at his words and turned to stare at him. She opened her mouth as if to respond but closed it without speaking.

"I will continue to monitor planetary communications in the hope of learning more." He added, "If I discover anything, I will inform you all immediately."

 

B'rin paced the anteroom to the Guide's office. It had been nearly half an arn since the Temple Guards had been sent to retrieve B'dak's prisoners. So much could have gone wrong in that time. Someone could have gotten word to B'dak. They could have come up against opposition from the Ministry of Security officers. The crowds in the streets could have started to riot again. Will they never arrive?

Even as the thought crossed his mind the door opened and the Commander of the Temple Guard entered. His soldiers, B'dak's prisoners and, much to B'rin's dismay, B'dak himself, followed him. The two men stared at each other, neither quite sure how to react.

"I should have known." B'dak snorted derisively. "You always were weak."

B'rin opened his mouth to respond, but thought better of it and merely turned toward the door to the Guide's office. He rapped sharply and opened the door, ushering the group inside.

"Commander, will you escort our three guests to their quarters." T'mir said without looking up from his desk. "D'nea will show you the way."

"Sit down Prefect." T'mir said when they were alone in the room.

Prefect B'dak complied without comment, but noted smugly that B'rin had not been invited to sit. Emboldened by the gesture, B'dak began, "If I may be so bold, Your Eminence, why have you removed the prisoners from the Ministry of Security?"

"It is customary for me to initiate audiences in this office, Prefect." The Guide said as he slowly raised his eyes to B'dak's. "Do not forget your place."

"Forgive me Your Eminence. I did not mean to be presumptuous." B'dak apologized.

"Yes you did. We would not be having this discussion otherwise." B'dak was stunned into silence as T'mir continued, "In answer to your question, I have moved your 'prisoners' here because this is where they belong. You have accused them of stealing a statue from the Temple. This is an affront to the spiritual aspect of our society and that is my jurisdiction. We thank you for bringing them back to Qaran so that we can determine the truth of the matter. You may go now."

T'mir returned his gaze to the papers on his desk as B'dak slowly rose to his feet. He knew that he had made an enemy with his words, but that was the least of his concerns. The people wanted blood and they wanted it to be alien blood. It didn't matter to them whether or not the people in question were really guilty, so long as they were punished. T'mir knew he had to find a way to change that. And he had to do it soon.

"Brother B'rin," he said rising from behind his desk, "will you escort Prefect B'dak out? When you have seen him to the door, please come back. I would like you to be here when I talk with our guests."

An awkward silence reigned between the two men as they walked toward the entrance. Finally, B'dak stopped and glared at the younger man.

"I thought you were on my side B'rin."

A feeling of loss washed over B'rin as he looked at his former mentor. The decision had been so simple when he had made it, but now, standing face to face with him, he wasn't as certain.

"Prefect ... " he began uncertainly. "It's not a matter of whose side I'm on. I did what I thought was necessary for the good of our people."

"You did what was best for you." B'dak snorted derisively.

"No. I did not. I'm sorry you can't see that." B'rin replied heavily. "Perhaps this was destined to be. I can no longer live with the mockery you have made of our order. I will see that my things are removed from my quarters before the end of the day."

 

"Where are they taking Rygel?" Aeryn asked as the door closed, leaving her and John under the watchful eye of D'nea.

"The Guide has some questions for your companion." She replied reassuringly. "He will be returned to you."

"Why are you staying here with us? Are you our guard?" John asked in a timid voice. He was scared, but trying hard not to show it. Since Aeryn had chewed him out in the other cell, he'd tried to conquer his fear, but it was becoming more difficult with every passing minute.

D'nea moved to sit beside John and Aeryn on the low bolster that ran the length of the room. She was concerned about them. They appeared to be physically and emotionally exhausted, but for some reason were fighting to stay awake. Several times since she had been with them, they had appeared to be drifting to sleep only to jerk awake suddenly. She wasn't sure if it was fear that kept them awake or something else, but she was determined to find the cause.

"You two should get some rest, you've had a very big day." She suggested.

"Can't sleep." John muttered, stifling a yawn.

"Why not?"

"Don't wanna change again." he mumbled sleepily as his eyes sagged again.

"Change? I don't understand."

"Every time we sleep, we get younger." Aeryn replied as she shook John's shoulder to wake him up. "And we lose our memories ... at least that's what the people on our ship said."

"So you don't want to sleep because you're afraid you'll get younger again? Well, how old are you supposed to be?"

"Our shipmate, Zhaan, told us that I'm really 37 cycles old and Aeryn is about 30."

D'nea was stunned. What they described sounded like the ancient traditions associated with Porimma, but memory loss had never been a part of it.

"Well how long have you gone without sleep?"

Aeryn hesitated, looking almost embarrassed. "Over two solar days."

"Oh you poor things." D'nea exclaimed. "Stay here. I'm going to go talk with the Guide," she added as she rose from their side and hurried toward the door.

A few moments later she quietly opened the door to the Guide's office and slipped in. She stood discretely just inside the door, waiting for him to recognize her. Her patience was rewarded when he waved her forward, taking a short break from his interrogation of the Hynerian. She approached quickly and described the situation in a low whisper.

"I think I should see them immediately," he chuckled, rising from behind his desk. "Dominar Rygel, perhaps you would care to accompany me to see that no harm comes to your companions."

 

"This is intolerable! I will not be treated this way!" B'dak raged as he paced his office at the Qanesset. "I am a Prefect, a duly elected representative of the people. Who does he think he is? To dismiss me as if I were nothing."

"Calm down B'dak." Prefect D'ral soothed. "The Guide often treats secular leaders this way."

"I don't mean the Guide!" he snapped, then seeing the look of confusion on his colleague's face added, "B'rin! The traitor."

"Surely you must be mistaken. B'rin is no traitor. He is your staunchest supporter."

"Then explain why he is, even now, with the Guide, plotting against me." B'dak snorted. "He was like a son to me and now he has turned his back on me, D'ral. Wrapping his treachery in the colors of patriotism. He had the audacity to accuse me of making a mockery of the Order of Porimma. I seek only to advance our own people, to bring the off-worlders' influence to an end. Qaran should be for Qaranac, not every alien out to make money."

D'ral was stunned. He knew that B'dak had a temper. He had seen it on occasion when a debate in the Qanesset had not gone B'dak's way, but he'd never seen his friend this livid. Perhaps the strain of the past few days is taking its toll. There has to be more to this than he's telling me.

"Sit down B'dak." D'ral said firmly. "Working yourself into a frenzy is not going to do any good. Tell me what happened. Perhaps you are over reacting."

Recognizing the counsel in D'ral's words, B'dak lowered himself into the chair behind his desk. He may be an ally, but I need to keep him in his proper place. Can't allow him to think we're equals by sitting beside him ...

