He cocked his head to the side, studying her pale features. A hollow smile formed on his mouth. His fingers remained locked around her wrist. They would not obey his command. Distantly he realized that he did not care. His own voice seemed so unimportant. "No…I don't wanna."
John, she suspects too much already. It was an insidious taunt that was barely perceived, but fully understood. He sensed his shadowy companion, Scorpius, circle behind him. But he did not fear the shade; he merely took in the fact of his presence with a complacent acceptance.
Aeryn's eyes narrowed on him. "I am not toying with you."
What does she see, John? When she looks upon you? She can barely understand what you are becoming. What we do not understand we fear…is that not so?
It made perfect sense. John stepped closer, nodding to himself. She backed into the wall, her arm still his hostage.
"I warned you." She hissed, bringing her free hand around in a vicious arc.
With surprising speed he dodged her swing, and managed to move her off balance. Aeryn fell to the floor of her quarters, her bare limbs smacking against the smooth surface. But she quickly recovered, lashing out with her legs to cut his feet from beneath him.
Unprepared, John landed gracelessly on the floor beside her. With a liquid grace, she was on him in an instant, her knees pinning his arms, and her forearm pressed against his throat. Enraged indignation and betrayal warred in her expression as she glared down at him.
"Just what do you think you are you doing, John!" she demanded, breathlessly. "What is wrong with you?"
"What the hell… Aeryn?" John gulped. He looked around, surprised. His focus suddenly sharpened, as if seeing her for the first time. "What's going on? How'd I get here?"
"What's going on?" Aeryn returned, incredulous. "Have you lost your frelling mind? You pulled me from my bed, John!"
John awoke in the cold of the cell, his heart stuttering within the confines of his chest. The dream was already slipping away. Its details unraveled until the only thing remaining was a nebulous pounding guilt. Curling into a knot on the thin pallet, he lay staring at the bleak stretch of the metal walls that formed the cell.
"Oh God. Aeryn, I'm sorry." It was a choked whisper as he felt his throat constrict. But there would be no tears. Aeryn Sun would not want such frivolities. He owed her that last dignity.
"Meggs, you have placed us all at risk bringing the woman here."
"Is it true she was wearing one of the Mitzan uniforms?"
"Does that mean the Peacekeepers have returned? Could the Mitzan have forged an alliance with them?"
"If that's true, she'll bring more. They will come looking for her."
"The Mitzan already hunt us, Hewitt. The woman's presence here does not change that." Dethan Megg's voice was soothing reason, cutting through the cacophony of their increasing turmoil. "She is no Mitzan spy or conspirator. It would not make sense. The Mitzan do not tolerate off-worlders."
There was a screech of wood followed by the creak of floorboards as someone began to pace.
"Meggs, she is a Peacekeeper! They are legendary for their cunning. We cannot forget the destruction visited upon us by them."
"It is not that way with her. I am certain of it," speculated Dethan. His tone became thoughtful, pensive. "She is… different, somehow…special."
"Based on what, Meggs?" The one called Hewitt redoubled his complaints, flush with sarcasm. "Her pretty eyes?"
This was greeted with a brief roll of tense laughter from the others.
"If she is to stay, she must earn her place here," intoned another. There was a rumble of agreement.
"Meggs." The cragged voice of Tessa leveled through the discord. "Will she fight at our side? A Peacekeeper would be a valuable ally. We can use her…"
A few muttered with incredulous discontent at this idea: "A Peacekeeper? Fighting beside the Tiron?"
"Aeryn is in… turmoil still. I cannot answer for her." Dethan replied, raising his voice to cut through the din. "I will be responsible for her until she makes a decision. Does anyone disagree?"
An uneasy stir of mumbling followed, but no one sounded a firm protest.
"Then it's decided." Tessa continued. "Aeryn of the Dizine is your charge, Meggs. May the gods guide you."
Aeryn could not listen to the rest. Her mind racing, she slipped back down into the cool linen of her bed.
Aeryn of the Dizine.
