Hewitt pulled his knees up to his chest and sank back against the cold metal wall. Blearily he gazed up at the tall naked windows that overlooked the cell. He could tell the change in the time by his occassional glimpse of the sentry that stood post there. They seemed to go in shifts of three arns, if he trusted his feverish brain.
That made sixteen. Sixteen changes in the guard.
The counting was nearing an end. His timing could be off, no doubt. That could not be helped. He had lost consciousness twice. Time had passed and he had to think about where he'd left off the count.
The youthful guard, a boy to be honest, was back at the post. Hewitt felt a twinge of insult. Jozan thought him beaten to give him a pup to look over him.
Hewitt snorted to himself at the thought and immediately crumpled under a painful convulsion of coughs. The coppery taste of blood welled in his mouth. He grimaced at the pain along his sides. The Mitzan surgeon had done hasty work to stave off his death at the hands of Jozan. His wounds no longer bled, but they were a riot of misery.
He almost laughed again. In helping him, the physician had further secured the Tiron's plans. It had been no mistake that Hewitt, one of the Tiron's best and strongest, had been taken prisoner. In a moment that felt like cowardice, he offered up information about the Sebacean woman. The gamble had worked. Jozan, in his blind pride and hatred, had spared him only with the promise of more torture to come. But this had given precious time for the Tiron plan to move into action.
Hewitt glanced once again at the high window, angling his head to peer from the angry welt that covered one eye.
The guard was gone.
With his tongue, Hewitt prodded the small piece of metal in his mouth, nestled between his cheek and teeth. The tiny cylinder came lose from its fleshy pocket along the inside of this cheek.
Cautiously Hewitt rolled the cylinder off his tongue and into his bruised fingers. He drew in a deep quivering breath and examined the tiny piece of death in his hand. The cylinder contained a needle, laden with chemicals, impossibly potent, that would bring a beginning and an end.
Hewitt looked up again at the guard's post, hiding the needle in his palm. The new guard was there, an older, tallow faced woman.
Soon. Very soon.
Her gnarled and bony body looked ancient, fallible. Perhaps on some days when the rain came on the winds, it felt that way to Tessa. There was an extra ache to her joints or a particular loathsome slowness to her muscles, but she defied the ravages of eighty cycles of harsh life. She had proved her stamina time and again against the youngest of the Tiron. Perhaps this would be the last test.
Ignoring the baleful ache in her sore muscles from the heavy pack, the healer stole through the winding tunnels of the Asanti mountain. She remembered playing here in these caves, as a little girl, long before the Mitzan infested it with their base.
Old woman. Now is not the time for reminiscences.
She paused at a fork in the passage. To her right, the rough-hewn rock fell away to the smooth plane of metal grating and pipes where the Mitzan had mutated the tunnels to their needs.
Tessa checked the chronometer fastened at her shoulder. Dethan and the others would be at the point on the forest floor. She did not know how many others there were like her, stealing through the parameter of the base, also bearing their sinister gifts. Like her, each knew only their own targets and their own schedules should one of them be captured. She readjusted the pack's harness and turned down the narrower passage into the Mitzan base.
"I am waiting for your answer, Tiron! Give me the Sebacean and I will allow you to retreat to safety."
The Gessit's voice echoed across the tense quiet of the forest. None of the Tiron squad uttered a sound in either acceptance or rebuke.
"Hewitt," Dethan Meggs muttered.
It was a curse tempered by sorrow for his once friend. He felt a hand squeeze his shoulder and looked up to meet Aeryn's eyes. His own thoughts were easily read on her face. All doubt had been removed. There was only one way that Jozan could have known that Aeryn was alive. Hewitt had been broken.
But it would not matter. The plan would continue to the last man if they had to.
"Who the hell is Hewitt?" This was a terse whisper from Crichton.
Dethan's eyes narrowed on the being at Aeryn's side. This haunted soul called John Crichton. The only thing Dethan felt toward this man was bitterness. The gods had stolen the memory of the wrong person when they had chosen Aeryn.
Crichton, an anxious creature that jumped at shadows yet sauntered about with an arrogant swagger, needed to forget his life more than anyone. The man was absorbed by his own guilt. This much was evident to everyone but himself.
"You and your… associate will take Aeryn out of here," Dethan said to him. He spared another curious glance at odd visage of the one called D'Argo.
"I'm not going anywhere," Aeryn hissed, moving into his line of sight.