A quarter arn later B'dak sat back in his chair, totally drained. He had described in as much detail as possible what had happened since he had visited his prisoners at the Ministry of Security prison the night before. It had been difficult to contain his rising anger, but he had forced himself to remain calm.

D'ral had listened with interest, hoping there was good cause behind B'dak's agitation. But when B'dak finished his recitation, D'ral was more concerned than ever that his friend was crumbling under the pressure of the past few days. Based on what he had heard, he could understand why B'rin had done what he had. Had he been put in a similar situation, he thought, he probably would have done the same. But how do I tell B'dak that he's wrong? Even if I dared, would he hear me or would I just be another traitor? Another person out to get him?

"B'dak ... " D'ral began only to be cut off when B'dak leapt up from his seat and began pacing again.

"I suppose you're going to tell me that I'm wrong too?" B'dak shouted, on the verge of hysteria. "Get out! You aren't necessary! I'll do this myself. I don't need anyone's help! Porimma will guide me! I am her chosen deliverer!"

"B'dak ... "

"Get out!" he screamed.

D'ral rose swiftly and turned to leave before B'dak became any more hysterical. As he reached the door, he looked back to see his colleague gesturing wildly, his eyes wide and blazing. His lips moved, but no words came out.

D'ral realized in that instant that B'dak was totally, hopelessly insane.

 

John's eyes were fixed on the man who knelt before him. He was the most powerful man on Qaran, yet he was concerned about him and Aeryn. The way T'mir spoke softly, but with authority reminded John of his father, but rather than making him homesick, it made him feel better. He couldn't explain it, but for the first time since he'd awakened on the Leviathan, he had hope.

T'mir gently cupped both John's and Aeryn's chins in his hands and locked eyes with them. They nodded in response to his unspoken question and he released them then stood up. He gestured to D'nea and Rygel who stepped into the hall ahead of him. He glanced back at the two children before leaving and saw that they were already nearly asleep.

 

"D'ral, I am as concerned about Prefect B'dak as you are, but there is little I can do." B'rin admitted sadly. He had been surprised when D'ral had come to the temple to see him. Although they had been allies for some time, there had been little beyond their common goal to bring them together.

The older man sank heavily to the bench beside the tree they had stopped under. He had insisted they walk in the open air to avoid being overheard. B'rin had resisted; thinking it was an unnecessary precaution, but had finally relented.

"Little you can do or little you want to do?" He asked, lifting his eyes to meet B'rin's.

"Prefect D'ral, I resent your implication." he replied heatedly. "B'dak has been my mentor for cycles. He means a great deal to me, but I cannot stand idly by while he makes a mockery of everything I believe in. He is using these people. They aren't guilty of the crimes he says they are."

"How can you be so certain? If they are the type that would steal an icon from the temple, they would lie to you."

"Have you met them? Yes, the Hynerian could have done this, though how I'm not certain. But the children ... no. I can't believe it."

"Children?" D'ral asked, stupefied. "He's using children?"

"Yes. I didn't know myself until B'dak sent me to the Ministry of Security. Prefect B'dak is willing to sacrifice two children in his quest for glory. I could not allow that to happen." He paused, weighing his words carefully, "Prefect D'ral, we have been lied to."

D'ral was quiet for a while as he contemplated B'rin's words. At last he sighed heavily and pushed himself out of his seat, coming to stand face to face with the younger man. "We must stop him you know," he said.

 

Rygel was nervous. During his lifetime he had rarely been in a position where someone made him feel inferior. His upbringing and position as Hynerian Dominar had always placed him at or above the level of those around him. But this man, the Guide, without even trying to do so, made him feel humble. Perhaps it was T'mir's quiet confidence or his internal peace. Whatever it was, Rygel knew he was in the presence of a man of great power and influence. He also knew this was not a man to be manipulated.

"Dominar Rygel, please join me on the terrace." T'mir said as he rose from the chair behind his massive desk. "We have been talking business long enough. I think we both need a chance to clear our heads and have some refreshment."

At the mention of food, Rygel's eyes lit up and he smiled his acceptance. Truth be told, Rygel knew he was a glutton and that his obsession with food and drink often overwhelmed his better judgement. But he also knew that much of that obsession had come from the cycles of torture and deprivation at the hands of the Peacekeepers. Or at least that's how he justified it to himself on those rare occasions when his conscience pricked him.

As the Guide moved toward the doors leading to the terrace adjacent to his office, Rygel activated his throne sled and hovered at a companionable distance. He had been surprised, but pleased, when T'mir had returned the throne sled. It had been a gesture of goodwill on T'mir's part and much to Rygel's surprise, he had accepted it as such.

The two men strolled through the beautiful garden, each enjoying the break from the roles they were so often forced to play. T'mir directed Rygel to a small alcove sheltered from prying eyes and ears. As they settled themselves, Rygel inhaled deeply, surprised at the familiar aroma.

"Are those Churac blossoms?" he asked, startled by this reminder of home.

"They are indeed. The man who held this position before me was interested in horticulture. He had specimens from many worlds brought here. I believe he hoped it would comfort off-worlders when they came here."

"Well, it has certainly done that for me. I haven't smelled Churac blossoms since I was a child."

"I am pleased Dominar Rygel. It's time we talk honestly, without any pretense or hidden agendas." T'mir said as he sat under the massive tree. Its spreading foliage acted as a canopy, shading them from the hot mid-day sun.

"I agree Your Eminence." Rygel replied. "What do you want to know?"

"Did you steal the icon as Prefect B'dak has claimed?"

"I did not."

"Then where did you get it?"

"I purchased it from a dealer in the main marketplace. It was displayed in the window. I saw it as I was returning to our transport pod. The dealer assured me it was genuine and set a fair price for it."

"Did he tell you that it is illegal to remove Qaran artifacts from the planet?"

"No he didn't. But I will be honest with you, I did know that it is illegal to take the icon back to Moya."

"Then why did you do it?"

"I knew it would be valuable." He paused, considering how to explain his other motivation. "I also knew of its history. I hoped it might work for me. I am growing older. The only thing that keeps me going is my hope of returning to my world and regaining my throne. I thought that if the statue could prolong my life I would have a better chance of achieving my goal."

"But you have many cycles of life ahead of you. Yours is a long lived species, surely you will have opportunity to regain your throne."

Rygel looked away from the Guide. He knew that his rationale was foolish, but he would do anything to regain his throne. It was his only reason for living.

"Rygel," T'mir began gently, "I know this has been difficult for you, but I do have one more question for you. If you knew it was illegal to take the icon from Qaran and you knew you would face sanction if you came back, why did you return? You were safe aboard your ship. Why did you come back? Why did you place yourself at risk?"

"It was my duty." Rygel responded. He raised up to his full height then continued. "My actions caused the transformation that has affected my shipmates ... no, my friends. Had I not purchased the statue, had I not taken it aboard the transport or Moya for that matter, they would not have been affected. I could not let them come here alone when I am responsible for their condition.

