First Gessit Kain Jozan considered himself a patient man. After all, it was an elemental teaching in the Mitzan Word of Order: patience in thought and action. And it was his patience that kept the miserable creature at his feet alive far longer than he should have expected. He looked down at the one that called himself Hewitt. The once smug Tiron now lay in a steadily spreading pool of his own blood.
"Tell me, insect. What is it about your kind…" Jozan crouched over him. "That you refuse to die? Hmmm."
Hewitt lifted his head and coughed thickly. A stream of black-red joined the gore-streaked floor.
The Gessit scowled; he was disappointed. His enemy lay on the floor dying, having long ago shed the "spirit" of their interview without divulging any new information that his own army's intelligence had not already provided. He sensed the man was near his breaking point but that granted only a diminutive rush of satisfaction. It was not as delicious as he imagined. "I asked you a question."
"Delphi… n'aist bel de lunda chi," the creature gurgled in his native tongue.
Jozan straightened. His mouth pulled into a distasteful bow at the sound of the heretic's prayers. "Your sacrilege to the Asanti will only make your death more painful."
"N'aist bel de lunda chi."
"Silence!" Jozan felt the undeniable tide of fury over take him. He suddenly lashed out blindly, kicking the prisoner at will. Anything to silence the praying. Finally he stopped and pulled his jacket straight with a sharp tug.
Hewitt rolled into his side. His voice was a weak mutter now. "Aeryn… you seek the one called Aeryn… the p-p-Peacekeeper."
Jozan felt an electric rush along his spine. His tone was high pitched with incredulity. "What?! What did you say?"
The prisoner moved onto his knees, forehead pushed into the floor. The blood made the surface slippery and the palms of his hands betrayed his weight. His thin voice echoed flatly against the floor. "S-s-pare my life… I'll…tell you."
He knelt beside him and pulled his head up by the bloody tangle of his hair. His face was inches from the Tiron's. It repulsed him to be this close. Jozan enunciated each word. "What. Did. You. Say."
"She lives… among the Tiron."
Jozan's brief laugh was nearly joyous. "Confess, Tiron. I
promise you shall receive what you deserve."
"Trust me, D'Argo," he mocked under his breath. "I'm in. I get Aeryn. I'm out. Piece of crate."
He balanced the Qualta blade across his knees and folded his arms against the cool air. A great wet sneeze overtook him without warning. It startled a small fowl from the boughs over head. The Luxan tensed, hands instantly back on his blade. He looked around from his perch in the ancient gnarled tree. He tested the air for any trace of Tiron scent. There was nothing. Slowly, he relaxed and leaned back into the fork of the tree's limbs.
The Tiron picket he had glimpsed earlier had not passed in several arns. He noted the strange absence with only a disjointed curiosity. One thing had impressed the Luxan. The Tiron moved with admirable stealth. They were able to blend their sounds into the background noise of the wilderness. D'Argo had found it more important to rely on his sense of smell to detect their presence. Crichton had been foolish to think he could outsmart them so easily.
And, fool that I am, I sit here waiting for word from him. D'Argo shook his head. Frelling pain in the eema human.
There was a shuffle of static. D'Argo looked around. He quickly realized it was coming from the inner folds of his tunic. The comm.
"Big guy! Hey…. er…me?"
"Crichton!" He purposefully kept the relief from his voice. "Where are you?"
"The Four Seasons. The food's great here."
"I'm with Aeryn, D. She's here. She's okay. Well… sorta. Listen. I've got a plan."
D'Argo rolled his eyes and sighed heavily. Great Luxan
Mystics, save me from the plans of John Crichton.
John, she corrected herself. His name is John. You knew that. Somehow you always have.
She rubbed at the back at her neck, seeking to coax away the beginning of a headache. Her thoughts were a jumble; her nerves at fray. Now was not the time. There was a great danger on the horizon. Jozan and the entire axial positive Mitzan regime could very well descend upon them at any moment.
Dethan finally stopped and turned to look at her. But his expression was unreadable. "No. No more running. It is time for us to strike first."
"What?" Tessa blurted. The ancient healer had remained quiet until now, her cragged faced folded in her own mourning. Hewitt was her granddaughter's husband. But she had said nothing to voice her pain. "Dethan, that's madness! We have no reinforcements until the winter ends. We could not possibly--"
"No more running," he repeated. "Assemble the squadron leaders. We will make plans to strike at Mitzan mountain base."
