"Why?" Her voice was low, a gravely moan.
Gooseflesh broke out on her marble white skin as it glistened in the low light. Despite the warmth of the room, she began to shiver convulsively. The technician remained at the post-stasis console, seeming to ignore her.
On quivering arms, she pushed herself up, skin slippery on the brushed metal table. Harsh coughing racked her frame as the last of the thick stasis fluid drained from her tortured lungs. The taste of it was alkaline and salt, like lemons in brine.
Eyes burning, she turned to the source of sound in the small chamber.
"Circulatory is improved.... Respiration normal." His expressionless face regarded her nude form on the table as he spoke into a micro headset. "No. No sign of complications. Core temp has stabilized."
Like the room, there was nothing comforting about him, narrow blue eyes, thin lips. Head shaved to the scalp. His skin was pale wrought over in a sinewy pattern of a deeper pigment. He turned back to the console, pressed some switches that were meaningless to her, and left without a backward glance. The door sealed in a quiet hiss.
"Am I dead?" She slurred. The words were a snarled mass in her throat.
Blearily she regarded the sterile room. It was completely alien to the place Before. Time had no meaning there. The light of sanity had no business there. No words. No sounds. Just blissful warm blackness where everything, everyone was forgotten. Bits of that dark place clung to her mind still, obscuring all reason, logic. She existed on some primitive default, commanded by the confusing swirl of emotions that washed over her.
Her throat stung from the fluid. The pain worsened as the tears came. Realization numbed her brain like ice water.
She had been tricked, robbed. But of what she did not know. Everything was empty. Everything, even death, had been stolen from her.
The woman that was once Aeryn Sun turned on her side and cried shamelessly.
"No! No. No. No." John waved a dismissive hand at the fistful of trinkets thrust at him by the peddler. He repeated himself more loudly over the din of the marketplace. "I donít want to buy anything. I just want information."
The Trelginís rheumy eyes regarded him with growing disinterest at this new knowledge and turned back to the cluttered shadows of his booth on the crowded market, muttering under his breath.
John rolled his eyes at the dusty orange sky, seeking the help of whatever deity oversaw this backwater commerce planet, and drew in a deep breath.
"Hey! Buddy." He tapped the merchant on the shoulder. The peddler growled something menacing that the translator microbes found indecipherable.
John stepped back, hands upheld in a sign of surrender. He stretched his mouth into a shallow diplomatic grin. "Whoa! Iím just looking for someone. Maybe you've seen her?
"A Sebacean female. About this tall. Long dark hair. Flat ass. Attitude problem."
But the Trelgin had dismissed John with his back, already engaged in bartering with newcomers to his booth.
"Fabulous. Thanks for the help." He said sarcastically.
Thoroughly frustrated, he scanned the bristling market. Through the mingling tendrils of dust and smoke of cooking foods, he spotted DíArgo towering over the push of bodies, intent in a similar exchange. From the look on his friend's face, it seemed he was having just as little success.
John wove through the crowd until he fell in along side of his companion. The Luxon ended his conversation with an ancient looking Onari before granting John a terse shake of the head.
"This is not looking good, John. We have been everywhere."
"Not everywhere. There are some more settlements to the south..." John returned, scanning the crowd. It was a struggle to keep the desperation from of his voice.
"John." DíArgo growled, defeated. "This is the last hospitable planet she could have made it to. We have to consider the fact we may never find her."
Dodging the passage of ungainly livestock through narrow passage, they found themselves pressed under the dark shelter of an arch of ancient stone, off the main artery of the market.
"No!" John whirled on him. "Aeryn would not have just disappeared. She has to be somewhere."
"Looking for a friend?" The husky female voice echoed from the shadows. They turned in unison to regard the speaker. A slender creature with skin the color of burned sugar and deep amber eyes that held a drugged ambivalence.
"What the hell is that?" John whispered.
"BíNaiÖ" DíArgo returned, clearly distracted by her form. "Their Ö umÖabilities are legendary."