"John Crichton once told me that doing the right thing starts at the beginning of the day. At the time, I didn't fully understand or accept what he said, but he was right. I may not have done the right thing when I removed the statue from your planet, but I will not abandon my friends."

 

Aeryn's eyes snapped open. She raised up to see John curled up opposite her. She grinned, startled to realize she was glad to see him. She pushed her blanket off and swung her legs over the side of the bed. As her feet hit the floor it dawned on her that she remembered who she was and where she was.

A broad smile lit her face and she leaned over and shook John's shoulder roughly. "Crichton, wake up." He pushed her hand away and mumbled for her to go away. Instead she continued to shake his shoulder until he opened his eyes.

"Whadda ya want?" He muttered as he sat up. "I don't wanna get up yet."

"Crichton, get up."

"What is it Aeryn?" He pushed his blanket away and looked at her. "Hey, wait a minute ... I know you." He bounded to his feet and grabbed hold of Aeryn, swinging her around in the air as he shouted, "I know you! We didn't change!"

"Put me down John!" she laughed.

"What's going on in here?" D'nea asked as she stepped through the door.

John set Aeryn back down on her feet. They turned toward D'nea, their faces bright red. D'nea smiled at their obvious joy.

"It's alright. You're entitled to be happy. I trust you're feeling better after your sleep."

"Yes ma'am." John replied, ducking his head to hide his embarrassment.

"The Guide has asked that the two of you join him for dinner. There is a washroom through that door and I've taken the liberty of finding you some clothing that will fit you better." She laid a pile of clothing on the table and turned to face them. "I'll be back to take you to the Guide in an arn."

"Where's Rygel?" Aeryn asked as D'nea turned to leave.

"He is in the room next door. He and the Guide talked most of the time you were sleeping. He's resting now."

"Can we see him? Is he okay?" John asked.

"Yes John. He is well. You can see him after you've met with the Guide," she replied patiently. "Now you must hurry. You don't want to keep the Guide waiting."

When D'nea returned an arn later she found Aeryn seated at the small table in the corner of the room, fastening her hair into a ponytail on the crown of her head. She had changed into the clothing D'nea had provided; a pair of white pants and a white tee shirt.

"You look just like a novitiate." D'nea said, smiling broadly at the change in her appearance. Sleep and a warm shower had done wonders for her. "Where's John?"

Aeryn whirled around on the stool, startled that she hadn't heard D'nea come in. I need to pay better attention. I've lost so much of my conditioning.

"Oh Aeryn, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to startle you. I forget sometimes that we tend to move so quietly that it disconcerts people who are new to the temple."

"I was just thinking that I've been slack in my disciplines. My training instructors would not be pleased."

"Training instructors? Disciplines? Were you a novitiate in a religious order?"

"No." Aeryn laughed. "No, not a religious order. I am a Peacekeeper trainee."

D'nea was stunned. She had heard of the Peacekeepers but had never met one. This little one was a soldier? What kind of people would do that to children? "You didn't answer me," she said changing the subject, "where's John?"

"I'm right here," he said reentering the main room. Like Aeryn he was now dressed all in white. He rubbed his damp hair with a towel as he moved to join Aeryn and D'nea.

"Good. You two look refreshed. We must hurry, we don't want to keep the Guide waiting." D'nea opened the door and ushered the two children into the corridor. As they walked she explained proper etiquette for meeting the Guide and what to expect from him.

"You'll be coming in with us, right?" John asked, looking up into her eyes when she stopped at a large door. He was nervous, unsure what to expect.

She knelt down and pulled them to stand side by side before her. Looking from one to the other, she smiled to reassure them, then shook her head. "No John. You and Aeryn will have to face the Guide alone. I will wait for you here."

"But ... " Aeryn began, but was silenced when D'nea placed a finger on her lips.

"No buts. The Guide has summoned the two of you. He did not include me in that invitation. You have nothing to be afraid of. He may seem gruff at times, but he is a caring man. You saw that this morning." She paused, looking them squarely in the eyes. She smiled and turned them around to face the massive door. "Now go. Just be yourselves. You have nothing to fear." She stood and reached around them to open the door.

John and Aeryn looked at each other, hesitating. D'nea grinned and pushed them forward then pulled the door closed behind them.

 

"Zhaan, Chiana, D'Argo, I am picking up a transmission from the planet's surface. Please come to Command." Pilot shouted over the comms. He had been monitoring the planet's communications for several arns to no avail. According to the information broadcasts he had tapped into all off-world communications had been cut off so he had been surprised when the message came in.

"Pilot, we're here!" Chiana called as they raced into Command. "What've you got for us?"

"I am receiving a transmission from a Brother B'rin. He claims to have information about John, Aeryn and Rygel."

"Put it through Pilot." D'Argo growled impatiently.

The main viewer shimmered to life and the image of B'rin appeared. He seemed uncomfortable, almost unsure of himself as he began, "Crew of the Leviathan, I am Brother B'rin. I have a message for you from the Guide."

"Who the frell is the guide?" D'Argo snarled stepping closer to the view screen. Zhaan placed her hand on his arm lightly, hoping to restrain him. He turned to face her and she recoiled before his anger.

"Forgive me, Ka D'Argo, is it? " B'rin continued, "The Guide is our spiritual leader. He has asked me to let you know that your shipmates are safe and they are well."

"Thank Kahalen," Zhaan sighed, catching B'rin's attention. He turned slightly to regard her for a moment before continuing.

"Pa'u Zotoh Zhaan, the Delvian priest. It is my pleasure. Dominar Rygel's description of you did not do you justice." He paused for a moment to regain his composure. He had never met a Delvian and though their contact was only by telecommunication, her presence was impressive. She was much more beautiful than he had expected and she exuded an incredible power. Rygel underestimates her.

"As I was saying, your shipmates are in good health. They are presently guests of the Guide here in the temple."

"Guests?" D'Argo raged, "Don't you mean prisoners? We saw your information broadcasts. We saw how they were treated when they arrived!"

"That was regrettable. Prefect B'dak was responsible for that. They have been removed from his custody and are now guests of the Guide. He is looking into the charges that have been made by the Prefect."

"Wait a microt," Chiana interrupted, "why would your Guide take an interest in this? And aren't you a follower of B'dak?"

B'rin felt himself flush at her accusation. Somehow she must have seen one of the communications between him and B'dak while B'dak was aboard Moya. He had tried to warn the Guide that his involvement with B'dak could be a problem, but he wouldn't listen. Or perhaps he thought B'rin needed to atone for that involvement by making restitution to those he had wronged. He inhaled deeply, trying to find the right words.

"Yes I was B'dak's protege. But when I saw what he was doing to your friends, I realized how unbalanced he has become. I cannot excuse what I have done on his behalf, but I hope to atone for my actions by helping you reclaim your friends."

"And why should we trust you?" D'Argo demanded.

"I will admit that you have no reason to trust me, but ... " he said, holding up his hands to silence D'Argo's protests, "but our goals are the same. I want to see your friends returned to you as much as you want them back."