She rolled the title over her tongue, whispering it to herself in the darkness until the words became senseless. That was who she was now. It was the name given to the fuzzy feeling that embraced her skull and radiated down her spine whenever she forced her brain to reclaim her past.
Sleep did not come until the early morning hours. When it did, it was in futile bouts of semi-dozing, peppered with disconnected images that fluttered like rattled birds.
Naj Roxas watched the monster pace the length of her cramped cell, his hands folded behind his back. She had been made to stand in his presence, although she was far from recovered from her injuries. As a consequence she slouched at a haggard angle, her thoughts dulled by the incessant pain of her wounds.
"You have made it clear that you refuse to aid in the synthesis of an immunity against the Viron for our troops from the Sebacean male we've captured, even at the pain of your own death." Jozan turned his hateful gaze on her.
Errant emotion cut through the haze to jab at her like shards of bone. And to her surprise, none of them was fear.
I have been cured of my fear of First Kain Jozan. The Asanti be praised! The thought was an insane giggle trapped in her throat.
"No more. I'll be a party to no more taking of innocent lives. " Roxas returned, her voice weak. She did not even attempt to call him by his title. It did not matter. Her fate was sealed; a painful death was eminent. The presence of the two captives had merely postponed it. Without her, there was no Viron project. The members of her research team knew only smatterings of information, never enough to pose a breach of security. The irony did not escape her. In seeking to destroy Jozan's weapon, she only served to make herself indispensable.
"Very well. You leave me no choice." Jozan nodded to himself. His voice took on the tone one would use with an impertinent child. " For every arn that you refuse to participate in the project, I'll execute a member of your own research team."
Roxas looked up at him, her mouth agape. "You wouldn't dare! They have no part in my defection!"
"That should provide sufficient… motivation for you." He said with a lupine smile as he ignored her protest.
"You're insane." She spat, taking a staggering step toward him. "The Command Council would never--"
"I take it that's a no then." Jozan said, turning for the door.
She wished for nothing more at this moment than to have the strength to attack and rend Kain Jozan into tiny pieces. Her hate for him was like a living beast, clawing at the inside of her heart. He had intended this, even anticipated her responses. The lives of the dozen men and women on her team were a mere bartering chip to him.
"Wait… yes." She called. With loathing plain on her face, she looked into his cold gaze. "Gessit… I'll cooperate."
In the early morning hours, she had dreamed of a great ship. It was a living thing. If she thought about it long enough, she imagined she could feel the beast's hum beneath her feet. With a peculiar surety, Aeryn was certain the dream was more than that. It was a memory of her life before.
But instead of the rush of joy she expected to feel with this revelation, there was still the wallowing mire of hopelessness. For if her past lay beyond Golgotha, it was distant as the stars themselves.
She rose from her seat to wander aimlessly along the vine-covered wall. The garden-like courtyard had become her favorite place to be alone among the curious Tiron. It was peaceful here, a welcome sanctuary from the barrage of questions and inquisitive stares. It was quiet, unlike the jangling clutter of her thoughts.
It was easier to just surrender and exist in this place for the moment.
"Little surprise to find you here." Dethan called from the gated entrance.
She did not turn to face him, although she was surprised by his sudden appearance in the courtyard. He, accompanied by several others, had left in the early morning hours amidst a flurry of quieted activity. No one could tell her where he had gone.
"It's very… peaceful here, " she returned, pretending to examine the waxy sheen of an exotic leaf.
"It's also a perfect place to hide."
Aeryn felt a small stab of indignation. The soft scrape of his heavy boots over the stone came closer.
"I'm not hiding." She said finally, her eyes downcast.
"Really?" He chided. "Odd… it certainly seems that way."
She looked at him. Dethan Meggs seemed transformed, dressed as a warrior. Gone was the tunic of homespun cloth, replaced by rugged fatigues that had seen their share of distress. A heavy rifle was slung over his shoulder. Now, he looked more in keeping with the stories the Mitzan used to describe the Tiron.
"No one would tell me where you had gone." She tried to keep her voice casual. There was a relief to see him that she did not wish to examine. "You've finally returned."
