Author: Jess Pallas (feedback: jesspallas@hotmail.com)
Rating: R (violence and gore)
Notes: Spoilers; TWWW, DNAMS, TGAS, IET, CDM
Summary: The crew discover a dead leviathan whose Pilot and crew have been brutally murdered. But who was responsible – and could the same fate be about to befall Moya?
Time Frame: Midway through S2 probably after LATP. I can’t be specific because I’m not sure myself!
Archiving: Please inquire.
Part: | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 |9
 

Part III

“Yoww! Dammit!”    

John Crichton swore loudly, filling the air with curses as he wrung his tingling fingers with his free hand, pausing from his display of profanity only briefly in order to kick an inoffensive bulkhead. A sore toe was added to his list of injuries.  

 “What is this, does nothing on this ship frelling work?” he roared at the golden curves overhead, restraining himself with great effort from kicking the bulkhead a second time. What was going on with Moya today? Already, since his and D’Argo’s unenlightening chat with Zhaan in the command, he had been scalded by the supposedly relaxing shower he had then taken, tripped by an inattentive DRD whilst searching for his clothes and now had received a powerful electric shock from the door control leading to Pilot’s chamber. Already fighting the remnants of rage left behind by the creeping remains of his headache, it was with some difficulty that he calmed himself from this latest disaster in order to reach for his comm.  

“Pilot, I’m outside your chamber and the door lock just tried to fry me. Any chance you could let me in?”  

There was no response. John let out a breathy sigh. Great. Now the comms. This was all he needed.  

“Pilot!” he bellowed again. “Dammit, will you let me in?”  

“There is no need to shout.” Pilot’s voice was a smooth ripple out of empty air.  “I heard you the first time.”  

John crossed his arms, his features creased in a frown as he slumped against the wall.  

“If you can hear me, why haven’t you opened the door yet?”  

“The door lock is malfunctioning,” There was a testy edge to Pilot’s voice, an unfamiliar touch of annoyance that was rather out of character. “It will take a few microts to repair. Please wait and be patient.”  

“Yeah, fine, whatever. Just hurry it up, okay? I’ve had a long day and I want some sleep.”  

“A malfunctioning door is no reason to keep you from your rest.”  

“Yeah, but curiosity is. I’m not going to be able to sleep with that Kaalene business buzzing round my head.”   

Abruptly there was a clunk and a whirring of machinery. The dock lock released with a chitter, the golden door sweeping aside to reveal the cavernous depths of the chamber beyond. John pushed himself upright, wondering as he did so what he had done to deserve a day like this one, and strode onto the walkway.   

And stopped. Dead.   

Staring at Pilot.   

He knew he mustn’t laugh. It was an instinct, based on a desire to survive, and he had a feeling that, judging by the disgruntled expression on the navigator’s face, he would not long be of this world if he so much as cracked a smile at the strange sight laid out before him. Determinedly, John swallowed the rising grin attempting to creep its way across his cheeks and forced himself to calmness. When he finally spoke, his voice was impressively level.  

“What happened?” he asked blandly.   

Pilot fixed him with a suspicious stare. White goop trickled down his vast carapace to drip rhythmically into the already well-formed lakes of syrupy liquid strewn across his panels, overflowing in turn to leak down the sides of his controls like some rampant, creamy volcano. The sticky substance was everywhere, splattered across the console, the walkway and most notably over Moya’s navigator, staining his purple skin with creeping lines of cream. A cluster of DRDs were working feverishly to mop up the mess all under the watchful supervision of the mightily peeved Pilot. His expression was one of great offence, his mouth set hard, his eyes cold under slanted brows, his claws almost seeming clenched as he struggled to maintain his dignity beneath a curtain fall of white.  

“The Amnexus conduit above my console ruptured.” Pilot’s tone carried echoes of an Alaskan winter – his expression was dark. “As you can see, I am very busy trying to clean up the mess. Please state your business quickly.”  

And leave… John sensed the words without hearing them, whispered in an undertone of irritation and annoyance that vibrated in the navigator’s statement. He wasn’t the only one having a bad day.  

“I just wanted to know if you’d made any progress with that recording.” Pilot paused, glancing up from his work as the human tried to smile. “That Kaalene business has put us all on edge and I was hoping that if we could resolve it….” He tailed off. Pilot’s expression was unchanged. His gaze was fixed and vaguely hostile.  

“I have learned nothing further.” The words were snapped out like a machine gun round. “The recording was too badly damaged to reveal any further data.”  

John stared in disbelief. “What?”  

“There was nothing left to be recovered other than what we had already received. I am sorry, commander, but you will have to find your answers elsewhere.” There was a dismissal in Pilot’s tone – abruptly, he turned back to his console. “Was there anything else?”  

“Wow, hold on a second.” John stepped forward, carefully avoiding a puddle of gunk.  

“A couple of arns ago, you told me you could fix it, no problem!”  

Pilot sniffed, not bothering to look up from his all absorbing work. “I was wrong.”  

“You were certain!” John could barely believe his ears. “You said the damage was minimal, that it was in tact and could be recovered. And now you’re saying there’s nothing? Zilch? Squat?”  

“Your grasp of the obvious is astounding, Crichton.” Pilot’s eyes flicked up, his golden gaze streaked with unmistakable darkness. “Now that we’ve established that your device is useless, do you have any other reason to bother me?”  

John stared at the unexpected retort, the harshness of the words, the sudden tetchiness. Boy, that gunk bath must have really pissed him off, he thought to himself. He doesn’t usually shoot back like that.  

Unless…  

Uh-oh.  