"Why?" Chiana demanded. "If you're B'dak's follower, you must want to rid your planet of aliens as much as he did."

"I was B'dak's follower." B'rin replied with frustration. "Please listen to me. I know you have your suspicions and doubts, but you must put them aside to help your friends. Arguing over my involvement in what has happened to them will not get them back, but listening to the Guide's plan will."

Zhaan stepped forward, placing herself between D'Argo and the view screen. "Please continue Brother B'rin. What does your Guide want of us?"

 

B'dak stormed into his Qanesset office, slamming the door behind him. His face was dark with anger. Never in his tenure in office had he been as humiliated as he had today. The Guide thinks he can get away with this. He is sadly mistaken. He doesn't know who he had come up against! I will wrest them from his control and see that they are punished for their crimes against the Qaranac. I will show him for the fraud that he is! He is no longer representing the best interests of the people ... placing aliens first. Pah! He is not fit to be the Guide! I am more concerned for the spiritual life of our people than that fraud! "I will see you are destroyed!" he shouted, his voice bordering on hysteria.

He paced angrily around his office for several microts. As he passed his desk, he glanced at the papers and noticed a summons from the Guide lying on top. He stopped, glaring at the paper. Without thinking, his hand flashed out, spraying papers all across the office. They fluttered to the ground in disarray as B'dak turned and stalked out of the room.

 

Aeryn and John stood side by side just inside the door. When D'nea had gently pushed them they had stumbled forward and found themselves alone inside a large room.

"Okay, we're here," John mumbled, "now what?"

"I'd say, we wait." Aeryn replied, turning to look at him. She took some comfort in the fact that he looked as nervous as she felt. Since she had always taken comfort in activity, she added, "Come on. Let's at least look around. We may be able to learn something before the Guide arrives."

They hadn't taken more than two steps forward when a door on the opposite side of the room opened and the Guide stepped into the room. From what they had learned about him and his position, they had expected him to be accompanied by several guards or servants, but he was alone, much to their relief.

"I hope you haven't been waiting long." T'mir said lightly as he approached them. He rested his hands lightly on their shoulders directing them toward the side of the room from which he had come. "Come, you must be hungry. We can talk while we share a meal."

He led them into an adjacent room where a simple meal had been laid out for them. T'mir directed them to the table, then took his own seat. He asked a simple blessing on the meal, then served his two guests personally. "Please, eat. You must be hungry after all this time."

"What do you want from us?" Aeryn asked bluntly as she pushed her bowl away slightly.

"First of all, I want you to trust me." He smiled in hopes of easing their fears. "I merely want to talk with you, to learn how you came to be on Qaran."

"Didn't Rygel tell you that?" she asked as she locked eyes with him.

"You are a courageous girl Aeryn Sun. Dominar Rygel did indeed tell me his version of the events leading to your arrival here. I want to hear your version."

"There's not a lot to tell." John said between bites. Aeryn glared at him, thinking he should have abstained from eating as she had. He caught her expression and smiled sheepishly, "Gimme a break, I was hungry. Besides, it's good. You should try some."

"Tell me what you know of how you came to be here." T'mir repeated.

"We don't know much." John replied. "Only that we woke up about two days ago aboard that ship. Neither of us remembered how we got there. Since then we've been poked and prodded, tested and questioned, imprisoned and ignored. All I know for sure is that I wanna go home."

"And where is your home John Crichton?" T'mir asked. He found this young man intriguing. There was something different about him. He appeared to be a Sebacean, but his spirit was so different from Aeryn's.

"I'm from Earth. But Zhaan says I've lived on Moya for two ... what'd she call 'em? Two cycles."

"And you Aeryn? What do you want?"

"I want my life back," she replied, her voice barely above a whisper, "whatever that may be."

"Can you help us?" John asked quietly. "B'dak said there was a ritual that might be able to reverse what's happened to us."

"Do you want it to be reversed?" T'mir asked. "You have the chance to relive your youth. To change the way your life has gone."

"I want my life back." John declared. His voice cracked as he continued, "I wanna see my mom and dad again. I wanna see my sisters again."

"And you Aeryn? Do you want it reversed?"

"Yes," she replied flatly.

"There may be something we can do." T'mir replied, a smile spreading across his face at the joy and relief he saw reflected in the eyes of John and Aeryn. He stood, motioning for them to join him. They moved around the table to stand beside him. "Come, walk with me. I think you'll like the garden. It's almost sunset and the garden is quite beautiful at this time of day."

 

The central market was crowded despite the absence of off-worlders. It seemed to B'dak that every Qaranac in the city had come to the market today. Though it was late in the day, an almost carnival atmosphere reigned as people strolled through the wide streets. Many of the people in the market recognized him from the reports on his speech the day before. Those with enough courage saluted him with the traditional Qaran, one hand to the forehead, the other over the heart. Others merely pointed at him and whispered to their companions.

B'dak was growing frustrated. He had specific business here and the attention he was receiving was interfering with his ability to accomplish it. If only I could have persuaded the fool to meet me elsewhere. This all could have been avoided. Relief flooded through him as he saw his destination just a short distance ahead. He increased his pace, pushing past several people who wanted to greet him.

He breathed a sigh of relief as he entered the art dealer's shop. It was empty except for the shopkeeper who hurried to lock the door and pull the shades. When B'dak had first approached him about luring an alien into buying Porimma's icon, it had seemed like a good way to make a contribution to Qaran society. But he hadn't anticipated the possible complications, one of which was standing in his shop at this moment.

"What to you want?" The shopkeeper asked. He'd had second thoughts about his part in the icon's theft and B'dak's presence here added to his disquiet.

"You will not speak to me in that tone of voice." B'dak snapped. "If it weren't for me, you would still be competing against that alien with the cut-rate goods ... "

"And I wouldn't be living in fear of arrest for selling stolen goods." he interrupted.

B'dak whirled on the man, grabbing him around the throat. He pushed him back until he was bent painfully against a counter. "You forget yourself," he snarled as his grip on the man's throat tightened dangerously.

The shopkeeper struggled to break his grip while gasping for breath. He could feel his legs growing weak as B'dak continued to press him against the counter. Just as he thought he was going to die at B'dak's hands the Prefect released him and he sagged to the floor. He gasped for air as he massaged his bruised neck. Pulling himself up to his feet he looked at B'dak and was shocked at the rage burning in his eyes. He's lost his mind. I need to protect myself or he'll pull me down with him.

"Prefect," he croaked out, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid someone will be able to trace me to the icon."

"That is precisely why I am here," B'dak replied calmly, "to guarantee you do not tell anyone that I gave you the icon and asked you to sell it to an alien."

The merchant blanched under B'dak's glare. The rage tinged with madness that he saw there terrified him. "I ... I ... I would never ... never tell anyone ... "

"That's right. You will never tell anyone anything." B'dak hissed. As he approached the cowering merchant he reached inside his coat to pull out a small curved blade.