"Dethan!" Aeryn rose from the rickety bench. "Are you listening to what you are saying? There are hundreds of Mitzan there! We are out-numbered at least three to one."
His voice was cool. "This is no longer your fight, Aeryn Sun."
"We will fail, Dethan!" Tessa's protest renewed as she climbed to her feet, leaning heavily on the map table for support. She suddenly looked very old and frail, as though a strong wind would scatter her like ashes. "Everything we have fought for will be lost."
"I've made a decision, old woman." He jerked his chin at her. His mouth was a cruel line. "One that is to be followed. Assemble the squadron leaders."
Tessa folded her hands at her waist. Her face was a bitter knot of desperation. Her voice was the creak of an old hinge when she spoke again, turning for the door. "May the gods show you guidance, Dethan. Or they will show you our deaths."
He would not look upon her, but his spine stiffened at the old woman's words. A silence permeated the still air after the elder parted.
It was Aeryn who spoke first. "Why are you doing this, Dethan? They trust you. They will follow you through anything. But this… this is insane."
Dethan resumed pacing. His fingers wound into the collar of this chest armor, tugging at it distractedly. He muttered, "Do not question me, woman. You no longer need to concern yourself with our trials."
Aeryn felt the bitterness carried in his words, but she did not relent. "You're doing this to prove something. But what? To reclaim Hewitt?"
He did not answer. There was only the pacing creak of his leather boots.
"John Crichton? Are you doing it because he is here now?"
Dethan flinched at the name.
She picked up on the minuscule hurt. Aeryn fell into pace along side of him. He pivoted to avoid her stare. "You are doing this because of John Crichton and his claims. What could you possible hope to prove?"
"I do not do this because of anyone. I do this because I am tired of so… so many things, Aeryn Dizine." He caught himself. "Aeryn Sun."
"Dethan," she said, reaching out to him. "I am still right here. I have not left."
He backed away. Whatever intimacy she had shared with Dethan
Meggs was gone. His exterior had solidified, crystallized. He was unreachable.
And it frightened her. "I was wrong to bid you to stay. I was wrong for… many
John gave them a wide, plastic smile. "Hi. How ya doing?"
The women hurried past, chattering in hushed tones to each
other as they darted curious glances at the two "Peacekeepers."
"Will you help?" Her level question dismissed his argument, but she kept her eyes averted. It was obvious that Aeryn was still very much ill at ease around him despite the fact that she had trusted him enough to release him from the cell. "Will you talk to Dethan? He is doing this because of you. He denies it, of course-"
"Because of me? Well, I'm real impressed," he returned, his anger barely in check. John was tired of being the patient therapist. He enunciated each word. "That's his problem. I'm NOT getting involved in this, Aeryn. I came here to find you. You are here because of an accident! Your prowler crashed. You don't belong here! Hell, I don't either, but that's even longer story-"
"I suppose you know where I do belong." This time she did look up at him.
The retort struck him at his very core, where the Uncharted Territories had not yet created a callous shell. That was just it. What made him the authority on the life of Aeryn Sun? Or anyone else for that matter?
"Perhaps my whole life was a culmination for this… to arrive
here. To find a new path here," she continued. Her voice was impassioned,
animated. John found it intriguing and terrifying at once. It was like watching
someone else wear Aeryn Sun's face.
"Aeryn," he stretched his voice in a soothing tone. He placed his hands on her shoulders. "You're confused right now. You don't know what you're talking about. The Aeryn Sun that I know-"
"I lied earlier. I do remember you," she said quickly, pulling away from him. "Not everything. But enough."
"I don't get it, Aeryn. Why lie?"
"Your arrival here… seeing you… someone I thought I had imagined…" Her voice trailed away, lost. She found his eyes again. An odd hurt filtered into her voice. "You're right. I may not have my bearings, but one thing is for certain, I do care about these people, about what happens to them. I'll ask you again. Will you talk to Dethan? Reason with him?"
"I've already given you my answer on that one."
Aeryn licked her lips, nodded silently to herself. Hiding the defeat in her expression, she looked down at her hands as they played with the frayed edge of her tunic. She began to turn, probably intended to head back to the main compound.