Scantily dressed in clinging swatches of gossamer, the BíNai slipped closer to John with a seductive wave of her hips.
"Um... no thanks." He stammered, feeling his neck grow hot. He backed away. "Iím not lookiní for that kinda friend."
Placing a hand on DíArgoís shoulder, he began to guide him back into the sun-drenched street. "Letís keep moving, big guy."
"I know someone... that can help you find your friend with the prowler...." The jade called after them in her humming singsong voice. She smiled at him, disclosing prominent yellow fangs. "For a price."
John halted, halfway to the line of sunlight that would bring them back to the market.
Neither one of us mentioned the prowler just now. How did she know?
He turned to regard her once more, desperation feeding on this small sliver of hope.
"John?" D'Argo called from the street.
"Hang on." He said over his shoulder. Cautiously John stepped back into the deeper shadows; his hand resting on the stock of his holstered pulse gun. This odd slinking creature remained where she was, her eyes eager.
"Start talking." He said.
The infantís lusty screams filled the dead streets of the shantytown. A pack of carrion beasts flitted in and out of view amid the sheds to nose at the scattered piles of bodies. The animals were mad with hunger, and fearless of the soldiers that wove through the muddy paths among the shelters. Death was the acrid smell of burned hair and meaty undertones of charred flesh. It only served to spur on the creaturesí appetites.
"This not happening. This is not real."
Second Liege Naj Roxas repeated the words under her breath as she took in this hideous scene. But the mantra would not change the truth. She stepped over the fallen form of the village priest, prayer stones still clutched in his stiff, blood-blackened hand. She turned to the sub-liege at her side, but her own disgust was not mirrored on his grime-streaked face. Renouís youthful jaw was drawn in the angular lines of battle-hardened bravado, impassive.
"Why am I even here? Iím a frelling med-tech. I should be in a lab."
But she knew the answer. The war was going badly for the Mitzan. The clashes along the eastern providence had claimed more men than they cared to estimate. Tyrin guerrilla forces were moving ever westward, overtaking the once impenetrable boundary at the Dizine River. Mitzan reinforcements from the west had been in effect cut off by a ferocious winter.
Everyone was needed to fight. That included support personnel. Which included Roxas.
"Frelling Tyrin guerrillas." Her subordinate muttered disgustedly as he toed the corpse of a fallen soldier.
"What do you mean by Ďfrelling Tyrin?' We did this." Roxas countered. "We killed these people. We killed old men and children."
"The Tyrin doubt the Word of Order." His eyes were lifeless as recounted the verse. He was a true believer, deadly in his faith. "The Tyrin must die."
"Enough frelling verses! I am sick of them." She hated the tremulous pitch that invaded her voice.
The infantís piteous howls seemed to increase in volume in response to their raised voices. It came from a cluster of hastily built lean-tos covered in rushes a short distance away.
She jerked her chin at Renau. "Continue the sweep. Iím going to search for that child."
But he remained where he stood. "This is not a search and rescue. Besides, theyíre harboring our enemies."
"I gave you orders, Renau." The boldness of her words left her feeling like an impostor. Roxas turned her back on him, hiding the fear she felt was plain upon her face.
The subtle whine was loud in the dead place. Despite her relative inexperience in combat, Roxas knew the sound of his plasma rifleís priming trigger. She turned back to the sub-liege. His weapon was leveled on her.
"Iím placing you under arrest."
Roxas barked an incredulous laugh into the flat winter sky. "Arrest? Can I ask why? For telling the frelling truth?"
"You know why." His face was stony, unaffected. "Surrender your weapon."
She stared at him, feeling an indignant anger filter through her fear.
"Fine." With cold-numbed fingers she tossed her plasma gun to the middle of a blood-tainted rain puddle. Her mouth pulled into a petty sneer. "Go fish."
Eyes fixed on her, he stooped to retrieve the weapon. The shadows beyond him suddenly congealed into the shape of a Tyrin trooper.