“Hey, Pilot,” John tried and failed to hide the anxiety in his voice. Had the strange irritation of Kaalene somehow spread to those on Moya? “I don’t suppose you’ve got a headache, have you? And an irrational urge to lash out?”  

“I don’t get headaches.” The response was immediate and firm. “And my only reason to lash out would be that Moya’s systems are malfunctioning for no apparent reason and you are keeping me from co-ordinating repairs! So if you don’t mind…”  

“Moya’s systems…” John’s ears pricked up. “Something’s up with Moya?”  

Pilot sighed. “That’s what I said, wasn’t it? I believe it may have had something to do with the numbing effect from the ambient radiation of Kaalene’s moon. It has thrown out the balance of the systems overhaul I was performing and now systems are failing faster than my DRDs can fix them! So you see Crichton, I really do not need this irrelevant interruption!”  

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” John leaned forward against the console, peering at the mad flash of the controls beneath the puddles of amnexus fluid. Pilot hesitated, glancing up at the human, his features unreadable. Abruptly, he seemed almost to deflate, his claws hanging limp, his head bowed and his expression tired as he sighed deeply.  

“I thought I could manage without bothering you,” he said, his tone suddenly containing an edge that was almost conciliatory. “You were all so tired after the encounter with Kaalene; I did not like to disturb you. But then everything escalated at once and this happened.” He gestured irritably with one claw at the ruptured conduit. John smiled. “I can see why that might piss you off,” he said with a nod. “Tell you what. I’ll go round up the guys and we’ll see what we can do to help. That way we can…”  

“Pilot! Pilot, I demand that you answer me!”  

Rygel’s strident voice stung through the air like a lightning bolt. Pilot’s head snapped up; his expression darkened immediately. His mouth twisted into a frown as he reached for the comm control.  

“Can I help you with something, your eminence?” There was a whole world of sarcasm underlying those eight simple words. Rygel somehow missed it.  

“Yes you frelling well can! My food tray has spilled all over my quarters and your yotzing DRDs are refusing to clean it up! I insist that you rectify this immediately!”  

“Insist?” There was a dangerous edge to Pilot’s voice. John rested his head softly in his hands. Oh, God, he muttered silently. Sparky, you little moron!  

“Yes, insist!” The Hynerian, far removed from the Den, was oblivious to the danger. “Now!”  

Pilot drew himself up. Rage glittered darkly in his eyes. John rather prudently raised his head and backed out of range of the console and the explosion that was almost certainly imminent. This was not going to be pretty.  

He was right.  

“Well, your eminence,” Pilot’s voice was dripping with venom. “Perhaps if you spent less time on your lazy backside insisting things and more time actually doing something, others would be more inclined to help you! I happen to be extremely busy! No, be quiet!” The sharp admonishment crushed Rygel’s spluttered protests. “Moya is suffering difficulties and she is my concern, not your petty housekeeping problems! You made the mess, you clean it up! If it doesn’t affect Moya, it doesn’t involve me! From now on, you can find someone else to take advantage of! I will not be imposed on for trivialities! Now leave me alone!”  

Abruptly, the navigator severed the link and sat back, glowering in fury as he snapped sharp commands into his controls. John could only stare. He could hardly believe what he had just witnessed. Pilot, the very essence of restraint, going off on one at Rygel over nothing. True, most of those on Moya had wanted to shout at Rygel for one reason or another, but Pilot? Something wasn’t right here. He had snapped before, but only under the most harrowing of personal circumstances. And even with the technical problems and Kaalene taken into consideration, this hardly compared.  

What the frell was wrong with him?  

 “Pilot,” John knew it was dangerous, but he stepped into the firing line anyway. “Chill, man. Cool it. Rygel’s an annoying little slug, but that wasn’t called for.”     

There was a lengthy silence. With a slow menace, Pilot’s head rose, carapace shifting shadows like flitting wraiths fleeing before a gaze of angry steel. There was grim death written large in his every feature.  

“Are you still here?” he drawled, not so latent threats echoing in every measured word.  

John felt the full force of the steely glare and melted beneath its power. It was definitely time to leave.  

“I’ll go get the others and start those repairs!” The tumbling words could not leave his lips fast enough. He tried to turn and stumbled, almost falling as his foot slid in a puddle of goop. Arms waving, balance teetering, he turned and fled from the room and the stare of death that followed his departure. He staggered into the corridor, breathing hard and glanced over his shoulder.   

The door slammed shut behind him.  

# 

Ka D’Argo sighed and pulled a face as he strode imperiously down one of the indistinguishable golden corridors that formed the labyrinth of Moya’s interior. A solar day had passed now since their unpleasant encounter with Kaalene and her dismembered crew, a solar day not spent in rest and recovery but in fevered, concentrated repair work, in a desperate and increasingly futile bid to stay on top of Moya’s ever growing inventory of systems malfunctions. Pilot, it seemed, had long ago abandoned his rather hopeless attempt to handle the spiraling whirlpool of problems himself – instead he had taken to delegating duties to the crew who had accepted these never ending assignments with the weary condemnation of the damned.  

And D’Argo was feeling extremely damned. He had just spent five grueling and infuriatingly frustrating arns trying to trace an apparent malfunction of the comm system, trudging his way from one tier to the next, peering into flawlessly functioning holographic clamshells and at inscrutably perfect bundles of cables in search of an unseen and seemingly nonexistent flaw. Nothing had revealed it’s secrets, despite Pilot’s continued insistence that it was vital he continue and finally, after the latest investigation had yielded nothing, he had thrown up his hands, tossed aside his tool and pounded away in the direction of the centre chamber. Repairs could go to Hezmana. He needed a break.  