John then looked up sharply, peering over her shoulder. "Oh. Hiya, D'Argo."
Aeryn lifted her head quickly. She pivoted and nearly plowed into the Luxan warrior as he towered behind her. A flicker of cheated realization moved over her face. She drew an incredulous breath. "You-"
There was a sudden quick motion from D'Argo. She crumpled to the ground in a small shift of dust, fell by the Luxan's sting before she could finish the outburst.
John quickly jogged back down to the entrance to the deserted cul-du-sac. There was no one nearby. He doubted any of the Tiron had seen them. They were in a frenzy of activity, no doubt getting ready for Dethan's big suicide run.
"Took you long enough," John said to D'Argo. The Luxan was a sight. He looked as though he carried most of the Golgothan wilderness matted in his braids and caked to his boots. "Grizzly Adams."
D'Argo rolled his eyes at the ill-timed humor. "Their pickets on the spinward side of the settlement have been abandoned. We can move through there undetected."
"I'll follow your lead. Come on," John nodded. "Help me move Patty Hearst here before they miss her."
Aeryn shook her head as if that would disperse the fuzzy sensation in her brain. She experimentally opened her eyes and squinted until the double vision cleared. The bloated red sun pushed scant light through the tree tops high overhead.
The forest. But, where?
With a sudden urgency she tried to climb to her feet and found she could not. Her hands and feet were pinned together. Her vision sharpened with the rush of adrenaline. The incongruous thoughts were dissolved in the flood of rage, replaced by the real memory that had brought her to this new situation.
Aeryn tugged at the heavy cords that bound her wrists behind the tree trunk at her back. A piece of fabric was in her mouth as a makeshift gag. Her ankles were tied together as well. To add insult to injury, they even had taken her boots.
Crichton had tricked her. He had done this, plotting with the Luxan all along. Indignation blossomed, driving through her veins.
"Hmmft!" She bellowed around the gag. Aeryn shook an errant strand of hair from her face. There was the crisp crunch of leaves and twigs under foot. Someone was approaching from behind. She twisted around to see, but the huge trunk obscured her line of sight.
Crichton wandered into view. His mouth pulled into smirk as he squatted beside her. He reached out and tucked the irritating strand of hair behind her ear. "You say something, princess?"
"Fwhhhfllng mhmd!" She huffed angrily, nostrils flaring. Her aqua eyes narrowed on him. "Khhhttn!"
"Oh… that's attractive," he chuckled. He held his palms up in a surrendering gesture. "Okay… okay. I'll take the gag out, but you gotta promise to keep it down. Deal?"
Crichton pursed his lips. "I'll take that as a yes."
He gracelessly tugged the damp cloth from her mouth. Collecting herself, she turned her furious gaze upon him. "Are you out of your frelling mind, Crichton?"
"Trust me, Aeryn. This is for your own good."
"My own good! The only one deriving benefit from this is you! The restraints keep me from killing you at the moment!"
"You gave me no choice. The sooner we get out of here, the better."
"Untie me this instant!" She brought her feet up and slammed them into the soil.
"No… sorry. Can't do that. Aeryn… I'm not gonna get involved in this! Neither are you."
"Crichton! They are out gunned, out manned. But Dethan is
adamant about his attack on the Mitzan base. They will surely die."
"Good! Better them than us, Aeryn." Something in his eyes hardened. "You'll thank me when you're back to yourself."
"You are a coward!"
He leaned around her, checking the restraints around her wrists. His face inches from her own. She could sense an anxiety hovering around him like a fine mist. There was something more in the guilt-ridden cast of his eyes. He knew this was wrong. Yet he refused to help.
"You're doing this out of jealousy," she hissed.
"You'll see, Aeryn," he maintained, looking away.
Her fury refused to fade. It drove her next statement like a vengeful reflex. "He means very much to me, Crichton. He and I shared… many things."
He paused, his shoulders rolling into a firm line. When he
spoke he granted her only a side-long glance. "Aeryn, I don't care."
Aeryn pulled her face into a dispassionate mask. She said nothing and folded her gaze inward. She had already made her choice. The question was getting out of the restraints in time.
"Frelling… blue nudist… I am a Dominar. Now look at me."
To whom he could possibly have been appealing did not occur to Rygel. It was merely satisfying enough at the moment to hear the sound of his own voice echoed back to him from the sludge covered walls of the reclamation shaft.