Roxas felt rather than heard the first barrage of fire zing past her face. Her shocked brain commanded her legs to move, but fear froze her into place. Another shot exploded high on her shoulder, striking her armor. The ground rushed up to greet her with tremendous slam.
For a long agonizing moment she lay, gasping, her face pressed into the cold mud. Across the tiny puddle, Renauís dead eyes were silent witness to her pain. The back of his head had been replaced by a giant red hollow.
The air around her was suddenly alive with returning fire from the rest of the Mitzan detachment. Her hand dove into the puddle, seeking the stock of her surrendered plasma gun.
A booted foot crashed down into the puddle, pinning her hand in the water. The muzzle of a rifle pressed firmly into the side of her face. A long distance sound, she heard the same high-pitched whine of the primer charge. A scream erupted from her throat.
Naj Roxas suddenly awoke to the indifferent blackness of her. Her heart, unconvinced that the vivid nightmare had ended, slammed her ribs. Blindly she felt around for the light.
The same high-pitched wine continued.
Brow furrowed she sat up. Groggily she looked around for the source of the noise.
It was the com panel.
She dove from the bunk, barking both shins on her gear trunk. She managed to hit the transmit button before buckling over in pain.
"Roxas," She hissed, rubbing her injured legs.
"Sub-level two. Section seven. MedLab three. One hundred microts. Be there." Returned a clipped manís voice, unfamiliar to her.
Roxas squinted at her chronometer. There were only four arns left to her next shift.
"Whatever this is... canít this wait? Iím going on two arns of sleep--"
"The Gessit wants you here. He asked for you... personally."
She felt a hollow flutter of despair in her stomach at the mention of First Gessit Kain Jozan.
"On my way."
Soon she was swiftly moving through the winding corridors of the sleeping installation dressed in her rumpled fatigues from the previous day. The nightmare slipped silently into the folded corners of waking; her thoughts were already preoccupied over what horrid possibilities the medlab held, especially under the direction of Jozan.
She feared him implicitly. Jozan was a zealot, utterly blinded by his own power. The blood-lust he garnered against the Tyrin was legendary. His fanaticism bordered on insanity. And for that reason, Roxas gave the officer a wide berth.
She rounded the intersection that joined the barracks to the research installation, carved into the belly of a mountain. She slowed as the corridor opened out in the Great Chamber. The grating underfoot became a narrow catwalk, suspended high above the churning waters of the nameless river at its core. Roxas paused in the bridgeís middle, staring down at the fury of the captured river. The space echoed with its indignant roar, amplifying it to her high perch.
"May the Asanti forgive my actions. May I forgive myself." She whispered against the river's secret language. The small prayer had began as an odd habit, but by now, it was well woven into her sub-conscience, an inseparable piece of her life here.
But she knew the truth. There was no forgiveness. Not for her. Not ever. For she was the minion of death. An artist that worked within the deceptively neat coil of the double helix. Naj Roxas, who had been sworn to be a protector of life and to heal the infirm, was made to act against that very flame. And her sinister children from this forced coupling were the plagues of this world.
No. For me, there is no forgiveness.
Once again, she quickened her pace for the medlab.
"Maybe she doesnít want to be found." DíArgo said, his voice hushed in the tiny chamber. "You were arguing with her when she left. Itís no secret."
Johnís mouth pulled into a bitter line. The notion was one that had been sheltered in the back of his mind, but until now it had remained unvoiced. "No. Not Aeryn. She wouldnít do that."
"Perhaps if you told me what you were arguing aboutó"
"Change the subject." His voice held a low warning.
Avoiding his friendís gaze, he looked around the room in which they had been made to wait by the BíNai. An occasional mutter of sound drifted in from the market above the room. The low ceiling was hung with flickering lanterns that barely held the darkness at bay. Thick oily perfume filled the air, layered over a dusty scent of age. It brought to mind the alchemistís dwelling on Denor.
"Same decorator." He muttered under his breath.