He was therefore in no mood for what happened next.  

“Frell!”  

Out of nowhere, he was falling. His suddenly clumsy feet scrabbled to maintain at least a semblance of balance, his flailing arms waving and groping in search of something to save him from an embarrassing tumble to the golden floor. Abruptly his hand caught upon something solid, one of the arching ribs of Moya’s wall and his reeling mind snapped into action as he slapped his other hand against it and hauled himself quickly back upright. He paused, breathless and confused for a microt, leaning, wild eyed against the bulkhead as he sought to regain his composure. What the Hezmana had just happened?  

He turned.  

And growled.  

Because sitting in the centre of the corridor, eyestalks waving and innocent as you like was a single DRD.  

Dark thoughts swelled in D’Argo’s mind like a gale upon the tide. Make a fool out of him would it, the frelling little box of parts? It dared to send him flying down the corridor? Inanimate or not, the Luxan’s angry mind demanded nothing less than total retribution. He was going to make the impudent droid pay for his humiliation!  

With two quick strides he closed on his prey. The DRD almost seemed to sense it’s fate – antennae twitching, it started to retreat. But it was too late now. D’Argo’s powerful foot swung in a dangerous, unstoppable arc – with a mechanical squeal the hapless DRD was flung into the air. It came down with a tumble a goodly way away, bouncing and clattering to a standstill, little tracks whizzing as it rotated helpless on one side. Its eyestalks pulsed dizzily – a yellow panel hung loose from one battered side. Scratching at the floor with its attachments, it struggled to right itself.  

D’Argo felt much better.  

Smiling slightly to himself within his beard, the Luxan turned and started back down the corridor towards his original objective. It was astonishing how a little mindless violence could be so therapeutic. His aggression had drained away in this rapid release and he was starting to feel almost cheerful again. Perhaps he wouldn’t need that break after all….  

The pain was sharp and sudden, a stabbing rush of agony that pierced his lower ankle. D’Argo bellowed, hoping on one leg and slumping against the wall as he clutched at the angry burning hurt in indignant confusion. A single glance revealed the source of his pain – clear blood was leaking in sinuous globs from a small tear in the side of his boot. Something had skewered the tender flesh of his foot.  

He looked down.  

Two twinkling lights shone back. A small metal poniard protruded from the damaged panel, dripping with clear Luxan blood. Something not unakin to a malevolent gleam shimmered beneath the motionless eyestalks.  

With a roar, D’Argo barreled forward, his injured foot sweeping in a furious curve towards the object of his wrath. But the DRD was not to be caught so twice – it rolled easily aside and darted in with a quick jabbing strike, puncturing the skin of the Luxan’s other foot. D’Argo howled with pain and wheeled but the droid had already back-pedalled out of reach, it’s loose panel clattering on the skinsteel floor as it hovered on the edge of the passageway, waiting for a chance to strike again.  

For a microt, D’Argo almost charged again. But the seeping throb of his ankles stayed him just in time as he eyed the malicious little beast with a sudden wariness. Never in his experience aboard Moya had a DRD turned on him of it’s own accord for taking out his temper. Indeed, it should not even have been possible, for Moya’s mechanoids were designed to act only as directed or programmed by Moya, Pilot or one of the crew and he had certainly not instructed them to stab him in the feet.  

Unless…  

“Pilot!!!”  

“Yes, Ka D’Argo.” The navigator’s voice was a sea of calm in the raging ocean of D’Argo’s fury.  

For some reason, the sound of Pilot’s precise voice infuriated the Luxan all the more.  

What is going on down here?” he demanded, eyes tracing the path of the DRD as it slowly began to circle him once more. Instinctively he reached over his shoulder for his Qualta blade before belatedly remembering that he’d left it in his cell. His eyes darted across the corridor in search of a weapon. The only one in sight was gleaming with his blood.  

“I beg your pardon?” There was confusion in Pilot’s tone. “Is there something the matter on your tier?”  

The aggressive DRD made a rapid feint towards the Luxan. D’Argo danced back, his fists clenched furiously, as he lowered himself to a half crouch, ready to grasp the yellow menace the next time it fell within his range.  

“You mean apart from the fact I’m under attack from one of your DRDs?” he snapped down the comm line, eyes never leaving his opponent’s light-stalks. It was hard enough reading intent in an enemy’s eyes. How were you supposed to read intent behind the unblinking bulbs of a machine?  

“A DRD?” Pilot sounded perplexed. “I am not reading any DRDs within your vicinity, D’Argo. Are you certain?”  

Was he certain??? D’Argo felt rage flash-flood its way through his already turbulent mind. What kind of a question was that????  

He was right on the verge of delivering a blistering remonstrance when the angry DRD surged at him, its vicious weapon waving as it darted close in search of flesh. D’Argo leapt back, just avoiding it’s sweeping assault with a well timed leap and grasped the wall behind him in a desperate bid to keep his balance.  

The pain was almost blinding. His skin burned with shooting waves of agony as he clutched it in his fist in disbelief, staring at the red raw sear of fire that had a moment ago been the back of his hand. His head snatched up to the wall at once; his eyes widened in shock.   

Two eyestalks gleamed. The red glow of a laser welder glimmered across the golden walls.   

Another one?  

“D’Argo?” Pilot’s voice was awash with concern. “What’s the matter?”  

“What’s the matter?” D’Argo repeated, his voice a cocktail of confusion and fury. “There are two of them!”  

“My readouts still show nothing.” There was a note of anxiousness in the navigator’s tone. “If there are DRDs in your vicinity, they are no longer under my control.”  

D’Argo gripped his injured hand, his legendary impatience rising. “Then whose control are they under?”  