"Yes. But not all of us." Dethan's face was grim. His eyes moved away, keeping their secrets.
A strained silence stretched over the quiet babble of the courtyard's fountain.
"It's a shame, really," he began. Casually, he leaned against the fountain's smooth edge. He observed her with a sidelong glance. "To see you sit here, feeling sorry for yourself."
Aeryn felt the blood move into her face. "I am not feeling sorry for myself!"
She turned on her heel, taking quick strides for the gate. But there, she hesitated.
"Aeryn." Dethan said softly. "You are better than this. You are more than this."
Goose-flesh rose on her arms at the words. She looked back at him. "How can you say that, when even your own people don't want me here?"
"No. They don't understand. They don't see you the way I do." He drew himself into a straight line. "You're fortunate."
She could not help the incredulous laugh. "Fortunate?"
"You've been granted the opportunity for a second chance. You have cheated death more than once, Aeryn."
"And look what it has left me! It took away my past, my life… my very mind!" Aeryn winced at the plaintive tremble in her words.
The muscle of Dethan's jaw tightened. His voice became grittier. "So? That's far better than the two men I lost today have received. They never got a second chance."
Speechless, she regarded him as he pushed away from the fountain's edge and walked toward her. There were no words of comfort, no argument in the face of this revelation.
"You mock their memory by giving up… by hiding here." His tone softened as he came to stand in front of her. Hesitantly, he reached out and cradled her face in his callused palm. "You are more, Aeryn Dizine."
John noted all this, disconnected and numb. It did not matter. He cradled his head in his hands; his elbow propped on his knees.
"D'Argo, give it a break already. You're making me dizzy," he muttered.
Suddenly D'Argo turned on him, his fury barely contained. "Crichton, you have not moved from that spot in nearly four arns."
"Oh… sorry. I didn't realize that pacing like a freak was gonna get us out of here." John shot back. He rolled onto his side on the thin pallet and granted him his back.
D'Argo's strong hands were suddenly on him, tugging him to his feet. "Enough! She is gone, Crichton! But we are still alive. As pathetic as you are, you are still alive. Aeryn would not want to see you simply lay down and die."
John struggled free of his grip. "Great! Hooray for me! I'm alive… for how long?"
The door to the chamber suddenly opened in a quiet rush.
D'Argo pivoted, ready to charge his captors, but he stayed his attack when he saw the doorway held two heavily armed Mitzan troopers. They flanked a third, a female. As she stepped into the room, her movements were shabby and trembling as though at any moment she expected a blow to be delivered.
She approached John. Her eyes darted to his face and then away. There was an air of anxiety that surrounded her like a fine mist. It was a first for John. Every other Mitzan he had encountered wore a smug mantle of superiority. But this woman looked as if she had been broken and left that way.
When she spoke her voice was low. She would not meet his gaze. "I have orders to bring you to med research. I encourage you to cooperate." Her eyes traveled to the armed trooper closest to her in a silent warning.
John looked to D'Argo, but the Luxan was intent upon the other trooper that held him at bay, plasma rifle leveled on the center of his chest.
"What the hell for?" John shrugged. "Can't you just shoot me here and get it over with?"
He swiped at the muzzle of the trooper's rifle. Reflexively, the guard brought the rifle around and drove its stock into John's solar plexus. He doubled over in pain, trying to reclaim his breath.
"No! Jozan would not want him damaged and you know it." The woman slipped in between then, pressing her open palm into the chest of the trooper, holding him away.
The trooper sneered at her. "I'm certain pleasing Jozan is your highest priority."
As the woman hovered over John, she spoke in a rushed whisper. He could not be certain what she said was real: "I will help you escape, if you bring me with you."
Their eyes met briefly.
John feigned a cough. He nodded to her, nearly imperceptibly. The guard roughly shoved Roxas out of the way. He grasped John's elbow and tugged him to the door. The beleaguered woman in tow.
"Hey, Rast-man, tape my soaps for me while I'm gone, huh?" John called over his shoulder to D'Argo. The door shut before he could take what he felt would be his last sight of his friend.