DíArgo looked at him quizzically.
There was a rustle in the roomís only other entrance. The shadows there congealed into the slender shape of Asa, the BíNai who had approached them in the market. Following her was another thin, dark figure. It moved in a subtle glide of black, sleek head bowed. The pale arch of a translucent cheekbone was picked out beneath the flickering lantern.
Johnís hand instinctively fell to the pulse gun. His mouth went suddenly dry.
For another brief moment, the figure was wrapped in the dull glow of a lantern.
His heart immediately tripled its pace. The hair stood on end along his arms.
The pulse gunís deadly weight was instantly in his hand.
DíArgo seized his wrist. "John! What are you doing!"
Momentarily distracted, he looked back at the approaching figure. Scorpius was no longer there. In his stead was the frightened figure of an elderly BíNai woman, cowering against Asa. Both regarded John with wide, panic-stricken eyes.
"Sorry. Sorry." John called, almost casually. He pushed the gun back into its holster. "Thought you were somebody else."
He looked back at DíArgoís stare and shrugged his shoulders. "What?"
"The Asanti delivered Golgotha to the Mitzan, the keepers of the Word of Order." First Gessit Kain Jozen muttered the verse as he regarded the crumpled knot of the pathetic Sebacean. "Let no creature disobey the gods."
Here, in the belly of this captured mountain, he though of himself as a god. Fire breathing and black-faced, gripped by moments of perfect madness. Feared and beloved by his men in the same awe-filled breath. He was a giver of the Word and taker of lives. And he did not want the balance of his world upset.
Impatiently he paced the length of the glass, eyes intent upon the alien in the room beyond. His mouth pulled into a distasteful bow. It was precisely that balance that was threatened when this off-worlder had been brought to him. This female was no doubt a Peacekeeper. And she could bring more here.
Yet he had hesitated to kill her. Although she was a risk, she could be a very valuable. But to know that he needed Roxas.
The young officer suddenly barged through the door of the control suite, her hair still rumpled by sleep, her uniform in disarray. He glanced at the chronometer. She was late by seventeen microts.
"Sir." Roxas blurted, tugging self-consciously at her tunic.
"Nice of you to join me at your leisure."
"My apologies, sir." Her eyes found the floor.
He allowed himself the wave of pleasure of seeing her tremble.
"Thatís quite all right, doctor." His voice was a smooth croon. "I have a present for you. For the Viron project, actually."
Jozan stepped aside for her to see this strange new prize. Wordlessly her deep brown eyes momentarily found his then darted to the subject room. She stepped forward, drawn by this intriguing sight. Face falling away to simple awe.
"Incredible." Roxas turned back to him. Her fear of him had momentarily abated. "A Sebacean? How, sir?"
"It was found badly damaged wandering about four clicks from here. I have only today ordered it removed from stasis." He fell in beside her. For the moment they were alone in the control suite and he could not resist. His hand traveled to her shoulder, kneading the tense coil of her muscles there.
Roxas shifted away, pretended to be distracted by the med scans as their gleaned information flooded past; her eyes hungrily regarded each line. Her voice was a nervous flutter. "Iíve never seen a Sebacean, sir."
"You will begin tests immediately of the subjectís immunities to the Viron agent." He felt the minor irritation at her shun.
Her reluctance was plain. "Gessit, this is a Sebacean. Sheó"
"It," Jozan corrected, cold gray eyes narrowing on her. "Has been delivered unto us by the gods. It is no doubt a sign that the end to the war with the Tyrin is near."
Roxas took a fearful step away from him, bumping into the narrow counter behind her. A neat stack of flimsies fluttered to the floor. She bowed her head as she gave the expected response, her face ashen. "Let no creature disobey the gods."
His eyes did not leave her. She squirmed visibly beneath his gaze. For a long moment, the only sound in the room was the whisper of the air scrubbers.
This young needs to learn a lesson. She is far too willful.
He nodded to himself. There would be time for that later. The breaking of wills was a delicious sport, one to be savored. At the moment, there were more important tasks at hand.