“I do not know.” There was a thoughtful pause. “No, wait. I did lose some DRDs on that tier earlier today. But Commander Crichton assured me the problem had been solved.”  

“Crichton,” The name hissed out from between D’Argo’s gritted teeth. “When I get my hands on him….”  

 A spark of red fire from the new arrival distracted his attention. D’Argo stumbled back, staggering to keep his balance but jerked quickly away as he felt a sharp pain in his heel. He caught a glimpse of his maniacal first victim wheeling away, fresh blood dripping onto his servos.  

It was definitely time to leave.  

Stumbling on painful feet, his agonized hand gripped within the cradle of his arm, D’Argo abandoned all thoughts of vengeance and hurriedly beat a hasty retreat. He sensed rather than saw their pursuit, eyestalks waving, tracks spinning, weapons sparkling against the gleam of Moya’s interior lights. He increased his speed, staggering desperately towards the bend in the corridor and distant escape, hardly able to believe in his warrior’s mind that he was running from two mobile boxes of wiring and servos.  

He rounded the corner.  

And stopped. Dead.  

Several dozen eyestalks turned on him as one.   

#  

Rygel was disgruntled. It was not an emotion he considered worthy of a Dominar – better perhaps would be “regally distressed” or “discontented” – but he was honest enough deep down inside to admit that disgruntled was probably closest to the mark. After Pilot’s personal and entirely unprovoked verbal assault on the spluttering Hynerian, Rygel had decided to take a stand, refusing point blank to assist in any repair work until the navigator made a full and unconditional apology and cleaned up the spillage in his cell. Pilot’s response – a more restrained but none the less quite emphatic refusal – had been less than he had hoped for and so, despite the angry protests and occasional threats from his overworked shipmates, he had nonetheless set up state in the centre chamber and refused to lift a finger.   

And now he was disgruntled.   

He had expected Pilot’s apology to follow swiftly once he took his stand. But the navigator, showing an unexpected stubborn streak, was having nothing to do with it. On the first occasion that Rygel had plucked up the courage to comm Pilot to see if he was weakening, the navigator had rather bluntly pointed out that he was far too busy to waste time massaging the ego of a being whose ego could already dwarf many small planets and that if he was expecting him to apologize for speaking the truth, then he would be waiting an extremely long time. At that point he had rather brusquely ceased the transmission and Rygel had not heard a word from him since.   

Or at least, not a verbal word. The Hynerian was starting to wonder just what impact the stress of Moya’s difficulties was having on the navigator. He seemed remarkably unlike himself – bad tempered, adversarial and even bluntly insulting at times - a far cry from his usual appearance of polite, precise efficiency, and it was this sudden change that had led Rygel to suspect something that would not even have crossed his mind before.  

Was Pilot out to get him?   

Because after the day he’d just had, he was starting to wonder. He had returned to his cell after an unsatisfactory lunch to find not only the spillage he had originally reported but also a puddle of ruptured amnexus fluid seeping insidiously across his bed and into the crumpled remains of what had been his primary cache of food. Since particular accident had most definitely been Moya’s fault, Rygel had at once complained to Pilot who had informed him, with distant superiority, that his quarters were hardly a priority and that he would get to them in time. Annoyed, Rygel had returned to the centre chamber in search of food only to discover their food dispenser wasn’t working either. After this complaint had been logged, Aeryn had appeared, and told him in no uncertain terms to get out of her way whilst she made repairs. Now angry and very hungry, Rygel had made a tour of his hidden stores of food and had discovered, to his horror, that a good half of his hoards had been spoiled beyond edibility by spillages, damage and DRDs.   

And it was all starting to feel very personal.   

So when Aeryn had reported the food dispenser repaired, he had returned to his favorite haunt and settled down before a plate of food to eat and be disgruntled.  

He was halfway through a particularly bitter food cube, staring with absorbed irritation at his almost empty plate when he heard the whoosh of the chamber door and the soft patter of light footsteps approaching him. He ignored them deliberately, in no mood for company, ripping off another mouthful of food cube with angry determination.  

“Hey Ryge.” The voice was Chiana’s – out of the corner of his eye he saw a lithe gray figure slump onto the stool beside him. He felt a swell of irritation at the intrusion on his sullen reverie.  

“Go away.” The Hynerian’s response was blunt and uninterested. “I’m not going to help until I get a full apology from Pilot so don’t try and talk me round. I’m having too bad a day to be told off by someone with less scruples than a Zenetan Pirate!”  

“Hey!” Chiana protested loudly. “Did I ask for that? And you think you’re having a bad day? Have you taken a look at me?”  

Rygel glanced up in spite of himself. He stared.  

“What the yotz happened?” he exclaimed, eyes sweeping over the dripping form of the Nebari girl. “Did you take a bath in amnexus fluid?”  

Chiana pulled a face, wiping a sticky strand of hair out of her face as liquid tricked down her cheek to drip onto her saturated clothing. “I was working on a conduit when the frelling thing ruptured all over me. Didn’t have time to get out of the way.” The grey thief sighed, resting her pale, glistening face against the equally damp palm of her hand. “And since I wasn’t feeling so good anyhow, I decided to call it quits.” She frowned. “I’ve had a headache all day and now I’m all dizzy. I think I might have to go talk to Zhaan.”  

Rygel was barely listening. A nasty suspicion was growing in his mind.  

“Chiana,” he said thoughtfully. “Have you offended Pilot lately?”  

“Not that I know of.” The Nebari fixed him with her dark eyes. “Why?”  

