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 VI

This wasn’t good. 

Sparkling fairy lights danced like wayward stars in front of the eyes of John Crichton. His throat was screaming raw – no wonder since the unyielding advance of vacuum was all but pulling his lungs up through his throat – and his eyes felt on the verge of exploding with spectacular ocular unpleasantness all over the front of his face. He lay, slumped in an unruly heap against the side of the hanger door, his hands bleeding still from his scraping efforts to escape the encroaching invisible death that sought to consume him. Once before he had survived it, once before he had drifted unprotected in the endless grasp of space but somehow stayed alive. 

But this time, space would have it’s own back. 

His mind was in turmoil. His thoughts tumbled and collided with hollow force – his consciousness was screaming at his body to get up, to keep trying, not to let Psycho Pilot and his neurotic deadly obsession win the battle. But although the will was there the strength was not – his flesh, already damaged and worn from its earlier fight for freedom in low oxygen, had given up, surrendered and fallen helplessly.  He was dying and there was nothing left that he could do to prevent it.  

So this was it for John Crichton, astronaut, master of the universe. He would never find the secret of the wormhole, never again see Earth with it’s bright rivers and dark forests, it’s silver cities and golden sunsets, it’s fast cars, Superbowl, Budweiser and Pizza. He would never see DK, never tell him that their crazy theory had been a success after all. He would never be able to make his father proud of his achievements.   

He would never say goodbye. 

And his friends. Despite Pilot’s vindictive words, John still knew that they were his friends – and now they were all most likely dead. Big D, Blue, Pip, hell even Sparky – he would miss them all, if it were possible to miss them in the dark unknown that lay scant yards away. They didn’t deserve this any more than he did, no matter what Pilot said. Nobody deserved this. And now they were dead and he would never see them again. 

He would never see Aeryn again. 

Black darkness yawned. He felt his eyelids flutter closed over silver speckled eyes. 

He would never see…. 

Aeryn….. 

He could see her, a shadow in his minds eye, waiting. Her hand reached out, a beckoning call, and closed around his arm… 

He braced to release his soul… 

And felt an abrupt jerk as the grip on his arm grasped firm from a ghostly touch, to a distant solid pull. From faraway, he heard voices, distant calls in a different, almost abandoned direction. Words, familiar sounds and inflections cut like fire across his brain as cold, damp fingers struck sharp against his cheek. 

“This is not a good time to sleep, old man!” 

Chiana? 

His eyes flickered. Through a silver haze, he caught a dashing glimpse of a gray and white figure against a backdrop of gold. He could feel the slow drag of solid floor beneath his unresponsive body and the real, tight hold of hands, one, two, three, four…. 

Four? 

“Frell, he’s heavy! Why couldn’t you have got D’Argo to do this?” 

“Because D’Argo is hurt! Now stop complaining and hurry up! Pilot may realize we’ve gone at any microt and we aren’t safe away from Kir!” 

And Zhaan? But surely Zhaan was… and Chiana too for that matter. Was he hallucinating? And what the frell was a kir?  

He had to concentrate, to try and breath. Even as the thought passed through his mind, John realised that the pressure on his lungs was gone – the air felt thick, warm, breathable. His surroundings were tighter, more invasive, no longer the cavernous maintenance bay but the tight crawl (or in his case, drag) of one of Moya’s intricate system of ventilation shafts. The darkness began to recede – he could feel himself struggling back towards consciousness. 

He started to open his eyes… 

“Chiana, look out!” 

“I can’t hold him!” 

“Watch out for his head!” 

Pain ricocheted through Crichton’s skull – all at once the darkness roared victorious. As he faded into unconsciousness once more, a small voice, that of Chiana, followed him down. 

“Oops,” it said. 

# 

“Look, I’m sorry, okay? If he wasn’t so frelling heavy, I’d never have dropped him!” 

The first voice to greet John Crichton as he swam his way back to the land of the living was ironically the very one that had banished him from it in the first place. He could feel a cool, damp cloth sliding gently across his aching brow – his lungs throbbed and his eyes itched incessantly but he seemed to be mostly intact. There was warmth to his surroundings, and lightness gleamed like a beacon against his eyelids. Around him, he could feel movement. His body felt detached from his mind and fairly useless. He groaned. 

“John?” The voice was Zhaan’s, a calm clear calling in the midst of pounding mental turmoil. “John, can you hear me?” 

John spoke the first thought that came to his mind. “Am I dead?” he rasped painfully. “Are you?” 