Both men turned on her at once: "Aeryn."
"This is not your fight," Crichton said. "You've got no business being here in the first place."
Aeryn moved out of Crichton's reach, pressing closer to Dethan. She said, "You are a coward, Crichton."
"Listen to him." Dethan grabbed her shoulders. "He is right. This is not your place."
"I don't need help from you, GI Joe." Crichton lunged at him, reaching across Aeryn. His fingers curled into the neck of Dethan's chest armor. "You're the one that pumped her head full of all this BS in the first place!"
"Crichton!" Aeryn shot back, maneuvering between them.
A reminder of their greater peril, Jozan's voice ruptured their argument: "TIRON! I demand an answer!"
All four of them stole a quick glance into the clearing. The Gessit was not visible. The Mitzan line had not moved, but the tension was electric.
Dethan felt a strange calmness claim him. For the moment Crichton did not exist. He turned to Aeryn and granted her a slim smile. "You have such little faith in me? I've managed to survive thirty cycles without Aeryn Sun. I think I can manage a minor battle."
She returned the bitter smile. "Dethan-"
Jozan's voice was more furious: "Tiron! You have ten microts before I visit hell on you!"
"Aeryn, come on!" Crichton tugged at her arm, already turning for the dense thicket at their backs.
"Go, Aeryn. We'll cover you as long as we can." Dethan said. Suddenly he grabbed her wrist. His eyes locked on hers he tore the standard from the chest of his armor: the black falcon imposed over the sea of blue and green. He folded it into her hand.
"Aeryn, for chrissakes, come on." Crichton called, insistent.
Dethan met the man's eyes. "Take care of her, John Crichton."
The bitter lines of the human's face fell away to something unreadable. He granted Dethan a curt nod. "Good luck. You're gonna need it."
The guard was gone.
The time was now.
Hewitt rolled the slender cylinder between his fingers. The cover fell away, exposing the tiny needle beneath.
From him there could be no prayers.
Hewitt had believed in practicalities all of his life.
But if the gods did care, they would keep his hands from quaking. They would give him strength to do this one final act. If they knew what was good for them.
He drew in a deep breath and plunged the needle into the thick muscle of his forearm.
For a moment, Hewitt felt nothing, only the sting of the needle.
He gasped rolling away from the wall. A liquid fire immediately coursed through his arm. The potent chemical reaction greedily tasted his blood and sped into his chest.
Hewitt sprang to his feet, surprised by the pain. He glanced up at the guard post. The boy stood in the window. Instead of the same dispassionate expression, his brow furrowed as he watched Hewitt's curious actions.
The fire spread through Hewitt's veins, consuming and building. The sinister mix met with the oxygen in his blood, distending his great frame in impossible new ways. The pain was complete. A universe on its own.
Watching the expression on the Mitzan's face, Hewitt threw back his head and laughed. His lungs filling with the power of it. The laugh soon became a riotous wail. A war cry. Hewitt had become a weapon himself. A bomb.
The sudden intake of air triggered the explosion of his body. It tore great gashes into the three closest walls. The chemical soup of organic flesh and acid splattered the metal where the remnants of his body landed. It began to burn greedily through metal, consuming the delicate circuitry beneath. The lights of the ruined room winked uncertainly. Klaxons began to sound.
She was trapped. There was no way for her to move past lest
they discover the explosives. But somehow she had managed to keep from quaking.
Tessa continued the silent count as she crouched in her hiding spot beyond the
A small squadron hurried past, their boots thunderous on the metal grating. She sank further into the shadows, holding her breath. Relative quiet once again. She released a sigh.
"That I should now the grace of death," she prayed, whispering under her breath. Tessa looked at the explosive's detonator in her frail hand. "That I should feel the breath of life."
Six. She had no choice. There would be no way to escape in time. The edges of her vision blurring, she clutched the trigger to her chest.
"That I should have life eternal"
Five. The course was set. Tessa's thumb moved over the trigger, muscles flexed.
"Four!" Jozan bellowed, his fury growing like an infection. He dared not give the order to attack. He could not risk the death of the Sebacean. He studied the woods beyond the Mitzan encampment.
The foliage stirred and a Tiron parted from it, walking calmly, his hands raised, palm up to the sides of his head.
"Gessit!" The approaching soldier called. His demeanor was calm, almost placid like the surrender of livestock for the slaughter.