 

"C'mon Aeryn!" John called as he grabbed another branch to swing up higher in the tree. He perched on a branch and looked down at her as she scrambled from one branch to another.

"That was a challenge. What kind of training exercise was that?" Aeryn asked as she pulled herself up beside him.

"It wasn't a training exercise." John replied as he resettled himself.

"Then why do it?"

"For fun Aeryn. Sometimes you do things just because it's fun."

She looked at him for a few microts then looked away to hide her confusion from him. He always seemed to get to her when she least expected it. What are you doing to me John Crichton? How can you read me so well?

On the ground below, T'mir watched them run and scamper with amusement. It amazed him how they could still be so happy after all they had been through in the past few days. They are worthy of redemption. I will help them.

"Excuse me Your Eminence," D'nea said, coming to stand beside him. "The captain of the Guards sent me. There is an urgent matter he needs to discuss with you."

T'mir glanced up into the tree where John and Aeryn sat silently looking over the temple grounds. D'nea followed his gaze and smiled. "They are quite a pair aren't they?" she chuckled. "Don't worry, I'll stay and watch over them."

T'mir nodded his thanks and hurried toward the Temple. For a few microts he had been able to put everything behind him - the political machinations, the schemes, the responsibilities - and pretend he was a normal man with normal problems. To have a family of my own, children of my own. He shook his head knowing that it was not his lot in life to have the things that so many others took so for granted.

"Your Eminence," the captain of the Guards saluted as he stepped through the door, "forgive me for disturbing you at this hour."

"D'nea said that there is some urgent business that needs my attention. What is it that couldn't have waited?"

"Sir, the man that you had us put on Prefect B'dak is here with his report. I thought you would want to hear it immediately."

"Of course Captain. You did the right thing." T'mir reassured him. "Where is he?"

 

"Are you certain about this Zhaan?" Chiana asked, hurrying to keep pace the Delvian woman. "You could be walking into a trap."

"I know that Chiana, but I feel this is something I must do. I have failed John and Aeryn at every turn since B'dak came aboard. I cannot fail them again."

"Zhaan ... "

"No child," she interrupted, "do not try to dissuade me. I must do this."

 

"I followed Prefect B'dak to the art dealer where Dominar Rygel claimed to have purchased the icon. As soon as he entered the shop, the doors were locked and the blinds were pulled. I'm sorry, I never saw the Prefect leave; he must have gone out another way. I waited for almost an arn before I went in." The young man paused, trying to find a way to describe the grisly scene he had found.

"It was horrible sir. That poor man lay there in his own blood, too weak to call for help. Dying. There was nothing I could do, he was too far gone by the time I reached him."

T'mir's heart sank as he listened to the soldier's report. I never thought it would come to this. How could I have misjudged B'dak so badly? He reached out and placed a comforting hand on the young soldier's arm. "I know this was difficult for you, but I must ask you one more thing. Did the merchant positively identify his assailant?"

"Yes sir. I asked him who had done this to him and although that monster had cut out his tongue, he managed to identify Prefect B'dak." He paused, swallowing back the bile that rose in his throat at the memory. "He wrote B'dak's name in his own blood just before he died."

"Captain, send a detail to arrest Prefect B'dak." T'mir ordered. "I want him under constant watch. I fear he has lost his grip on sanity."

The soldiers filed out of his office, leaving T'mir with his thoughts. He approached the windows overlooking the garden hoping to catch a glimpse of his two young guests. Their innocence was such a contrast to the evil that B'dak had brought to Qaran in the name of Porimma. How could he have been so foolish? How could I have missed the warning signs? Is my leadership at fault? Could I have foreseen this and stopped it before it got this far?

 

B'rin piloted the small shuttle into the Leviathan's docking bay. If anyone had suggested that he would be doing this he would have thought them mad. To willingly seek out aliens for help was contrary to everything he had been taught, everything he had worked for. And yet the Guide had specifically sent him on this mission. Have I been wrong all these cycles? Did I allow my belief in B'dak to cloud my judgement?

He set the shuttle down gently on the deck and powered down the engines. When all systems were secured, he opened the hatch and stepped into the docking bay. Several DRDs instantly surrounded him, herding him toward the door. It swung open and he found himself being ushered through corridor after corridor. He followed them obediently until they reached what he assumed was their destination. They parted to allow him entry to the Center Chamber where Pa'u Zhaan waited.

"Brother B'rin, please come in."

He approached her uncertainly. She had awed him when they had spoken over the comms; to meet her in person was almost overwhelming. He had never met anyone with as strong a spirit, not even the Guide.

"Pa'u Zhaan, it is an honor to meet you." He said, bowing toward her. "Have you made your decision?"

"You would not be standing here if I had not." She replied coolly.

"We must hurry then. Events are accelerating at an alarming pace. Your shipmates will need you."

"Be warned B'rin," she hissed, "if this is a trap, you will face my wrath and that is something you do not want to experience."

 

"You cannot do this to me!" B'dak screamed as the Temple Guards dragged him out of his office. "I am Prefect B'dak! You have no authority over me." He struggled against them as they pushed him through the corridors.

Nearing the Qanesset's main chamber, they were stopped by a group of Prefects and retainers. Prefect D'ral stepped forward, speaking for the group, "Where are you taking him and why?"

"Prefect B'dak is under arrest for murder."

A stunned murmur swept through the assembled group. How could it be possible? How could B'dak have committed so heinous a crime? He was one of them. He was one of their leaders? If he had become so twisted, could they have fallen as well?

D'ral stepped back, allowing them to pass. B'dak turned to glare at D'ral as he passed. The hatred, mixed with madness, that he saw in B'dak's eyes was frightening. This man had once been his friend, at least as much a friend as B'dak allowed anyone to be. But the man before him now was not the same man he had once followed. He was but an empty shell.

 

B'rin settled the shuttle softly on the landing pad just inside the temple grounds. The landing pad was limited to use by the Guide's personal shuttle and so was rarely used. Today, however, B'rin's shuttle was given special clearance to land. With anti-alien sentiment still running high, the Guide had feared that bringing Zhaan through the main spaceport would result in more violence and that was something he could not tolerate.

As soon as B'rin had the shuttle locked down, he opened the hatch and escorted Zhaan outside. A small phalanx of Temple Guards moved forward, surrounding her and B'rin. She shot him a threatening glare that said he had better have a good explanation. He slipped close to her, speaking low so that the Guards couldn't hear him.

"Pa'u, please understand. This is primarily for your own protection, though the Guards are also here to protect the Guide. Our world is in upheaval right now. If it became known that the Guide invited you here, your presence could bring him down. He is taking a great risk for you and your friends. It must appear, at least for now, that you are a prisoner, though you are not one."

"I will play along for now Brother. But be warned; I have been imprisoned before and I will not be locked up again. My only goal is to retrieve my friends, not to be a part of your revolution."