Aeryn nodded at the brief description. As she hefted the heavy weapon, her eyes never left its battered metal lines.
"Range?" She asked, bringing the rifle up to her shoulder and squinting down its sights. With perfunctory ease, she found the charge cartridge and removed it to examine it.
With a small smirk of amusement, Tessa continued. "At its best, 150 cils."
The term meant nothing to her. Aeryn frowned down at the cragged little woman.
"Not good." Tessa explained, patiently. "But what it lacks in range, it makes up for in strength."
"Ah," she nodded. "Better for close-range combat engagements."
In one liquid motion, Aeryn brought the rifle down to rest in the crook of her arm. She smiled wanly at the fragile looking healer. "Forgive me for saying so, but I would have never thought of you as a soldier."
The ancient woman placed a bony hand on Aeryn's arm and nodded smugly. "Nor would I have thought I'd one day call a Peacekeeper an ally."
With that the odd little woman shambled off, hailed by one of the many other soldiers of the Delphi Sect assembled nearby.
Aeryn returned her attention to the rifle. It seemed to radiate a sinister comfort in her hands. The sensation was so natural that she thought little of questioning it.
"You're the Peacekeeper," A booming voice erupted at her back.
Aeryn looked up. The chatter of the other fighters that gathered in the exercise yard seemed to lull. A few stole glances at her. She turned to find a great rough-hewn slab of a man towering a full head taller than she. His face was drawn in brutish lines: heavy jaw, primitive mouth and close set eyes beneath a thick brow. The divided upper lip of his Tiron heritage only made him appear more feral.
Instinctively, she knew he had to be the one called Hewitt. His plaintive voice was forever ingrained in her memory of the other night. Aeryn looked directly into his baleful eyes and drew herself up to her full height. "Yes."
There was a hushed exchange among the group, like the scramble of dry leaves.
"How many people have you killed, little girl?" Hewitt mocked, folding thick muscular arms over his thick chest.
"Oh… that's hard to say," Aeryn returned, eyes narrowing at his apparent challenge. "I've lost count."
The murmur was louder this time. More of the Delphi had gathered into a small ring of spectators. They watched with their faces full of an edgy eagerness.
"You know what I think? I think you're a Mitzan spy." Hewitt paused, licking his lips. His eyes moved over her body appraisingly. "And you're leading poor Meggs around by his mivonks."
A spattering of bawdy chuckles sounded from the men in the group.
"Is that what you think?" Aeryn felt a spark of fury ignite. Centered around this was a curious thrill at the promise of confrontation. "Well, here's what I know. I know you don't want what you're starting."
She planted a slender finger on the brute's sternum. Her eyes never left his. There was another roll of chatter in the crowd, louder and more uncertain. She felt oddly invigorated and exposed at once. It felt important to face his challenge, not matter how Dethan might disapprove. She understood Hewitt's kind implicitly; his respect would have to be earned through action, not words.
"Hewitt." Dethan's stern voice cut the tense air like shears, admonishing and threatening at once. "Shouldn't you be at your picket?"
Hewitt looked from Aeryn to Dethan then threw a glance over his shoulder at the rapidly depleting crowd. The small ring of men and women had found sudden interest everywhere else but the center of the circle. A cocky smile hung prominently on his face as he looked back to his superior.
"Yes, Meggs." Hewitt nodded, but as his close-set eyes held unchecked danger. This was a temporary defeat.
He made to turn to the set of buildings in the distance. But whirled suddenly to lunge at Aeryn. A vicious swipe of his heavy fist sent the plasma rifle clattering from her hands.
Unprepared for such speed from such a large opponent, Aeryn jumped back, falling into a defensive stance. Hewitt rushed at her, seeking to send her to the ground with his own mass. Unable to dodge him, Aeryn met her attacker head on. She crouched low, throwing her own strength below his center of gravity. The giant of a man toppled forward like a great tree, propelled by his own momentum. He landed in a winded heap amidst a billow of dust. Aeryn doubled back and fell on him, her knee pressing into his throat.