"Where is the Sebacean?" Jozan returned, repulsed at having to ask a Tiron for his rightful property.
But he ignored the question. A rueful smile moved over his calm features. "You know me, Jozan? Do you know you I am?"
They stood facing each other. Bare metras apart. But neither man drew a weapon. Their hands moved with caution, each watching the other for sudden action.
"All I see is a Tiron animal," spat Jozan. "I refuse-"
"I am Dethan Meggs. You should know the name of the man you've been hunting."
To Jozan the name meant nothing more than a designation that sometimes crossed his intelligence reports. And he made it apparent in his reaction. Ignoring the new information, he glanced quickly over his challenger's shoulder. "Where is Aeryn Sun?"
"You want her? Don't you? Very badly." Meggs observed, nodding sagely. "I know why."
Jozan's control slipped. He shifted his weight and sensed his men nearby tense, ready to move at his slightest gesture. "You are out-manned. You have nothing-"
"You won't get her," Meggs continued.
"I will take what I want, Tiron."
The secret smile returned to Megg's face. "Not today. Not ever."
At that moment a blast rocked the mountainside beneath their feet. Three others followed it in rapid succession. Trees fell around them with groaning shrieks. The earth heaved and great fissures split the ground like the crack of spring-thawed ice. That was the beginning of the chaos.
It was if the mountain itself shrugged. There was a succession of rumbles in the distance more felt than heard. John's balance left him. Mid-stride, he careened into Aeryn. They landed side by side in a patch of thorny vines.
"What the hell was that?" John struggled to his feet, extracting himself from the tangle of briars. He hissed at the needle pricks of it along his hands and face.
Aeryn seemed to not feel the thorns. She was instantly springing up, headed back in the direction of the Tiron.
"Whoa!" John caught her in a body tackle, pinning her into the forest floor in a winded rush. More thorns and dirt invaded their clothes and hair.
"I have to go back! I have to…have to see," she said frantically struggling against him.
"No," he snapped, flipping her over. He pinned her hands back into the ground. "The only thing we have to do is get the frell out of here."
"Release me!" Aeryn yelled.
"No!" He barked, the cords standing out on his flushed neck.
"I'm sick of this song, Aeryn. Change the damned record, huh?"
"What!" He looked up at the Luxan. But D'Argo's attention was focused on the woods beyond. John followed his gaze. Two Mitzan trundled through the bushes, headed in their direction.
They had been spotted. "Halt! Do not move!"
John's hand went to his thigh, in search of the pulse gun. But he felt only an empty holster. He cursed. The Tiron had confiscated the weapon.
"Screw this," John hissed. He climbed to his feet, careful to maintain his viselike grip on Aeryn's wrist. She grudgingly fell in place beside him as he took cover. At the same moment D'Argo dove behind a small deadfall of branches and trunks.
From his hiding spot, John exchanged a quick glance with the Luxan.
"D'Argo… gun?" John called, gesturing at his empty holster.
The Luxan fished a pulse gun out of the waistband of his tunic. He threw it in John's direction. But the weapon landed yards over his head in the brush well beyond his reach. John turned back to the Luxan, incredulous.
"Oh. Great. Thanks, D," John said sarcastically. "Where were you when the Dolphins were drafting?"
"Crichton," Aeryn said softly, watching their ill-timed ineptitude. "If we survive this…"
He looked at her.
She continued in a seething rage, screeching into his ear. "Remind me to kill you!"
John suddenly took her face with both hands and pressed his mouth to hers soundly, making a loud parody of a wet kiss.
"Missed you too, baby," he laughed.
Angrily she shoved him away. "You're insane!"
A volley of shots from the advancing Mitzan bounced among the trunks. There was the smell of charred wood. They cowered further down into their hiding spots.
"That was close."
D'Argo leaned out of his hiding spot and returned fire and quickly dove back down. This time the Mitzan return fire was much more accurate.
A shadow emerged of the forest of trees to his right. John turned, pushing Aeryn behind him. It was Mitzan. One of them must have circled around while the other diverted them with their fire.
"We are so very screwed," John muttered.
Suddenly a pulse round struck the trooper squarely in the chest. The trooper crumpled to the forest floor.
Confused, John looked first at the trooper and then in the direction of the shot.
The colors of the forest seemed to waiver, coalesce into a humanoid form. Where once there was a thick wall of vine and brush now stood Pa'u Zhaan like an avenging goddess, pulse rifle in her slender hands.