His tormentor's voice sounded from the comm: "Have you found anything yet, Rygel?"
Rygel considered ignoring the Delvian, making her anxiety even greater, as she hovered on the deck outside the tunnel's entrance. He shook his head to himself. This was the form of power he was reduced to. The Dominar who once ruled millions of souls now forced to crawl through what amounted to the reeking intestines of a Leviathan as he played mind-games with an ex-convict. He made a mental note to have all Delvians expelled from Hynerian soil when he regained his throne.
He smiled smugly to himself as he inched along, savoring the anxiety in her voice. It was not entirely dissatisfying.
"Yes, damn you!" He huffed. "I've found the frelling Izlouth canisters. Shouldn't the DRDs be doing this?"
"You know perfectly well that Chiana has no means of controlling them while Pilot is incapacitated. And need I remind you it is due to your stupidity-"
"There's no reason to be insulting, you blue-assed bitch!"
He could hear the tension pull Zhaan's voice taunt, stretching it like fine wire as she ignored his interruption. "Collect all of the substance that you can. And then spread the antidote that I gave you."
Rygel sighed to himself and resumed his fantasy about the
systematic expulsion of Delvians from Hyneria as he worked.
"Do well by her, John Crichton," he whispered.
He turned, clearing his throat. The look on the young recruit's face was the answer he already knew. "There is no sign of Aeryn or the other. I have sent two scouts-"
"Recall them." Dethan waved off the rest of the young man's report. "Do not waste the men on it."
"She has made her choice about it."
He made a small smile at the recruit's curious expression. Dethan looked at him, seeming to acknowledge him for the first time. "You are Hewitt's brother, no?"
"Kessig." He said, nodding his head sharply. "Tomorrow will be my first combat mission."
"I should hope it would be your last as well. Something to tell your grandchildren about, Kessig." With that Dethan turned back to the horizon. The sun was a purple bruise on the sky. Nightfall on its tail. They would move under cover of darkness. It was a half a day's journey to the base, but they knew the terrain, unlike the Mitzan. They would be ready. A strange calm overtook him, something he had never known the day before an engagement.
"Dawn. It will be here sooner than you know it." Dethan said.
D'Argo sat bolt upright. He had fallen asleep beneath an ancient tree, dead leaves mounded around him. Owlishly he looked around. Crichton stood at the tree where Aeryn had been tied. Only the cords suggested she'd even been there. He watched as the human kicked furtively at the ground, sending a flutter of dried leaves and dust into the air. His eyes were red-rimmed pools of anger.
"Frell it! Frell it! Frell it!" Crichton spat. He whirled, his hands seeking the back of his neck, tugging on it, as though he could knead the rage from his skull.
"She managed to escape." D'Argo said, rising to his feet.
"No, D'Argo." Crichton said with a sarcastic tilt of his head. He pivoted and looked at him, his hands on his hips. "She shrank! Watch where you step, ok?"
D'Argo gave a derisive snort. Her determination was certainly as commendable as her skills as a warrior. Aeryn Sun never failed to surprise him.
"She ran off to get her ass killed with Dethan!" Crichton returned. He looked to the ruddy glow of red on the horizon. Dawn was nearly upon them. The human's shoulders were slumped when he turned back to face D'Argo.
"She could not have made it too far. We will catch her in
time," D'Argo said although he did not believe a word of what he
"Yes, Pa'u Zhaan," Pilot responded with a hint of frustration. "Moya and I are doing much better. Thank you."
Zhaan chewed her bottom lip, uncertain. "I will check back with you as often as I can. The comms-"
"I know, Pa'u Zhaan. They will not work to communicate with the planet's surface due to the disruption satellites in orbit."
She rounded the fork in the corridor and paused in the threshold of the maintenance bay to listen to the Navigator.
"However," Pilot continued. "When you are on the surface, you may be able to trace the comm signal of Commander Crichton and Ka D'Argo as a means to find them."
Impatiently she watched the ladder for the transport pod descent to the bay's deck. Before the last rung hit the floor Zhaan was bolting up the steps, headed for the open hatch-way.
"Very well, Pilot. I shall return as soon as I have any news."
"Zhaan! Zhaan… wait up!"