They continued on in silence until they reached the Guide's private entrance to the Temple proper. B'rin nodded to the Guards who moved a discrete distance away, allowing them to speak privately.

"Pa'u, you must go on from here alone. The Guards will take you directly to the Guide who is waiting to speak with you."

"Why are you not coming with us?"

"I am following orders. The Guide sent me to bring you to him, that is all. I will admit I was not pleased with this assignment when I received it, but I am honored to have met you. You are nothing like Prefect B'dak described you. I only wish I had more time to spend with you."

Zhaan looked at the young man before her. She had every right to be angry with him for the part he had played in B'dak's deception. But as she looked into his eyes, she saw genuine regret for all that he had done. Surprising even herself, she reached out and cupped his ear with her hand.

"Thank you B'rin. You have a worthy soul. You have a hard road ahead of you, but I sense that you have the strength to travel it."

She moved to join the Guards who once again fell in place around her. Within microts she found herself alone in a small austere room overlooking the garden through which she had so recently traveled. A tall glass door, leading to a balcony dominated one wall. Drawn to the beauty of the sunset, she opened the door and walked onto the balcony where she could drink in the intoxicating sight unimpeded.

"It is beautiful isn't it?" A deep voice said from behind her. She knew without looking that this was the Guide; she could sense his spirit. He moved to join her at the rail and they stood side by side in silence for several microts watching the last rays of the sun dip beyond the horizon.

"Why did you bring me here?" Zhaan asked, breaking the silence between them.

"I need your power." T'mir replied humbly.

"You have great power yourself, why do you need mine?"

T'mir gently laid his hand on her arm directing her back inside. When they were seated he replied, "I do not have the strength to accomplish what is needed. The ritual that will restore your friends requires a great deal of strength. Were only one of them affected, I would have adequate strength, but because there are two, I need your help."

"Surely there are priests on your planet who are capable of assisting you."

T'mir looked at Zhaan, surprised at her seeming reluctance to help her shipmates. "Have I misjudged you, Pa'u Zhaan? Do you not want to help your friends?"

"I am cautious Your Eminence. My good will has been taken advantage of in the past. I do not wish to be used."

" I will be honest with you, Pa'u. There are those who would dearly love to drive all alien influence from our planet, some even more radical than B'dak, but I am not one of them. I believe in the sanctity of all religions, not just Qaranac. If our faith cannot endure the influence of off-worlders, perhaps it is not a valid faith. That is one of the reasons I want your help with this ritual. I also sense that you need to be a part of this for your own sake."

"What do you mean?" She asked defensively.

"I sense that you blame yourself for what has happened to John and Aeryn. You believe that you were duped by Prefect B'dak and that you should have been able to discover a way to reverse the effects of the icon. I am offering you that chance. Are you willing to take it?"

Zhaan was taken aback. Somehow T'mir had seen through her calm facade to her very heart. He had sensed the turmoil and doubts with which she wrestled. "I will help you," she agreed finally.

 

B'dak paced the tiny cell he had been consigned to. How could it all have gone wrong? That damned Guide! This is all his doing. He doesn't know what he had done. He has condemned our people through his interference. The people. The people will back me. They understand what I am trying to do. They understand that I am Porimma's messenger. She has chosen me to bring redemption to the people.

B'rin watched B'dak pace for several microts. He appeared to be totally oblivious to his surroundings. Finally, knowing he couldn't postpone this confrontation any longer, he stepped toward the shielding and activated the comm unit.

"Prefect ... " he said softly.

B'dak whirled around at the sound. He charged the shielding, crashing against it. B'rin recoiled and B'dak laughed at the look of fear etched on his former protege's face.

"What do you want, traitor?" B'dak snarled.

"I came to see that you are unharmed. And to ask you why."

"Why what?"

"Why did you kill that merchant. He would never have revealed your involvement had you not terrorized him."

"You don't understand. You never did." he snapped. "Porimma told me to do it. She warned me that he was going to betray me just as you betrayed me."

"You fool. The Temple Guards had already questioned him. He refused to tell them anything. You have condemned yourself through your misguided actions."

B'dak stopped pacing at B'rin's words. He looked at the younger man, weighing what he had revealed. He shook his head and began pacing again. "No. You are trying to confuse me. You're lying. Porimma warned me about you. About him. She told me to kill him."

"You truly are mad. Porimma is the mother goddess, the giver of life. Do you honestly believe that she would command you or anyone to kill another? Have you truly become so deluded?"

"She spoke to me." B'dak muttered as he continued to pace. He stumbled and lost his balance, crumbling to the ground like a broken doll. "She commanded me," he whimpered, "She chose me to be our deliverer, to save our people from the influence of the Guide. She won't abandon me. She loves me. She needs me ... "

B'rin's heart ached as he watched his former mentor. He had become a babbling madman. Part of him wanted to deactivate the shielding and go to his friend to offer comfort, but he knew it would be met with rejection. B'dak was beyond help from anyone, except perhaps the gods. He deactivated the comm unit and whispered, "Goodbye my friend. I shall miss you."

 

"Rygel!" John shouted, pleased to see the Hynerian. "You okay?"

"I have been treated well Crichton." Rygel responded, relieved that Aeryn and John appeared to be well. He would never admit it, but he was worried about his shipmates. They had been separated for several arns and his imagination had begun to get the better of him. "Have they treated you two well?"

"Oh yeah, like kings." John enthused.

"Do you know why they brought us here?" Aeryn asked, cutting into their conversation.

"Always the wet blanket, aren't you Aeryn?" John muttered under his breath, but she heard him anyway.

"Shut up Crichton," she hissed.

"That's enough from both of you." Rygel interrupted. "The Guide sent word that he had something he wanted to talk to us about. I believe he has made a decision about our fate."

Aeryn opened her mouth to ask another question, but stopped when the door opened and the Guide swept in followed by B'rin and to their surprise, Zhaan.

"Zhaan? How the hezmanna did you get here?" Rygel demanded, forgetting himself.

"I asked her to join us, Dominar." T'mir chuckled. "You will have time to catch up soon. We have much to discuss now."

"Like what?" John asked, his curiosity getting the better of him.

B'rin stiffened at John's impertinence. He expected the Guide to reprimand him and was surprised when he merely answered his question.

"We have determined that you were not at fault in the theft of the statue from the temple. In fact, you were unwitting pawns. It seems that Prefect B'dak removed the icon himself, then enlisted the dealer to ensnare you."

"But why us?" Rygel interrupted.

"Actually, you were not specifically targeted." B'rin interjected. "You merely took the bait that was dangled in front of you. B'dak would have used whoever bought the icon."

"Used for what?" Aeryn asked. She already knew the answer, but wanted to hear it from the Guide, wanted the confirmation.

"He planned to use whoever bought the icon as a symbol of all that was wrong with allowing aliens on Qaran. You would have been scapegoats, a rallying point for a holy war."