He sensed the Delvian’s smile. “No, John. You are very much alive. As are we all. ” Her voice shivered slightly as she softly added. “Just.” 

“All?” John fought to open his eyes but the soft film of his eyelids stubbornly refused to budge. “But Pilot… he showed me… D’Argo and the DRDs, Sparky under his thronesled, Chiana drowning! Zhaan, you were choking to death! I saw you guys dying!” 

“Dying isn’t dead.” The low growl was unmistakably D’Argo’s but there was a fragile note to the Luxan’s tone that implied he had suffered badly.  “Pilot should have finished us whilst he had the chance!” 

“I for one am glad he didn’t!” The reply was unmistakable Rygel, but once again there was a quiet, almost haunted note behind the arrogant crow of the little Dominar. “He must have been distracted by cutting chunks out of…” 

“Shhh! Rygel!” But Zhaan’s admonishment came too late – John’s mind had already made the leap to Rygel’s verbal destination. 

“Where’s Aeryn?” he whispered as a hollow void opened within his chest and threatened to suck his heart out whole. Had it been the real Aeryn calling him instead of a hallucination? Oh God….. 

“John…” 

“Zhaan, where is she?” There was a force behind the human’s words that could not be denied. He heard the Delvian sigh as he battled once again with his reluctant eyes. 

“We don’t know,” she replied softly, regretfully. “But we think she is still in Pilot’s chamber – if she is still alive.” 

“Then we have no time to lose.” John pushed his wildly protesting body up onto its elbows as at long, long last he gained control of his eyes. They opened blurrily onto a blaze of brightness and shuffled until focus, unaware for a brief, blissful instant of exactly what they were seeing. “We have to…Holy Shit! 

From extreme reluctance, John’s body powered all at once into overdrive. The human scrabbled backwards as though jet propelled, slamming against the low, narrow wall with surprising force as he scrambled in search of a blow, a weapon, something, anything he could use to defend himself against the glowing apparition that stared at him with an expression rather akin to surprise from over the shoulder of Pa’u Zotah Zhaan. 

“ Zhaan, get the Hell away from there now!” John was in no mood for the ecumenicalism of the Delvian. “That thing tried to kill us and it’s probably what messed with Moya and Pilot!” His eyes whipped sideways searching for support, fixing upon the blood-splattered form of D’Argo. 

“D’Argo, do something!” he exclaimed. “For God sakes, will you nuke the critter?” 

The Luxan regarded him through tired but determined eyes. “That would be fatal,” he commented. “John, calm down, you are being ridiculous. Kir is no threat.” 

John’s adrenalin rush subsided a little – he paused, finally taking a moment to glance around at his companions. D’Argo, slumped against the wall beside him, was a mass of wounded sores inadequately concealed beneath the tattered remnants of his robe. Beyond him, Rygel was a hunched figure, seeming smaller even than usual, his skin and clothes stained a dark purple-black, the odour rising from him more than slightly offensive and creating an invisible exclusion zone which his companions seemed unwilling to cross. At a respectable distance beyond him sat Chiana, a bedraggled mass of loose hair and limbs, coated into strange, sticky patterns by drying amnexus fluid. And in front of John, shadowed by the impressive living lightshow that had so startled the human was Zhaan, a vision in blue, a slight tremble to her fingers and deep down within her eyes the only indications that she too had been subject to torture. All looked worn, battered, saddened and haunted by their various ordeals. But despite the looming presence of the energy being, not one of them looked worried. If anything, they seemed almost glad to have it there. 

John took several deep breaths, risking a glance at the energy being. It was still watching him, or at least it seemed to be from within the two disconcerting black nothings that made up what appeared to be eyes. It was a mass of pulsating energy, held together in a loosely humanoid form by forces that John was in no state to comprehend. How could pure light, pure energy be alive? It made no real sense to John – but then it was no stranger than much else he had encountered in the uncharted territories. After all, two years ago, the idea of a walking plant and a living ship would probably have left him hysterical. 

He tried to relax – not easy when every muscle in his body was taut to breaking point. 

“Okay, Zhaan,” he said softly. “What the Hell’s going on? Who’s Kir?” 

“This is Kir.” The Delvian nodded to the energy being beside her, who acknowledged the gesture with on of his own. “He is a radiavore – a consumer of energy. He came to Moya by occupying the energy space left in Aeryn’s pulse pistol the moment after she discharged it and once here, he saved my life; and by extension, all of you.” 

John blinked. “He what?” 