"Blue!" John grinned. "Anyone ever tell you you've got wonderful timing?"
The Delvian smiled at him. "Once or twice."
Dethan lunged for Jozan. But the Mitzan, despite being caught off-guard, had managed to evade him and turned for the safety of his line. Dethan soon lost sight of him in the ensuing chaos.
The advancing Tiron released a war cry that bounced amongst the black trunks of the woods, filling the air. The Mitzan that had not retreated with the explosions were soon dealing with Tiron fire from all sides. Many were cut down where they stood.
But Dethan ignored the essence of war around him. He had his own priorities. Skillfully avoiding the scrambling Mitzan troopers he sought Jozan. Then through haze of weapon fire and smoldering trees he saw the Gessit. Dethan fell in pursuit, quickly covering the distance to his prey.
He pounced on Jozan, his hands immediately at his throat. But his opponent broke the hold and managed some distance to secure his side arm. Dethan knocked the gun from Jozan's grasp as it cleared the holster.
Jozan countered, but Dethan was ready for him. They were soon a tangle of fists, each man seeking to rend and destroy with murderous rage. In a surprise move, Dethan undercut Jozan's balance and sent him sprawling to the forest floor. He fell on him, hands clamping down on his throat, squeezing out the life.
He felt a sudden sharp pain pierce his chest. Dethan looked down. A knife grew from beneath his ribs just under the curve of his chest armor. Jozan's hand was still wrapped around its shaft.
Dethan fell away, staring stupidly at the knife. His entire side was slick with blood. He staggered to his knees, dazzled by the pain as he freed the blade from his flesh.
Injured from his near strangulation, Jozan had taken the fatal distraction to crawl away. The dying man moved like a crushed insect. Gathering his remaining strength Dethan lumbered after him, the blade clutched in his hand.
Dethan tackled him gracelessly. Fresh pain radiated from the deadly wound in his chest. Jozan was pinned beneath him, fixing him with his baleful stare. Both men had little strength left to fight.
"Animal," Jozan panted. His ruined throat struggled to form the words. "We will destroy you."
"Not today," Dethan hissed. He fell forward with the knife, plunging it down into his enemy.
Chest heaving, Dethan flopped to his haunches and rolled onto his back. His numb limbs barely obeyed his commands. Jozan's body squirmed beside him, skewered by the blade. But the Mitzan was soon still.
The sounds of the battle echoed in Dethan's fading hearing. It was a great struggle to breathe. His floundering heart thudded in his ears. But all these things seemed distant, unimportant as he lay gazing up at a flawless Golgothan sun, the life leaving his battered body.
"Dominar," Pilot's gentle announcement reverberated in the den. Rygel paused in the doorway. For a long moment there was only the mutter of this sleigh-throne, as he seemed to contemplate moving deeper into the chamber. "Can I be of assistance to you?"
"Eh-hem. No. No, Pilot." Rygel stammered, maneuvering the throne closer to the Navigator's alcove. "I, of course, am… curious about your and Moya's recovery. I trust you're in not pain."
"I see, your eminence." Pilot lifted his head, his voice slightly wizened. "Moya and I are feeling much better, thank you."
"Ah. Good Good."
In a side long glance Pilot watched the Hynerian toy nervously with the fold of his robes. "Dominar Rygel, Pa'u Zhaan has told me of your actions-"
"What?" Rygel blurted. "Oh, I can explain-"
"Thank you, for your help during my illness, Dominar. Moya and I are most grateful for your assistance in our recovery from the Izlouth poisoning."
"Oh," Rygel relaxed once more to the opulent cushion of his chair. He uttered a nervous laugh. "For a moment, I thought you might have been told that I had something to do with your illness or some other nonsense."
From the corridor John watched Zhaan work at the tall counter of the medical bay. Her movements were always graceful, fluid. It struck him at that moment how he come to take this exotic creature for granted. He recalled the sense of wonder that he felt when he first arrived on this great ship. Now, it seemed like something that had happened to someone else, never him. He would give anything to recapture that, even for a second.
It was all so much more complicated, the consequences of each action compounded and entangled. With that he regarded the narrow cot against the wall. It was empty.
Seeming to sense his question Zhaan turned to him. "Aeryn decided to move back to her quarters. She really has no reason to remain here."
"Oh. Gotcha." John said. He wandered up to the workbench. He pulled himself up onto its surface, allowing his legs to dangle off the edge. The pad of his thumb went to his mouth where he chewed at it distractedly.