"I expect a full report, Roxas. Two arns." He said over his shoulder, slipping back out into the corridor.
"Well? Whatíd you find out?" Chiana asked, eagerly regarding DíArgo as he stomped into the central chamber.
"Childrenís tales and myths." He growled under his breath.
"What?" She slipped a slender arm about his shoulders as he plopped onto the first available seat.
DíArgo waved a dismissive hand at her. "For two arns we sat and listened to second hand stories that did not help us at all. And, of course, that was after Crichton pulled his pulse gun on the BíNai. Just whatever comes of this. It was not my idea."
"Pulled a pulse gun?" Her mouth pulled into a nervous grin.
John appeared in the doorway, his arms laden with cloth sacks. Dingy yellow powder slipped from their seams, clinging to the black lapels of his duster. He released an ear-piercing whistle into the echo of the room.
"Hey, D. How Ďbout a hand with this stuff? Thereís a whole Ďnother load of it on the pod."
The Luxon did not look at him. "I refuse to be played a fool, Crichton. That substance is worthless. It will not help us find Aeryn."
"Whatís in the bags?" Chiana chirped. Her black eyes danced between the two men.
But neither would break their tense standoff to answer. This had, no doubt, been topic of argument for the entire trip back to Moya.
"I know you think Iíve got taken here, DíArgo. But itís worth a try. Iíve seen crazier shit work."
The Nebari wandered into their line of view. "Whatís in the bags?"
Both men shot her a terse glance: "Not now, Chiana."
DíArgo rose, folding his arms over his thick chest. "You have truly lost your mind, John. I donít know when or how. But itís happened."
"Long story short. John Crichtonís crazy. Got it. Tell me something I donít know" He rolled his eyes. "So, you gonna help me carry this crap or what?"
"Whatís in the frelling bags?" Chiana demanded.
DíArgo regarded her as though she appeared for the first time. "Itís supposed to be Izlouth, one of the forbidden cargoes for leviathans. But I donít believe that."
"Well, weíll find out about that soon enough, big guy. I gave some to Zhaan to run some tests on it." John returned.
"Izlouth." Rygel scoffed as he hovered into the room. "I donít suppose youíre going to tell me how much you got swindled for?"
"Just the portion of the food thatís yours, Fluffy." John said, swatting at the Hynerian as he darted past.
"I donít get it." Chiana said, running the tip of a gloved hand over one of the cloth sacks. "Howís this stuff supposed to help us find Aeryn?"
"Thereís this really interesting storyó"
"A tale they tell children, Crichton." DíArgo turned to Chiana with a sneer, his voice mocking. "Thereís a legend of a hidden planet, invisible to leviathans and other vessels. Izlouth would heighten Moyaís senses in order to detect it. And the old crone just also happened to know someone that would sell it to us."
"Hidden planet? Sounds like a racket to me." Chiana giggled.
"Iím ashamed I didnít think of such a scheme myself." Rygel chimed in, his amusement plain.
Chiana turned to DíArgo. "Did he smoke anything when he was down there?"
"Thatís it. Shut up!" John commanded. He strode forward, eyes red-rimmed with anger. "I know itís a long shot. But Iím willing to give it a try. I donít see anyone else coming up with ideas on how to find Aeryn."
They fell quiet, eyes avoiding his in mixed degrees of sullen guilt.
Zhaanís voice erupted from his com, breaking the tense silence. "John, Iíve completed the test. The substance is Izlouth. Quite pure actually."
"Great." John looked at DíArgo and Chiana, feeling smug grin pull across his mouth. He turned for the corridor. "Iíll get the rest of it off the transport."
"John." The Delvianís quiet voice stayed him. "There is a reason Izlouth is a forbidden cargo. It could kill Moya."
Aeryn, baby, come on... Get up.
The familiar voice startled her; she had been close to sleep. She sat up abruptly in the corner. Her back, clad in the thin fabric of a formless shift, met the frigid metal of the wall. A fresh convulsion of shivers moved over her body.