“Because I think he’s out to get me.” Rygel threw caution to the wind. “Everything that matters to me has been under assault ever since I made the mistake of asking that four-armed prabakto to do me a favor! My food, my quarters, everything! And now you get covered in fluid from a ruptured conduit! What are the chances of that?”  

“At the moment, pretty good.” Chiana smiled wanly. “If you’d have been helping out with the repair work, you’d have known that the amnexus system is shot to frell – conduits are rupturing all over the ship. It was always gonna happen that someone would get gooped and it happened to be me. You know it got Pilot yesterday; which is probably why he’s so frelled off. Its just Moya, Ryge. No one’s out to getcha!”    

The little Hynerian frowned grimly, as he made his way to the food dispenser for a second helping. “I wish I could be so sure.”  

Chiana waved a damp dismissive hand. “Just relax. It’ll blow over.”  

“Hmph!” Rygel muttered indistinctly, reaching forward with one stumpy arm to open the lid on the food dispenser. “I just can’t…..”  

The sudden impact was a rude interruption. Rygel froze, his words dying on his lips, his arm still holding the golden panel aloft, his beady eyes darting back and forth in an anxious search for answers. What the yotz was that?  

Chiana had been gazing disinterestedly at the ceiling but upon noticing her companion’s distraction, she shifted her attention.  

“What’s the matter with you?” she drawled. “You don’t usually stop so close to food.”  

Rygel was still trying to establish exactly what had happened himself.  

“Something hit me,” he declared, his tone a mixture of indignation and perplexity. “Right between the eyes!”  

“Huh?” Chiana frowned, damp grey features crinkling. “What? And why?”  

“I didn’t see.” Rygel glanced over at the Nebari. “And as for…”   

The second blow struck the side of his face. This time Rygel dropped the lid, reeling back on his thronesled as Chiana came to her feet with wide eyes. The Dominar drew himself up furiously, as he rounded on the small brown object that was bouncing to a standstill on the lip of the dispenser and stared again in disbelief.  

It was a food cube.  

He was attacked by a food cube?????  

“What the frell?” Chiana had appeared at his side, dark eyes wide. “I saw that! That cube just flew out of nowhere!”  

“Not out of nowhere,” Rygel corrected, rubbing the sore patch on his face with haughty irritation. “Out of the dispenser!” 

 The Nebari glanced down at the Hynerian. “You don’t think…” Abruptly she turned on the clamshell. “Pilot?”  

The holographic face of Moya’s navigator flickered into life. “Yes, Chiana?”

The girl stared back with an uneasy expression, fingering the tool strapped at her waist with disconcerted concern. “Ummm, Pilot are you detecting any life-forms in here? Apart from us, I mean.”  

Dutifully, Pilot checked his readouts. “I see no one but yourself and Dominar Rygel. Is there a problem?”  

Chiana sighed, her cat-like body twitching nervously. “This is gonna sound kind of strange but… someone’s throwing food cubes at Rygel. From in there.” She gestured at the food dispenser sitting serenely in the centre of the chamber.  

Pilot’s hologram raised an eye ridge. “I find that highly unlikely.”  

“It’s true!” Rygel protested at once. “We both saw it! Someone threw that food cube!”  

Pilot’s tone was wearily patient. “I suggest you take a closer look. It is probably a malfunction in the conveyor system.”  

Rygel and Chiana exchanged a long, pointed glance.  

“You go.” The Nebari jerked her head towards the dispenser, as she slowly slid her tool out of view.  

“I’m not doing it!” Rygel drew himself up on his thronesled. “In case you’ve forgotten, I’m on strike!”  

The Nebari reeled on him. “It’s your problem!”  

“It hasn’t attacked you!”  

“Fine!” Chiana threw up her still-dripping hands in disgust. “Just… Fine!”  

Palming her tool in one hand, the Nebari thief slunk forward, eyeing the food dispenser as though it was a circling beast. Slowly, warily, she inched forward as though she expected it to rear at her at any moment, casting nervous glances over her shoulder in Rygel’s direction. Her dark gloved hand closed cautiously over the release.  

“This ship is creeping me out!” she muttered under her breath.  

Carefully, slowly, she lifted the lid.  

The food cubes attacked in a barrage, a successive, never ending flow of brown chunks that hurled themselves threw the air to slam one after another into the pale skin of the Nebari. Chiana screeched and leaped back, dropping the golden panel in a combination of shock and self-defense; food cubes clattered to the floor all around her, several crushed beneath the tumbling guillotine of the lid as suddenly the blast zone was coated in valuable supplies. Rygel drew back with a gasp, staring at his shipmate, who stood frozen amidst the carnage, her already sticky skin now coated with battered swaths of crumb.  

“You see?!?!” he declared indignantly, his fervent exclamation apparently aimed at both Pilot and Chiana. “I told you so!”  

Chiana turned her head with slow menace. Her eyes glittered darkly.  

Pilot intervened, his voice a wash of indifferent detachment. “The conveyor is malfunctioning; I recommend that you not lift the panel again. I will speak with Officer Sun about it immediately. She informed me that it had been repaired.”  

Abruptly his image was gone, leaving his two shipmates to gaze at each other across the silence. Slowly, almost deliberately, the rather shell-shocked Nebari lowered herself onto a nearby stool, reaching up to peel away a chunk of cube that had secured itself at a bizarre angle on her nose. She lifted it between two pinched fingers, examining it absently with wide jet eyes and then with deliberate precision, she lowered it onto her forefinger and flicked it away.  

“I don’t know about you, Ryge,” she drawled softly. “But I’m not hungry anymore.”   