The priestess turned to see Chiana sprinting into the bay, pulling on her long coat as she ran. The girl climbed the rungs of the access ramp two at a time.
"Absolutely not." Zhaan barred the entrance to the pod.
"Why the Hezmana not?" Chiana demanded, seeking unsuccessfully to squirm past her. Zhaan's superior strength was more than a match for her. The girl jerked her elbow from her firm grasp.
"Someone must stay with Moya and Pilot."
The Nebari's brow furrowed with indignation. She widened her stance, shifting her weight from foot to foot anxiously. "What if you run into trouble? What-"
"Child, I can handle myself," Zhaan replied, more sternly.
Chiana slowly relented and withdrew to the threshold of the maintenance bay. From there she watched the ramp retract before she triggered the bay doors to close. There was a rumble from the other side of the sealed doorway as the pod's propulsors came on-line.
She turned and leaned her back to the doors, allowing herself to slide down to the floor. Chiana drew her knees up to her chest as she felt the tears blur her vision.
"I hope you're right, Zhaan," Chiana said softly. Her voice
was lost in the echo of the empty bay. "Please bring them back."
"You should not be here!"
She had never heard him this enraged. Aeryn had seen Dethan
discipline a novice recruit, but that was nothing compared to this.
"No! This is not your place, Aeryn. You are not needed," he barked. Dethan's voice lowered. "Nor are you wanted."
She pulled her chin up and weathered the attack. It was meant to hurt, to send her fleeing. But beneath it, was that gladness? If so, she could use that to talk him out of this. To beg him to reconsider. There was still time.
She spared a glance to the steadily growing flesh of dawn in the distance and felt a renewed urgency prevail over the mire of emotions. Aeryn swallowed. "Dethan. If you care at all about any of your men. You will turn back now. Before-"
"We all die, Aeryn." The angry energy had drained from his voice. He sounded so tired. "All of us… someday. This is what I chose. I chose this instead of waiting for it, hunted down like an animal."
"Ya? That what your men chose too?" A new voice broke their tense exchange.
Aeryn and Dethan both turned. John Crichton stood in the forest clearing, his arms folded. He stepped forward, the Luxan just beyond him.
She heard a minute gasp from Dethan at the sight of Ka D'Argo. Without looking, she instinctively held out her arm blocking Dethan's path. Aeryn shook her head at Dethan. No. He is no threat to you.
"So, Dethan. You take a public opinion poll from your guys?" John looked only at Dethan as he spoke. His voice grew in strength, loud enough for some of the curious that circled nearby to overhear. "That's how they want to go down? Kamikaze style? Or you just make up their minds for them?"
"This is not your place, Peacekeeper!" Dethan stepped around Aeryn's outraised arm. At the same moment, the Luxan fell in closer yielding a low growl.
"Peacekeeper? Please…" John rolled his eyes. "I don't even want to start telling you what's wrong with that picture."
"You should leave. Now," Dethan spat. He turned on Aeryn. "All of you."
"Gladly," John returned. He leveled his gaze on Aeryn and extended his open hand to her. "Just as soon as I get what I came for."
A hoarse cry suddenly wound through the dense woods. "Dethan!"
They all turned to regard the pale-faced recruit running toward them. Aeryn recognized him immediately, Kessig. The boy was obviously injured, moving in a shambling sprint.
Aeryn launched herself in the boy's direction, only to have Dethan and Crichton stay her at the same time.
The woods behind Kessig were alive with the Mitzan. They seemed to materialize from the very air. Helpless they watched as a plasma charge zinged through the air to cut Kessig down mid-stride.
Crichton dove to the side, dragging her to the ground to seek cover behind the corpse of an ancient fallen trunk. She found herself wedged between him and Dethan. For the moment their animosity toward each other seemed unimportant. The air above them was swarming with the returning volley of the Tiron.
She frantically looked for D'Argo. The Luxan had been pinned behind a nearby tree. He was already returning fire with his Qualta blade.
There shots from behind them as well. They were outflanked. The Mitzan had them surrounded.
The shrill call bounced off the trunks. But she was certain the order came from the Mitzan side.
"Tiron! I have a proposition for you!"
Aeryn felt an icy hand grasp her heart. She recognized the voice immediately. First Gessit Kain Jozen.
"Release Aeryn Dizine to me and I will allow you to go free."