"What happens now?" Rygel asked.

"That is one of the things we need to discuss." T'mir replied, outwardly calm though inwardly seething at the way B'dak had planned to use these three. He had spent cycles learning how to hide his emotions from others. It would not do for his people to see that he was often as confused and unsure of himself as they were. His position did not allow that luxury. "Prefect B'dak has been arrested for his part in the theft as well as his attempts to cover his tracks. As the injured parties, you have a say in his punishment."

Rygel, Aeryn and John looked at one another. This was something they had not expected. Rygel was the first to speak, "Yes, B'dak tried to harm us; planned to use us for his own ends. While I want nothing more than for the provacto to pay for his crimes against us, he should be judged according to the laws of your people, they are the ones who have been most injured by his actions."

"Well said Dominar." T'mir responded. "You are indeed a wise and beneficent ruler. Prefect B'dak would not have been so generous."

"And what about us?" John asked. "What is to become of us?"

"You will, of course, be allowed to return to your ship." T'mir replied.

"No, I mean what about Aeryn and me? Can you help us?"

"You are certain this is what you want? Both of you?"

They looked at one another, then turned to look T'mir in the eyes. "Yes," they answered in unison.

"I suspected as much. That is why I asked Pa'u Zhaan to join us. You will need familiar faces around you and we will need her spiritual strength. D'nea will escort you to your quarters where you must rest. You will need all of your strength for what lies ahead."

He rose from his seat, coming to kneel in front of John and Aeryn. He took their small hands in his and looked into their eyes. "You have reminded me of what is truly important in life and I thank you. I only wish that we could have known each other under different circumstances. Be brave. Your ordeal is almost ended."

He stood and turned away from them so that they couldn't see the tears in his eyes. He had met many people in his three hundred cycles, but few had touched him as these two had done. When he was alone at last, he dropped to his knees and cried out, "Give me strength! Give me the strength to help these little ones. They have such pure souls, they do not deserve what they have endured."

 

 

D'nea reached for the door latch. It was time. Time for John and Aeryn to prepare for the ritual. She had spent the night in prayer for them and for T'mir. Though he had tried to hide it, she knew that he was nervous about what they were about to undertake. There were accounts of this ritual having been performed hundred of cycles ago, but never on off-worlders.

She withdrew her hand momentarily while she tried to steady her wildly beating heart. John and Aeryn were probably nervous enough without seeing her fear as well. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply several times, gathering herself, then reached out and grasped the latch firmly. She expected to have to wake them and so was startled to see them sitting, heads close together, talking quietly. They had obviously been awake for some time, as they were dressed and ready to go.

They were so intent on one another that they didn't hear her come in. She cleared her throat softly to attract their attention. They looked up at her and she could see the uncertainty in their eyes.

"Is it time?" John asked, his soft voice quavering slightly.

D'nea nodded, unsure of her own voice. John stood and extended his hand to Aeryn who grasped it firmly and stood beside him. "Then we should go," she said, her voice quiet but firm.

They walked through the halls of the temple in silence. John and Aeryn were each lost in their own thoughts. Though they didn't remember their lives before the transformation they had experienced, they knew that if this ritual worked their lives would never be the same. They had shared things, experiences that would forever bind them together.

When they reached the entrance to the main chamber, D'nea stopped them. She knelt before them so that she was on a level with them. "You must go from here on your own. Rygel, Pa'u Zhaan and the Guide will be with you. Those of us who call the temple our home will be here, outside the main chamber, united in prayer for the success of the ritual."

"But, we want you to come with us."

"No John. I cannot. You are strong. You are both strong. You can do this. Rely on each other. Rely on your connection to one another. You will come through this. Never doubt that. Now go." She turned them around and gently pushed them forward. They looked back at her and she nodded to them, silently encouraging them.

John tightened his grasp on Aeryn's hand as they turned back toward the sanctuary. She turned and smiled at him. "We can do this John. We have to."

He returned her smile and they started forward, joining T'mir, Rygel and Zhaan at the center of the room.

 

B'rin paced nervously. It had been over an arn since John and Aeryn had entered the sanctuary to begin the ritual. He knew he should be praying for a successful outcome, but he couldn't bring himself to do so. He had seen too much over the past few days to believe that his prayers would help.

Everything, everyone he had believed in had been called into question. He wasn't sure where to turn for guidance. He had never doubted his beliefs before. Never questioned those in authority over him. But that had all changed in a few short days.

For some reason, the well being of these three aliens had come to mean a great deal to him, especially that of John and Aeryn, the two little ones. Perhaps it was seeing them so afraid and vulnerable in that cell. Perhaps it was the courage and self-sacrifice that he had seen in Rygel and Zhaan. Whatever it was, he wanted them to be restored. He wanted them to have their lives back.

And right now he wanted to burst through the sanctuary doors, to see what was happening. Instead, he paced.

"Will you please stop that!" D'nea snapped at him.

"Sorry." he mumbled. "I'll wait in my quarters." Just as he started to leave, the doors opened.

John and Aeryn stepped into the corridor, followed closely by Zhaan, Rygel and T'mir. They all looked drained, but strangely peaceful.

"Take them to their quarters," T'mir ordered. "The transformation will happen slowly. They need to rest."

"No." John said softly. "We should go back to Moya. Can't stay here."

"That is not wise." T'mir protested. "If the ritual was not successful ... "

"We will be with our friends." Aeryn added.

"Are you certain? You know you are welcome to stay here."

"We don't belong here." Aeryn replied. "Our presence here will only cause more trouble. We need to go back to Moya."

"Very well. I think you should stay, but I won't force you." T'mir agreed reluctantly, "B'rin, D'nea, please escort them to their transport pod. Take some of the Temple Guards. I don't want anyone to be hurt."

 

An arn later, the transport pod set down in the docking bay. It had been a quiet trip back from the planet. They were all tired and uncertain about what to expect after the ritual had been completed.

As soon as Zhaan had the craft secured, John and Aeryn left the hangar for their quarters. They really didn't know what to expect, but they wanted to be alone, away from the well meaning, but very annoying stares of their shipmates. They walked through the corridors in silence. When they reached Aeryn's quarters, they realized that they had unconsciously intertwined their fingers, almost as if they were looking to each other for strength and support.

"I should probably go, let you get some rest." John said as he started to pull his hand free. Aeryn tightened her grip and he looked at her questioningly.

"Don't go. Not yet. I don't want to be alone." She admitted, her cheeks coloring in embarrassment. I am a Peacekeeper. Why am I so afraid?

John took her chin in his hand and tilted her face up to his so that he could look her in the eyes. What he saw there surprised him. She's afraid. Genuinely afraid. "What's wrong Aeryn? Talk to me." He pulled her into the room and settled beside her on the edge of the bed.

She studied her feet in silence, unsure of how to explain what she was feeling. Unsure of what she was feeling. John let her set the pace, somehow knowing that if he pressed, she'd clam up. So he simply sat beside her, holding her hand.