Zhaan smiled softly. “He saved our lives John. When I was trapped and dying on command, I heard a gentle voice speak in my head. When I opened my eyes, Kir was standing over me. The power of his light gave me the energy to come to my feet and escape into a vent he had opened for me. Once free, he led me to each of you. He helped me breach the vent to drain Chiana’s prison and his bursts of light blinded the DRDs that threatened Rygel and D’Argo. And then he protected them whilst Chiana and I rescued you.” The Delvian paused, a regret flitting past her eyes. “But we could not get to Aeryn.” 

The energy being – Kir – cocked his head and leaned closer. Abruptly a wash of pain surged across John’s forehead – even as he winced, he caught flickers of discomfort passing over the faces of Chiana, Rygel and D’Argo as well. But Zhaan simply nodded.  

“I know that, Kir,” she said. “We do not hold you to blame. It was too much to expect.” 

John pulled himself into the closest approximation he could achieve to an upright position. 

“Hold it, Blue,” he exclaimed. “Did he just say something?” 

Zhaan smiled. “Yes, he did.” 

“Then how come you heard words but I got head pain?” 

“Because your mind is not designed to receive words made of light.” Zhaan smiled softly. “To animal-based life-forms, Kir’s speech is no more than a short, intense burst of harmless but uncomfortable radiation. But to a plant-based species, who also happens to have some psychic ability…” The Delvian smiled. “I understand him perfectly.” 

“Okay,” John sighed as the pulse in his head subsided. “In that case, maybe you could ask him why he’s being do damn helpful now when a couple of days ago, he attacked us in Kaalene’s corridor?” 

Zhaan tilted her head. “He didn’t attack you John. He was trying to talk to you. He’d been shadowing you for a while through the ventilation system, testing each of you in turn to see if you were compatible with his mode of communication. When he was unable to reach any of you, he decided to come into the open and try visual communication instead. He gave you plenty of warning of his presence so he would not startle you and attempted to reach you by changing his energy flux and extending his hands. Unfortunately you interpreted his gesture as hostile and attacked.” She sighed. “Luckily he was quick thinking enough to stow away in Aeryn’s pistol in the hope that, on reaching our ship, someone there could be made to understand before it was too late.” She smiled. “Fortunately for us all, he found me just in time.” 

John was watching Kir through narrowed eyes. The disturbing oblivion stared right back. The human blinked first and turned back to Zhaan. 

“Does he know what’s causing all this?” he asked, as he rubbed a weary hand across his forehead. 

Zhaan nodded. “Tentrite.” 

John stared. “Ten-what? Who the frell’s that? Another one of those radio-guys?” 

“No John,” Zhaan was displaying formidable patience. “Tentrite is the name of the glowing rocks that D’Argo found aboard Kaalene. According to Kir, it is a type of crystalline stone with a natural radiating energy that is found exclusively in this region. It is used as a power source by beings throughout this quadrant. It is quite rare and extremely valuable – a powerful draw for miners. Discovering a seam of tentrite as rich and pure as the one found on Dar’scay - lat would have guaranteed a life of luxury for Captain Brax and his crew.” She sighed. “If only they had been able to complete the operation before their Pilot turned on them.” 

John nodded at Kir, continuing to address his questions to Zhaan despite the radiavore’s presence. For some reason, the thought of addressing those abyss-like eyes made him deeply uncomfortable. “How does he know all this?” 

Zhaan too had noticed the human’s aversion but she chose not to comment on it. “Kir had been living aboard Kaalene in secret for almost a quarter cycle prior to his death, listening to the crew and getting to know them. He knew more about most of them than their shipmates.” 

Chiana chipped in, wiping a solid lock of hair out of her face. “Why was he there? And why in secret?” 

“Kir’s tribe of radiavores lived exclusively on the tentrite of Dar’scay-lat,” Zhaan explained, after a brief consultation that made the heads of her companions burn. “When the Wrardi came and mined the seam, their food became more and more scarce. Finally, he and his family had no choice but to stow away in the mining tools and sneak aboard the ship before they starved to death. But even on a ship of Kaalene’s size, the arrival of almost twenty glowing radiavores consuming their livelihood could not go unnoticed forever, even though their presence was shielded from detection by ambient radiation. The miners began to notice that whole cases of raw tentrite were loosing potency overnight, making it useless for sale and cutting into their profits. Eventually, Kir’s kind were exposed as the culprits.” 

“The dull rocks we found,” D’Argo intervened.  “Those were ones Kir’s people had consumed?” 