His face was obscured in the shadows cast by the harsh overhead lights.
Come on. Get up. Theyíre waiting for us. We have to go.
Her head fell back down to her chest. It was a stubborn weight on her neck.
"W-w-who?" Her hasp raked the air. "Who is ... waiting?"
She felt an odd surge of loss at this question, but could not think of why.
Aeryn. Damnit! Stop being such a pain in the ass. GET. UP.
The simple commandment, the insistence of his voice wrapped around her spine. Like an ancient thing, she pushed away from the wall and rose to trembling legs. The room gave a malicious cant beneath her bare feet and she faltered, reaching out to the table for support.
Her heart began to race with this simple action. She leaned heavily on the table, her lungs moving like sluggish wings. "Where...where do I go?"
She looked about her for her visitor.
The corner was empty.
She was alone in the room.
Nebulous pain consumed her skull, meeting the dark confusion already there. Her knees felt like liquid, but she denied the urge to sit down. It was best to be prepared, ready to move in the event of an attack.
Where did I learn that?
A subtle whir announced the opening of the roomís only exit. She moved in a shabby rush for it only to collapse before the threshold. As she lay on the floor panting, helpless, she looked up at the figure in the doorway.
A female, deathly pale, her skin was mottled in the same pattern of lines as the endless parade of technicians that had been here. Brown eyes were polished agates under a hood of closely shorn black hair.
"Good. YouĎre awake." The woman spoke, regarding her clinically. She stepped cautiously around the crumpled woman on the floor. There was a wary quality about her, but tempered with a tired surrender. "The effects of stasis should dissipate soon. But, itís difficult for me to gauge precisely its effects on your physiology."
"Stasis... how long?" She repeated on a thick, sluggish tongue. Her heart renewed its frantic pace. The passage of time had been a slippery coil in her grasp.
"Two days. Apparently you suffered a great deal of damage from your crash. You were placed in stasis to stabilize your condition."
She propped herself up with jittering muscles. Fear tasted her spine and spread through her frame. There was nothing there. No memory of a crash. Only a muddy pool of vague images, none of them solid enough to survive her focus.
"I am Naj Roxas. Iím a doctor." Roxas squatted beside her and pressed cool fingers to her throat, feeling her pulse. She felt the womanís deep brown eyes studying her. "You are a Peacekeeper, no?"
The word fell on her ears like so many disjointed syllables.
She backed clumsily away on hands and knees from the newcomer.
"Believe me, stranger. I am the least of your worries." Roxas followed her crawling progression on the floor. She extended a hand. "Here. Let me help you."
Her gazed traveled between the outstretched hand and Roxasí eyes, judging. There was no ill will in her face, only a curious pity. After a long moment, she placed her hand in Roxasí and was helped up by surprising strength to her feet. Roxas slipped an arm beneath her shoulders and walked her to the roomís tiny cot.
"Answers..." She managed, crumpling to the narrow pallet of cushions. "Tell me how... this place."
Roxas ignored her demand, continuing her examination of her healing wounds. "Are there more of youÖ more Peackeepers coming? Or are you alone?"
"I... Iím... I donít know." She barely managed the words. The pain in her skull was mutating into a vicious pounding behind her eyes. Slowly she shook her head. "No."
"No? Then youíre not alone?" Alarm slipped into Roxasí voice.
"No. Just let me... let me... think."
Everything was fuzzy, disconnected. She felt a darkness pooling in her battered brain. Fighting it only delayed the matter. She sensed it would be much easier to give in and sink beneath its warm surface. The pain would not follow her there.
"Do you have a name then?" Roxas's voice droned on, unimportant and distant.
The voiceÖ. What had he called her?
She turned inward, pushing with such force at the bleak landscape of her memory that the pain behind her eyes worsened.
"Aeryn." She slurred.
"Well. Aeryn, welcome to Golgotha. May the gods show you mercy."