"How are you feeling, John?"
"Hmm?" He looked up at her, returning from the mire of his thoughts. "Oh. I'm ok."
She placed a soft hand on his. Her eyes were kind blue pools. "John… Aeryn faces a long rehabilitation. Her memories may never fully return. But she is already demonstrating improvement."
"She's gonna be, okay. Right?"
"The Mitzan's stasis environment produced enzymes that attacked certain structures in her neural tissues. I am not entirely certain-"
"No… how is she Zhaan?" John waved off the clinical explanation.
Zhaan looked away, her eyes hidden. "John, I simply do not know."
Aeryn wandered into the vast space of the empty sparring room. Only half the sconces were lit, but she left them that way. The room felt so immense when all the lights were on. Casting a long shadow, the punching target stood lone sentinel over the exercise mat. She approached it and threw an experimental punch it. It was a half-hearted gesture.
For the past two solar days she had wandered Moya's halls, drinking in each detail, touching the walls and feeling the suffocating mutter of the great beast over her skin. She was searching for something nameless and evasive. It tugged at her, keeping her awake in the vaguely familiar bed.
Since the Delvian's medicines had begun helping her, she could recall more and more of her strange past on the Leviathan. The great ship was filled with such memory ghosts for her. They were mostly vivid fragments. Many of the most poignant pieces clung to the air like faded colors.
Aeryn leaned against the target, propping her elbows onto its cushioned top. Her palms rested against her forehead. She wished to feel something, anything: fear, sorrow, anger. But there was nothing. All was bleak, featureless, no matter what memories played at the scrim of her mind.
"Pilot said you were here."
Crichton was a hesitant shadow in the threshold.
"So I am," she said, returning her distant stare to the shadows beyond the mat.
He approached her in creak of leather, his apprehension like a color. Aeryn felt the presence of his hand waver over her shoulder. But he withdrew to circle around her back to face her. He came to rest at the opposite side of the target, leaning on its wobbling frame trusting her weight to counter his against it.
"Moya's big," he said. "But not that big. I haven't seen you in two days."
Her focus sharpened on him. "I know."
His face pinched. Had he expected her to say more?
John Crichton wore his emotions like careless badges. She could nearly see the battle waging in him: a million questions tempered by the fear of the answers he would receive.
"How do you feel?" he asked
Aeryn looked away, content to focus on the room's formless shadows again. "Lost."
"Join the club," he muttered, venturing a small smile.
Her aqua eyes held him in place. "There are empty spaces still in my memory. And there are things I'm finding that I'd rather forget."
It was his turn to look away. "Aeryn-"
She pushed away and turned for the corridor, uncertain for
her destination beyond that. Anywhere but here.
"Wait? Yes. That's all I know how to do lately," she whirled on him, feeling an ugly bitterness suddenly sink into her. "Wait to remember. Wait for… something… anything."
He stepped closer. "Aeryn… let me help you. Please. Don't shut me out."
Cautiously he placed his hands on her shoulders. The
familiarity of the gesture was so simple; something she reluctantly recognized
as a comfort. The corners of her vision blurred with tears. Angrily she swiped
at her face, pushing them away.
"I just want this to end. I want this all to end," she muttered. "I wish I'd have never met him."
She heard him take in a deep wounded breath at the mention of Meggs. Yet he pulled her closer still. "Shhh... baby. It's okay."
"I hurt you. I told you horrible things. And you were only there… there to help me."
"Shhh. It's okay. I understand."
"When I first woke there… as a captive to the Mitzan… you were there… with me. I did not tell you that," she paused, pulling away. "But I had convinced myself that I had imagined you. That you… and Moya and the others did not exist."
His hand moved up to cradle her face. He turned her chin up so that he could meet her eyes.
"It's okay. It's gonna be okay," he hushed. "You're home now."
She granted him the slightest nod, understanding the word for its current worth. Home. Some realm of imagined safety, if at least temporary. It was an idealized place where things were put right. Feigned absolution. Aeryn granted him a sad smile. That was the best he could offer and she gladly accepted the lie for the moment. Each of them fell into their own spheres of silence their thoughts taking awkward shapes.
"John, why did I leave Moya?" She looked at him. "I know why
everyone thought I left. But, there's something else, isn't there?"
"Never mind," she interrupted. "I will remember on my own. I must."