Zhaan nodded. “Very good, D’Argo. The miners were furious. They turned on the radiavores and killed or captured them wherever they could. Finally, Kir was last to remain undiscovered.” 

John was watching the energy being carefully. “Didn’t that make him angry? The fact that they killed his people, I mean.” 

“They were just protecting their families, John, just as he had been.” Zhaan glanced at Kir, who almost seemed to give a sparkling shrug. “Remember he had been watching them, got to know them. He knew there was no malice behind it. Many of his kind tried to speak with them, but to no avail. He knows that if they had just been able to communicate, they would have been able to compromise. The Wrardi miners were reasonable men fighting to escape a life of drudgery for their families and themselves. Whole towns would have been fed for life by the profit from this seam.” Her expression wavered slightly. “Besides,” she added softly. “The miners had been in close proximity to the tentrite for a long time. It was having a distinct effect on them even prior to the events that led to Kaalene’s Pilot turning. They would not have been so ruthless to his people had their minds not already been influenced to a degree by the telepathic effect of the radiation.” 

John was instantly electrified, his attention snatched, focused and held by the meaning beneath Zhaan’s words. His discomfort was instantly forgotten – half-risen as far as the overhanging gold of the low vent’s ceiling would allow, he turned on Kir at once. 

“Telepathic radiation?” he exclaimed, his heart filled with a sudden hope. Was that the answer? If there was a reason, maybe, just maybe, there was a cure! “Is that what’s behind all this? Is that what’s made Pilot go psycho?” 

Zhaan glanced at the radiavore. John winced as the Delvian listened to his answer, her eyes flickering slightly as she took in his thoughts. After what seemed an eternity of throbbing temples, the Delvian nodded and turned back to her companions. 

“Tentrite has been a way of life in these parts for many thousands of cycles.” The words came softly, slowly. “It is a stable, long-lasting fuel that emits disproportionate amounts of energy and the inhabitants of this region rely on it to power their cities and their ships. Wars have been fought for centuries over a single seam. They rely upon it to survive. It is the cog by which their civilisations turn. It is their lifeblood.” 

She sighed deeply. “But it has its price and like most, this price was only discovered when it was too late. Tentrite is a stimulant. A short exposure in its raw form is harmless – it causes mild headaches, some irritability perhaps. But a more long term exposure – such as the six cycles that these miners have spent working on this seam – can ingrain these into the psyche, causing a mild disagreement to flare into a blazing row, a gentle push into a violent conflict. To mitigate this effect in both miners and those using the energy, the tentrite is harnessed into special protective spheres, which link together to create an energy lattice. This procedure was performed on site, to protect those who carried the spheres for sale. Once enclosed, the tentrite is safe to use and completely harmless; it is only raw tentrite that is dangerous - or at least so they thought.” 

Zhaan glanced at Kir; the energy being nodded and the priestess moved on. “The miners knew all about this effect and did their best to control it, to avoid fighting with each other – they even took inoculations of sedatives, not that they had much effect other than as a placebo. When aggression did manifest itself, they mostly took it out on Kir’s people and in their mining operation. They took regular breaks away from the seam, ferrying their wares back to Wrardian for sale. And this time, Brax had even taken an added precaution. He had hired a leviathan and her Pilot instead using a mining barge, so as to have a constant, steady, reliable hand at the wheel if any of the crew should be too heavily influenced. It was well know amongst the mining community that, apart from some doziness on the part of the ship, leviathans and Pilots were impervious to the influence of tentrite.” 

What?” John’s incredulous voice broke into Zhaan’s gentle narrative. “Impervious? Does Pilot seem impervious to you? Hell, it would be hard to get more pervious than he is right now!” 

Zhaan raised a tolerant hand. “I’m getting to that, John. Let me finish.” 

The human sighed and shrugged, settling back into a more relaxed posture.  

“Shoot,” he gestured with improbable nonchalance. 

With a small smile, the Delvian continued. “That was the belief,” she told them. “Kir says that the crew trusted their Pilot implicitly. He was their safeguard, their voice of sanity. They relied on him completely. But then it all went wrong. There was turbulent storm that swept through the region – Kaalene was knocked off his orbit and forced to take shelter. Much of the mining equipment was damaged and the sphere lattice that they used to power their mining tools was knocked out of alignment and twisted beyond repair. Brax was concerned the turbulence might have damaged the spheres in storage; he insisted that new ones be forged as quickly as possible on the only piece of machinery still in working order – their sphere forger. Unfortunately their engineer did not take the time to check the machine for damage first.” 