"Enough!" Dethan barked. "Both of you!"
Aeryn did not sever her attention from the fallen Hewitt. Panting, she glared down at him while answering Dethan. "I will yield when he does."
But she felt Dethan's arms at her shoulders, pulling her away.
"I said enough!"
Aeryn released the pressure on Hewitt's throat, but did not relax her guard.
He sat up as she allowed Dethan to draw her to her feet. Hewitt rubbed his throat and fixed her with an icy grin. But there was something else written in his gaze: grudging approval.
She felt the eyes of the others on her. Some of them held their mouths agape to see this delicate pale skinned creature who had toppled the biggest of their troop.
Slapping away the hand of a comrade that sought to help him up, Hewitt rose back to his feet. The giant turned back to the direction of his post. Over his shoulder he called, "Not bad… for a Peacekeeper."
Dethan turned to the gathering of incredulous faces. "I think there are better places for the rest of you as well. No?"
There was a long stretch of silence. Aeryn stooped to retrieve the fallen plasma rifle, feeling Dethan study her. He stood with his hands on hips. His mouth pulled into the imitation of a disapproving scowl, but beneath it, she could sense an amused admiration as he chided. "Well, Aeryn Dizine I think today you have made a friend."
Naj Roxas regarded the curious off-worlder before her. She spared a glance at the disinterested guard at the door to the medlab before answering.
"Naj… Naj Roxas. I was once the Sub-Liege beneath Jozan." Her mouth pulled into a bitter line as though his very name left a bad taste in her mouth. This did not escape the prisoner's notice.
"I can see he's just as popular with the ladies too." He muttered, looking around the brushed steel and shimmering glass of the medlab.
Roxas raised her voice for the benefit of the guard. "I'll require circulatory tissue sample. Remove your jacket."
With the smallest smirk, Crichton slipped the black duster from his shoulders. "I'll bet you're a fun date."
Brow furrowed, she looked at him, but decided not to ask for an explanation. As she pressed the syringe to his arm, she leaned closer. "I am to be executed soon. I tried to help a captive Sebacean escape and was caught in the attempt. Your presence here has merely staved off my death. Jozan cannot have his Bio-weapon without my expertise."
"Whoa. What? Aeryn? You mean Aeryn Sun?" Crichton looked up at her, desperately trying to reign his agitation at this new knowledge. The expression written in his eyes begged a thousand more questions. "That prick Jozan lied to me. He told me he had her killed."
"It's a matter of pride for Jozan. He would never acknowledge that he had been bested." Roxas said. Seeing him withdraw into a pensive daze, she sought to redirect his attention. "Time is short. There's a way out of here. If I help you to escape, will you bring me with you?"
"Talyn, what have you done?" she demanded of the very air. She turned her attention back to the struggling Peacekeeper. "What is that?"
Collecting himself, but seeming to totter on some edge of sanity, the captain regarded the bridge, as though truly seeing it for the first time. "A neural transponder. A direct interface with Talyn, his sensors, his propulsion, his weaponry ... I command them all. "
"You command him!" she shot back, incredulous.
"Every system." He marveled, looking down at his own arms, turning over his hands. His voice was jagged with awe. "It's indescribable. It's a pity you can't experience it."
"Crais, we were going to share command." A cheated rage began to build within her.
"Talyn chose otherwise." Crais snapped.
"He needs both of us."
"No, we no longer need you. Talyn can only have one master." He regarded her with a dismissive nod. "You may return to Moya."
"I will not." She felt the bitter anger roll over her like a cool tide, coupled with shame. Crichton had warned her that this would happen. Given the chance, Crais would betray them.
"You must." Crais replied as though her choice were simple. "He and I are of like mind on this."
"Crais, take that thing off. Take it off." She drew her weapon, and took approached him. "Take it off or I will."
Aeryn woke to sudden crushing darkness. Heavy weight pressed against her chest. A hand sealed against her lips as she drew a breath to scream.
Crais! …Am I still dreaming? An irrational panic flooded her brain.