The whirr of the door made them both start. Chiana darted to her feet, groping belatedly for a weapon before remembering she wasn’t armed; she settled instead for brandishing her tool with rather unimpressive menace. Rygel had already darted his thronesled behind the table, peering out from behind a leg with a worried little frown.  

The door drew back. A gigantic shaped loomed before them, silhouetted by the fluctuating malfunction of the corridor lights, a dishevelled, towering block of muscle trailing tattered streamers of material, its hair a mass of static as it staggered forward at a jerking limp to move into the light.  

It was D’Argo.  

There was a long pause.  

Chiana stared at D’Argo. D’Argo stared at Chiana. Rygel stared at them both.  

Three sets of eyes blinked as one.  

“What the frell happened to you?” The Luxan and the Nebari spoke in tandem, their words blending into each other with unexpected harmony. Both paused at the unexpected unity, their eyes once again running over the figure before them just to reassure themselves they had seen aright. D’Argo was, for want of a more diplomatic term, battered, to say the least, his maroon robe hanging from his body in fluttering rags, his boots a torn pincushion of holes smeared in his own clear blood, his red hair strangely static as it arched out from his body on an almost horizontal plane. His eyes were wild, his features contorted with indignant rage, but a flicker of curious confusion could be detected in their depths as he examined the state of his lover. His expression grew astonished as he took her appearance in, a slender vision coated in sticky cream goop, scattered from head to food with food cube crumbs, appearing almost as some strange delicacy on a distant alien’s table.  

From behind the table, Rygel softly sniggered.  

It was D’Argo who broke the stalemate with a huffy sigh, storming across the chamber to slump down on a stool. He glared from Rygel to Chiana, his expression threatening.  

Don’t ask!” he intoned firmly. “Have either of you seen Crichton?”  

“Not me!” Chiana dropped onto the seat beside him. “Ryge?”  

The Hynerian shook his head as he emerged from behind the table. “Not since yesterday. Why do you ask?”  

D’Argo stared at the ceiling, grim death written upon every feature. “I’ll tell you why!” he declared in a low, menacing growl. “Because I was just assaulted by a herd of DRDs that he was supposed to have fixed! And when I get my hands on him, I’m going to kill him – slowly.” His eyes grew absent, his expression ever so slightly malevolent as he pictured the scene in his mind. Chiana sighed.  

“We know how that feels,” she said dryly. “Rygel and I were just assaulted by the food dispenser!”  

D’Argo snorted. “I suppose Crichton repaired that too.”  

“Nah.” Chiana shook her head. “It was Aeryn. Or so Pilot said.”  

There was a long pause as the atmosphere in the room subtly changed. D’Argo slowly raised his head, turning to stare at Chiana as his eyes darkened perceptibly. His features were a wash of conflicting emotions.  

“Crichton and Aeryn,” he repeated slowly. Chiana gazed at him, mystified by the sudden change of demeanor.  

“Yeah,” she stated. “So?”  

D’Argo fixed his eyes upon her. “Doesn’t it strike you as a coincidence that the two people worst afflicted by that whatever-it-was on Kaalene are suddenly the ones making bad repairs?”  

The Nebari’s eyes widened. “Sabotage?”  

The Luxan shrugged. “Maybe. It would explain a lot.”  

“But why?” Chiana leaned forward intensely. “Aeryn and Crichton are our friends and they’d both sooner die than hurt Moya. Why would they want to do this to her?”  

“Maybe they don’t want to hurt her. Maybe they want to hurt us.” D’Argo grimaced.  

“And for all we know that Wrardi saboteur on the moon could have once proclaimed that he’d sooner die than hurt Kaalene.”  

“You think something may be influencing them?” Rygel glided over, his expression intense.  

D’Argo nodded. “Look at the evidence. An entire leviathan is brought down from within by one of the crew. Whilst investigating, both Crichton and Aeryn experience intense headaches and irrational rages. And now it is their repairs that are causing hurt to us. Think about it; who’s been affected? Both of you, me and Pilot, that’s who. I haven’t heard either of them complaining.”  

“They haven’t got Zhaan,” Chiana pointed out mildly. D’Argo shrugged.  

“Maybe they’re biding their time. That’s not the point. Moya’s real troubles didn’t start until a little after we came back on board; all Pilot had reported before that was a slight doziness. I think something on that planet has got into their heads. They may not even realize what they’re doing.”  

Chiana’s eyes were anxious. “What do we do?”  

“Watch them.” D’Argo glared. “Keep a close eye on them. Make sure they don’t get the chance to sneak off alone and do damage.”  

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Rygel’s tone was dismissive. “We can’t follow them around every hour of every day. If nothing else, they’d get suspicious.”  

We can’t.” D’Argo smiled grimly. “But Pilot can. No one pays much attention to his DRDs.” He paused, glancing down at his tattered clothing with rage glittering in his eyes. “At least, not as much as they should,” he added darkly. “Frelling things.”  

“So we call Pilot.” Chiana reached for her comm. D’Argo’s hand moved like lightning; with a quick swipe, he knocked her hand away. The Nebari stared at him indignantly, wringing her bruised hand.  

“Hey!” she protested. “What was that for?”  

“Not the comms!” D’Argo admonished sharply. “They’ve been affected and I haven’t been able to fix them yet. For all we know, Aeryn and Crichton may be able to listen in. We can’t let them know we suspect them.” He rose, a hulking form of grim intent in rags. “We’ll speak to him in person, together. Come on.”  

“Are you sure we can trust Pilot?” Rygel hovered forward, his expression anxious.  

“He’s been acting strangely too! He shouted at me yesterday, over absolutely nothing!”  