Zhaan paused, gazing silently at the golden curves overhead, her mind clearly pondering the unintentional foolishness of beings now dead. “The spheres they forged were faulty – their harmonics were out of alignment with the frequency of the tentrite radiation. But they were in too much of a hurry to even test them – the spheres were simply latticed and activated.” She shook her head. “They never knew what they had done. Only Kir knew – he could feel the wrongness in the air the moment the lattice was woven – but he had no way to tell them. Because his species is tentrite based, his attempts to communicate had much the same effect on the miners as the radiation – causing a sharp headache and irrational anger. It was hardly a fit state in which to be receptive or patient with a being that threatened your livelihood. After several narrow escapes, Kir was forced to give in and hide himself away.” 

Behind the Delvian, Kir’s dark eyes were fixed upon the ground. A strange kind of sadness seemed to ripple from him, dancing around the crew of Moya like a softly flowing breeze. The air tasted of sorrow and of deep regret. 

“The Pilot changed almost at once,” Zhaan’s eyes were fixed on Kir – they seemed to reach out in comfort but proved ineffective in the end. “He became short with the Wrardi, brusque and bad tempered, snapping out orders instead of making requests. He began to find fault with everything the crew attempted – their repairs were ineffectual, the damage to Kaalene all their fault. Finally, Brax’s engineer went to talk to him – the two had always got along well. No one knows what passed between them, but the engineer was never seen again – Kir has found what he believes are his remains at the foot of the Pilot’s chamber. That was when the Pilot began to hunt down the crew.” 

“Sounds familiar.” John laid his head back against the bulkhead with a sigh. “But what caused it?” 

“The spheres.” There was a tremulous note to Chiana’s voice, a kind of sick, disbelieving concern that John wasn’t quite able to place. Her expression was wide-eyed and there was the barest hint of guilt tingeing the edges of her features. Oddly enough, Rygel had adopted a very similar look. “It was those farbot spheres, wasn’t it?” 

Zhaan smiled. “Very good Chiana. Because of the fault in the forging of the spheres, the protective casing was not having the effect it was supposed to. Instead of holding in the damaging radiation, it amplified on a sharper wavelength. It caused irritation amongst the crew, but the general bad feeling surrounding the effects of the storm masked the impact. Its effect on the Pilot was more devastating.” 

But John was shaking his head. “But why just him? Why was he so badly affected when he never had been before?” 

“Pilots have excellent self control, John” Zhaan replied. “They were not immune to the effect of the radiation as the Wrardi believed – their multi-tasking abilities simply allowed them to isolate the bad feelings and put them to one side. But this new radiation was different, stronger, more invasive and tuned to a frequency that vibrated against the skin of the leviathan and funnelled its impact towards the centre of the ship – the Pilot’s chamber. The Pilot could no longer escape it.” 

Zhaan saw the question forming on the human’s lips before it spun into being and forestalled it with a raise of her hand. “Imagine your thoughts, John,” she whispered softly, her eyes an azure gleam against the shining glow of Kir. “You thoughts as they were on Kaalene. Think of your anger, you irritability, your irrational desire to lash out. Then imagine you can hold a thousand thoughts at once and that what you have felt is multiplied a thousand fold. And then imagine the size of your rage; and what it would cause you to do to those around you. Then you would be Pilot as he is now.”  

Zhaan took a deep breath. “It is bad enough for a normal being, one who has only to cope with the rage within one line of thought. Pilot’s mind can hold a thousand thoughts at once, amplifying the effect from simple irritation to downright psychosis. The very skill in multitasking that protected his kind until now has turned him instead to violence. And the same frequency of radiation acts as a sedative to leviathans – Moya has been lulled into drowsy non-awareness just as Kaalene was, leaving Pilot with free reign to act in whatever way he sees fit. And with his mind in the state it must be in now, is it any wonder he is trying to kill us?”

There was a long, heavy silence. Looks were exchanged, quick, furtive glances between Chiana and Rygel and long, slow queries between John, Zhaan and D’Argo. 

It was John who said what at least three of those present had been thinking. 

“This is all very interesting,” he said softly. “But also kinda pointless. It can’t be those spheres affecting Pilot; we’re well out of range of Kaalene and Moya doesn’t have any on board! There is no way that that the disco spheres could be doing this now unless his mind’s been screwed over so badly that there’s no going back!” 

Zhaan glanced over her shoulder at Kir. As John braced himself against his throbbing skull, he saw her eyes suddenly widen and flicker with shock.  