"I'm scared." Aeryn finally blurted out. "What if the ritual doesn't work?"

"It'll work Aeryn. It has to." John replied.

"But what if it doesn't? I don't know how to live in this world. I've always lived under Peacekeeper rules. How do I live like this?"

"Then we'll figure it out together." he said softly. She looked at him, suddenly remembering that he was even more out of place than she.

"How do you do that?" She asked. "How do you find the strength, the courage to keep going?"

"Too dumb not to, I guess," he joked.

"Will you be serious for a microt!" she said, punching him softly on the shoulder.

"Why? You're serious enough for both of us." He said as he rubbed his shoulder, pretending she'd actually hurt him.

"What's the matter? Did that little punch hurt?" She asked with mock sympathy.

He smiled in reply, pleased that he had been able to pull her out of her self-pity. "Are you gonna be okay now?" She nodded and he stood up to go.

"Please John. Stay."

"But I thought you said you'd be okay."

"I will be, but I don't want to be alone. I like having you nearby. Just stay for a little while. Please?"

"Oh, okay," he relented. "But what're we gonna do?"

"Tell me about your family. Tell me about your sisters."

 

Rygel sat alone in his quarters. Zhaan had tried to get him to join her in the Center Chamber for a snack, but he had declined, saying he wasn't hungry. It had been a lie and she'd known it. The truth was that he didn't want to be around the others just yet. He'd done a lot of soul searching while he'd been T'mir's guest on the planet and he didn't like what he'd seen.

All of his life, people had made excuses for his behavior. He was the heir to the Hynerian throne so allowances were made. Then when he had become Dominar, his every whim had been fulfilled. Even when he had been imprisoned by the Peacekeepers he had been given preferential treatment ... at least once he'd been taken from that bastard Durka.

John Crichton was the only person who had really held him accountable for his actions. And while Rygel complained about it loudly and often, he had to admit that on occasion he found himself weighing his actions against what Crichton would think. Rygel had been forced to admit to himself that his greed had nearly cost him his freedom and in the process had hurt Aeryn and his only real friend ... Crichton.

For the first time in his life, Rygel was truly sorry for what he had done. Yes, he'd apologized for his actions before ... when he'd been forced to and when it would benefit him in some way. But he'd never been ashamed of what he'd done before. Never cared how his actions affected those around him before.

 

Zhaan was concerned about her friends. Since they had returned from the planet, John, Aeryn and Rygel had kept to themselves. The normally gregarious Crichton had been strangely silent on the return trip and Aeryn had been even more closed than usual. Even Rygel had preferred to be alone. While it was understandable to some degree, she was worried that things would never return to normal aboard Moya.

She had tried to meditate for some time, but found it impossible to concentrate. She had found on those rare occasions when meditation escaped her that a leisurely walk through Moya's corridors helped to restore her balance. Perhaps it was the act of checking on each of her friends, though without doing so overtly, that calmed her soul. Perhaps it was merely the physical release. Whatever it was, she decided that she needed to take that walk today.

A short time later she found herself in the area of Aeryn's quarters. She had expected to find the lights turned low so that Aeryn could sleep. Instead, the lights were on full and she heard voices. She smiled, assuming that Aeryn and John were planning some sort of mischief. As she drew near she was startled to hear Rygel's voice.

"... owe you both an apology. My actions nearly cost you everything. Can you forgive me?"

Zhaan couldn't hear the reply, but she prayed that it had been a positive one. She could tell from the tone of his voice that Rygel's apology had been genuine and for his sake she hoped that John and Aeryn had accepted it as such. She smiled and turned back toward her quarters, satisfied that life aboard Moya would never be quite the same. But, for the first time in a long time, that was okay.

 

"Yeeeee Haaaaa!" The shout echoed through Moya's corridors.

D'Argo was the first to arrive at the source, followed closely by Zhaan, then Chiana and Rygel bringing up the rear. As they skidded to halt outside of Aeryn's quarters they were treated to the sight of a fully grown John Crichton swinging a fully grown Aeryn Sun around in a circle. They both laughed joyously, reminiscent of the children they had been just a few arns earlier.

As John spun her around she caught sight of the audience in the corridor and felt her face flush. She stiffened slightly and John realized they were being watched. He set her down and leaned in close to whisper, "Don't be embarrassed. We deserve to be happy."

She smiled up at him and much to his surprise, pulled him into a fierce hug. "Go finish getting dressed. We need to celebrate!"

He turned toward the passageway, then spun around to face her again. In a flash, he held her face in his hands. He pulled her to him and kissed her lightly on the forehead. As he released her, he whispered, "You and me ... childhood friends ... friends forever," then turned and raced from the room.

 

John stood at the entrance to Aeryn's quarters. She had her back to the door as she brushed her hair. He cleared his throat to announce himself, though he suspected, she already knew he was there. She always seemed to know. He walked across the room to stand behind her and as she raised the brush for another stroke, he captured her hand in his. She turned slightly to meet his eyes. "May I?" he asked shyly. She released her hold on the brush in reply. He led her across the room to the bed and pulled her down beside him. Gently he began to brush her hair.

They sat like that for some time without speaking. Finally, Aeryn whispered in an unusually husky voice, "Thank you John."

"You're welcome, but what for?"

"For being there for me."

"Always."

"I know that now. John ... "

"Commander Crichton, Officer Sun."

"Yes Pilot?" John replied, trying to stifle a laugh. The large symbiont seemed to have an almost uncanny ability for interrupting at the most inopportune moments.

"We are receiving a message from the planet. Do you want me to put it through to you there or do you want to come to Command?"

Aeryn sighed and looked at John. She stood and pulled him to his feet. "We'll come to Command."

 

"Your Eminence." John said, startled that he had contacted them.

"Forgive my intrusion." T'mir said, smiling broadly, "I was curious about the outcome of the ritual."

"There is nothing to forgive Your Eminence." Aeryn replied. "We were remiss in not contacting you sooner. Thank you so much for all you did for us. We owe you a debt we can never repay."

"You owe me nothing." T'mir said, shaking his head. "We have all learned from our meeting. I only wish that I could offer you my hospitality again, but the climate here will not allow that I'm afraid."

"I take it that means the rioting and anti-alien sentiment continues."

"Unfortunately yes. The moderates and liberals among us are hoping to quell some of the unrest, but thus far they have had little effect."

"And what of Prefect B'dak?" John asked.

"He will never stand trial for his crimes." T'mir sighed. "But rest assured, he will never be able to hurt anyone again. The events of the past few days proved too much for him. He is hopelessly mad. He is getting the help he needs. Brother B'rin has taken charge of his care."

"Thank you Your Eminence. Please convey our thanks to D'nea and to B'rin."

"I will. Go in peace my friends. May you find all that you seek."

As the view screen faded, John pulled Aeryn close and whispered softly, "I already have."

fin

 

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