D’Argo waved a dismissive hand. “Of course we can trust Pilot. He didn’t get anywhere near Kaalene and he’d never hurt Moya. He’s just in bad mood because of what’s happening. Now move, your eminence. We may not have much time.”  

With that, the Luxan turned and strode imperiously towards the door, a sticky Chiana trailing in his wake. Rygel hesitated a moment longer, still not overly pleased at the prospect of getting within Pilot’s reach, especially when he was supposed to be protesting. But a sharp bellow from D’Argo stayed if not eradicated his concerns and reluctantly, the Hynerian tapped the control on his thronesled and hurried quickly after.  

# 

Aeryn sighed deeply as she paused for a microt, leaning wearily against the golden curve of the transport pod, her dark head slumping forward as she fought to suppress the last tattered remnants of the persistent headache that had plagued her since leaving Kaalene. Sleep and quietude had done nothing to disperse it and the potion suggested by Zhaan had done little more than dull it down to manageable levels. The Sebacean would have taken more time to rest and give nature a chance but Moya’s slow spiraling breakdown and Pilot’s anxiety for his beloved ship’s well being had spurred her into action in spite of herself. At Pilot’s request, she had spent the day traipsing from tier to tier sealing this, and tinkering with that until her travels had brought her to this deserted hanger to investigate a possible short circuit in the fuelling system for the transport pod. Since an initial visual investigation had turned up all of nothing, the peacekeeper had decided to initiate the fuelling system to fill up the most recently used pod and search for more noticeable flaws as it worked.  

Unfortunately, it was at that moment that her weariness decided to catch up with her. Even as she struggled to clamp the fuel nozzle into place, exhaustion swamped her in a wash; it was all she could do to avoid collapsing to the ground beneath the fuel lines. For a brief, alarming instant, blackness swirled before her eyes, but determinedly she shook it off, forcing her rock heavy arms into action to complete the task that she had been assigned. Now was not the time to succumb to weakness. Pilot and Moya needed her help and she would not let them down.  

But frell! She felt so bad!  

The nozzle was in place. Aeryn blinked – she could barely remember installing it. Shaking her head to clear it, she roused herself and turned, biting back against the sudden surge of head pain that accompanied the motion as she braced herself for the long walk across the chamber to start the procedure. Why did it have to be so frelling far? What kind of stupid system was it anyway, all this striding back and forth just to top up a fuel tank that didn’t desperately need to be topped? This was frelling ridiculous! She could be resting, recovering, sleeping in blissful release from the maelstrom of dizziness, pain and scattered emotion spinning around inside her cranium, battering her conscious and subconscious like a storm-lashed shore in winter gales. Why was she even doing this? She’d examined the system once and had found nothing wrong – why was that not good enough for Pilot? Why was she making herself go through this endurance test to find a flaw that no one but Pilot seemed to be able to see?  

She should stop. She should stop right now, throw down her tool and call it a day on repairs. She’d been running up and down for arns, working with every ounce of consciousness and energy she could spare to help – wasn’t it her turn to get something back? Hadn’t she done enough? Why should she work herself to exhaustion whilst that lazy little runt Rygel sat on his fat backside in high dudgeon, stuffing his face? Where was the justice in that?    

She wanted to kill him!   

A sudden image of the Hynerian filled her sight – in the depths of her minds eye she saw her hand lash out, close like a vicious claw across the self-indulgent smirk and throttle with all it’s might. She saw Rygel shake, saw him squeal for mercy – she saw herself squeeze harder. A slow smile spread across her face as she felt satisfaction fill her as her imaginary fingers dug deep into his throat and slowly ripped the life from him.  

The vision lingered.  

And it felt good.  

Elation swelled within her – her headache seemed to pulse and flow, splitting into a strange circle that raced around the edge of her head like a dancing halo, forced aside by the sheer strength and alarming power of her sudden desire to kill. Ecstasy flooded her senses, her heavy body, a dull weight just a moment before, seemed to leave the ground with wings of fire.  

She had never felt so free.  

She had never felt so alive.  

The pod was gone. Moya was gone. There was nothing, nothing but the feeling, nothing but the want, the rush, the sensation. It was her everything. It was her world.  

And the feeling would be hers forever – if she made it come true.  

It was the tiniest noise, the barest flicker on the edge of her consciousness, but it caught her senses like a blow. The grate. Someone was behind the grate.  

And who else would be crawling in the ship’s vents apart from Rygel?  

She didn’t think. She was no longer capable of it. Her actions were pure, emphatic instinct. Her fingers snapped around the handle of her pulse pistol; a single sweeping motion brought it into place. She pulled back on the trigger.  

Red flame burned the air.  

“Holy shit!” The screech tore through her mind like a wraith on fire. The dam that had subdued her reason faltered, the centrifugal force that had scattered her mind abruptly collapsing to let the dizziness, pain and confusion wash back. Her thoughts tangled and crashed in shadow. What?  

She stopped firing – mindlessly she tucked her weapon away. She was grounded once more, heavy, exhausted, fighting to stay upright through the wash of weary pain. A pair of indignant eyes stared at her from his crouch in the maw of the vent, confused, wary and more than a little shocked. She tried to focus on his shape, his outline – it was familiar.  

John.  

Jesus, Aeryn!” The maintenance bay echoed with the fear and astonishment in his voice. “Why the frell did you just try to fry me?”  

Good question.  

She had opened fire – why? Why had she fired? Rygel. A vague half-distant part of her brain surged briefly before being swallowed whole by the remainder of her mind. She thought he was Rygel. She’d wanted Rygel dead. Why? Aeryn struggled, her eyes fluttering. What had just happened? She’d been thinking about something, doing something. What? The fuel. She’d been about to test fuel when she’d started to black out. She couldn’t remember clearly. She’d seen something moving, seen it as a threat – she’d opened fire. And it had been John.   