"Shh! Be quiet!" Dethan said in an urgent whisper. The
spring of terror at the base of her skull unwound with his welcome voice.
"What was it?" She heard herself ask in a petrified whisper. The dreams' edges were more obvious as she slipped back into dangerous reality. Her mind raced to put things into place.
She had joined Dethan with a few others to scout a nearby outpost that the Mitzan had established very near Tiron controlled territory. They had camped for the night, hoping to return to the Delphi village in the early morning.
She strained to listen over the clamor of her own heart. There were sounds bouncing against the black trunks of the trees. They mingled with the crunch of leaves and brush underfoot. There were hushed voices in the blackness beyond their sleeping camp. Obviously with the racket the Mitzan made, they were not stalking the Delphi.
"How many?" She hissed.
"Twenty… maybe more."
They out-numbered and most definitely out-gunned their small band of six Delphi. A confrontation would end badly. No. It was best to stay hidden.
The back of his hand accidentally brushed along her side. She heard the crinkle of leather as Dethan reached for his holstered plasma gun. His chest pushed and pulled in secreted gasps. The world was sound and shadows as they waited for a small eternity for the Mitzan detachment to pass. Finally, their sounds died out, moving axial positive, toward the mountains beyond the flatlands.
"Are you all right?" His voice sounded tired. Dethan's profile was a vague sketch in the early morning light. "I'm sorry I had to wake you like that. You were thrashing in your sleep. You would have given us away."
Aeryn nodded. His face hovered above hers. Haltingly, he leaned down. Their mouths brushed. Hesitant. Not quite a kiss
One of the Delphi called from a nearby hiding spot, abruptly ending the moment. "Meggs! All clear? Where are you?"
Dethan pulled away from her, his weight suddenly absent. Aeryn slowly turned to her side, feeling the tremor of adrenaline work its way out her muscles. She rose to her knees and watched him creep through the thick brush in the direction of the others.
John had anticipated that Moya would lose contact with them when they entered the quirksome atmosphere of Golgotha. When they left they had agreed to return to give a report within the next thirty-six arns. They were nearly half a solar day overdue.
She tapped her comm. "Pilot? Has there been any sign of their transport pod?"
The holo-image of the Navigator glowed to life in the corridor over her shoulder. "I am sorry, Pa'u Zhaan. Nothing."
The direct blue of her gaze moved over the remaining transport pod in Moya's bay. It had been under disuse for some time. The DRDs would need another few arns to complete its maintenance. Perhaps by then John and D'Argo would return, precluding the need for her to leave Moya unattended.
A flutter of gray and white caught the corner of her vision. Chiana slouched in the shadows. An uneasy hesitance permeated her actions. Zhaan regarded the furtive creature, reading the question in her gaze. "There is no word yet."
"Then I say we go and find them." Chiana returned, stepping closer.
"They are merely overdue by a few arns." Zhaan tried to bring a surety to her words. But it sounded hollow. "We must be patient, I pray that-"
"Pray!" Chiana shot back. "That's good. You do that. Meanwhile D'Argo and John are still down there. Who knows what happened to them."
"I cannot risk leaving Moya and Pilot. The Izlouth left them in a weakened state and you know that."
"Fine. You stay here and pray." The girl marched to the door. "I'm going down there to find them."
"I will not allow that--" Zhaan snagged her elbow in a firm grasp.
She whirled on her. "Let go."
Chiana wriggled from Zhaan's grip and regained her stride for the bay, only to have the doors shut at her approach. The Nebari pivoted, fixing Zhaan with an accusatory stare. "Oh. That's nice. Open 'em back up."
The priestess remained nonplussed. When she spoke, she did not turn her attention from Chiana. "Pilot, I appreciate your concern, but that was not necessary. Please open the bay doors."
"I did not seal them, Pa'u Zhaan. Moya closed them of her own accord. She is… not …responding."
The corridor's overhead lights winked uncertainly.
"Pilot?" Zhaan turned to regard the holo-image viewer. It was lifeless. "Pilot?"