Aeryn’s mind seemed to clear – her memory surged back in a rush to mingle with the swath of pain. Yes, that was it. She’d been examining the pod and she’d half-blacked out. Confused and disorientated, she’d heard someone coming through the vent, assumed it was a threat and tried to defend herself. And all it had been was frelling John! What did he think he was doing sneaking around like that? She could have killed him!  

“What the frell do you think you’re doing?” she exclaimed furiously, striding forward to where the shocked human was hauling himself to his feet. “Crawling around in the grates! I thought you were a frelling intruder! Why didn’t you use the door like any sane person would? I could have shot you, you idiot!”  

John rubbed the back of his head as he covered the few steps to the tense, irate outline of the Sebacean. “I was trying to stay in one piece!” he drawled sharply. “Big mistake, obviously. What kind of trigger-happy lunatic are you? You ever think about checking who it is before you try to fricassee me?”  

Aeryn felt a rush of guilt. He was right. She had very nearly snatched his life away from him on a strange, half-forgotten impulse. This was ridiculous. She wasn’t well. The best thing she could do was get this maintenance check over as quickly as she could and find Zhaan. The Delvian would understand better what was the matter with her and could hopefully put a stop to it.  

“I’m sorry,” she apologized, her tone more subdued. “I was tired and you caught me by surprise. But it would never have happened if you had used a more conventional entrance. What were you doing in there?”  

“Me?” Crichton shrugged, his expression wearily annoyed. “Oh nothing, much, just running for my life.” He caught her puzzled look and grinned, although his features were tinged with annoyance. “Don’t suppose you know who’s supposed to have fixed the doors in the passage between here and tier six, do you?”  

Aeryn fought through the mire of her memory and an image reluctantly surfaced. “D’Argo, I think,” she muttered. “At least, I saw him working there earlier today. Why?”  

John pulled a face. “Because I just ran the damn gauntlet to get through those doors alive. I swear they were out to get me. I’d get to a door; it’d slam in my face. I’d press the control switch; it’d short circuit and shock me. Then the door would half open, I’d try to get though and it’d throw me back.  The damn thing was swinging like a demented windshield wiper – in the end, I had to dive and roll to get passed and then I only just made it. And then the next one did exactly the same! All that passage needed was a giant boulder and dead guys coming out of the walls and it would have been straight out of Indiana Jones!” He sighed. “So in the end, I took to the Jeffries Tubes. Figured it would be safer.” He grinned. “More fool me.”  

Aeryn grimaced as she moved passed him to the fuel release. “How many times do you want me to say I’m sorry?”  

He smiled ingratiatingly. “Oh, I could listen to it all day!”  

She glared. “Don’t push it.” The lever released with a clunk – with a low rumble, the fuel system engaged. “I’m not in the mood.”  

She felt his eyes fix upon her in instant concern; irritably she ignored him, examining the pounding mechanism with intense, entirely feigned concentration. His warm hand slid softly onto her cool shoulder – angrily she shrugged out of his grip and started back across the bay towards the pod.  

His voice followed her. “Baby, what’s wrong? You’re white as a sheet.”  

“I still have a headache, that’s all.” For a moment, a brief tantalizing moment, she felt a deep and almost desperate urge to tell him about her strange black out, to share her concerns about her swirling head and get him to take her to Zhaan. But her irritation clamped down on the emotion with swift deftness and the desire was gone. It would pass. She needed rest. It was nobody’s business but hers.  

“You don’t look so good.” Aeryn almost laughed out loud, an emotion that whispered half of disdain and half of hysteria. She didn’t look good? If only he knew what was inside her mind! “Maybe you should rest.”  

“I intend to.” Her tone was harsher than she’d intended – it was a battle not to snap angrily at his statement of the obvious. She fought to control her irrational anger, wondering in the tiny coherent corner that was left of her brain just what the frell was the matter with her. “When I’ve finished this.”  

“I can do that.” He was at her side, a solicitous hand placed against her arms, his eyes filled with sincere concern for her well-being. “Pilot can fill me in. You go.”  

Again she shook him off. “I’m fine. I don’t need your help.”  

“I disagree.” There was an iron within his tone that brooked no opposition. “Give me the tool and get out of here.”  

“No.” Aeryn strode away from him to the open panel beside the slowly vibrating fuel tube. “I started this and I’ll finish it. Now leave me alone.”  

“Dammit, Aeryn!” She could hear the quick staccato of his footsteps looming behind her – ignoring him deliberately, she turned away and bent close to her work, jamming her wrench into the machinery with a force that was more than excessive. Why couldn’t he just frell off? She didn’t need….  

The shock was blinding. Every nerve in her body coursed with fire as she felt the power burst through her – for a microt she caught a glimpse of bright energy shimmering down her wrench and into her arm, her connection to the overload that had earthed violently through her body. She heard Crichton scream her name, heard herself scream in response and then suddenly she was flying, hurled backwards with bruising force as blackness reached dark feelers into her mind. She felt the jolt as she hit the deck, her body numb, her mind inflamed as she shook and shivered in a fit she was unable to control. She caught a glimpse of Crichton racing towards her fallen form, bellowing into his comm for Pilot as he skidded to her side, eyes wide and filled with terror. She tried to open her mouth, to tell him that she was all right, that it wasn’t so bad, but colours swamped her vision, the vanguard of the dark invasion and he faded from her sight. All at once, blackness folded her in its grasp and swept her from his arms.

End Part 3

Part 4

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