“John, Kir says you are mistaken.” There was hushed horror in the Delvian’s voice. “We do have spheres aboard – a crate full from the faulty batch. They are responsible for Pilot’s deterioration.” 

John pushed himself to vertical with a frown. “But how the Hell is that…” 

His voice trailed off as a distant, half forgotten memory surged into his consciousness. Aeryn, lying half stunned and disgruntled after her accident in the maintenance bay, a throwaway remark that had created a suspicion he had later discarded without considering it’s implications…. “Frelling Chiana… She was unloading something from the pod – Rygel’s she claimed – but I think she may have salvaged something from Kaalene…”     

Slowly, darkly, and with an expression that shimmered with flashes of a death even grimmer than Pilot could devise, John turned his gaze onto the nervous forms of the sticky Nebari and the stinking Hynerian. 

Chiana broke first. “Don’t look at me!” she exclaimed, her dark eyes wide in her monochrome face. “It was all Rygel’s idea! I didn’t even want to get involved!”

“You lying little trelk!” Rygel drew himself up to the most impressive height he could attain. “You said if I didn’t cut you half the profits, you’d go into business by yourself!” 

“I was trying to scare you! It was your plan, you and your frelling spheres! Make our fortune, you said! You never said nothing about risking our lives!” 

“How was I supposed to…” 

“Shut up!” 

John’s abrupt exclamation brought instant silence. The human’s expression rivaled even D’Argo’s for sheer deathliness, the cold eyes, the solid line of his mouth, the way every feature twanged with implications of a much reduced life expectancy if not obeyed to the letter. 

A half smile flickered around his mouth. There was no humour in it.

“I don’t care whose idea it was,” he drawled slowly, dragging each word across his tongue as though racking it. “I only care that it’s happened. I am not having a good day. I’ve been insulted, watched my friends being tortured, nearly suffocated and dropped on my head. A trusted friend has turned psychotic and he has Aeryn in his grasp. And now I find I owe this to the pair of you.”  

His gaze locked on the two. Both shrunk back instinctively. Pilot may have been the great danger lurking beyond, but here and now, John in an icy temper was a far greater risk. “I just want this clearly understood. I am not going to let Pilot kill you two. I’m not going to even let him get close. You know why?”  

Both shook their heads. John leaned forward with a flash of white teeth. “Because you two are mine. And when this is all over, I am going to be the one to kill you both. Horribly. But for now, we have more pressing matters to deal with.” 

Abruptly, he turned to Kir. “So what happened?” he asked sharply. 

The radiavore held another brief conference with Zhaan. The Delvian nodded and turned to the others. “Kir saw Chiana and Rygel bring the crate aboard from the transport pod. He recognised at once that it was from the faulty batch and tried to warn them. He thought he was almost getting through to Chiana but she didn’t grasp his words, only the gist of his emotions – and she didn’t recognise the warning to act on it. She and Rygel argued and left the spheres unattended in an ion backwash chamber. When Chiana hurled down the key, it activated – the spheres formed a lattice and began to vibrate.” 

D’Argo glanced at the energy being suspiciously. “Why didn’t he switch it off?” Zhaan sighed. “This particular wavelength of radiation is hazardous to his species. When he tried to get close, it disrupted his energy matrix and almost knocked him unconscious. He managed to struggle to a distant corner of the ship but he collapsed. By the time he regained full consciousness, it was too late; Pilot had turned. So he came in search of the last crewmember he had been unable to test – me.” 

“Can we go near them safely?” John inquired at once, addressing the energy being directly. His earlier discomfort had been forgotten in favour of getting down to business. Kir regarded the human briefly and nodded. John shrugged. “So that’s it. We get down to the backwash chamber and…” 

A burst of head pain interrupted him. “No, John,” Zhaan exclaimed. “We cannot just deactivate the spheres. That would be extremely dangerous to us all.” 

John frowned. “But he just…” 

Zhaan raised her hand. “We can go near them, yes. But tentrite radiation, especially this wavelength, is addictive. To simply deactivate the spheres would most like send all of our brains into spasm – or possibly cause them to shut down altogether. And Pilot and Moya would be killed instantly.” 

D’Argo leaned forward. “Then what can we do?” 

“We power the spheres down slowly, over several days. Give our minds time to wean themselves off the radiation. It’s the only way.” 

But John was shaking his head. “Would I be right in thinking that for these several days, Pilot would still be psycho?” 

“Until the shutdown is complete, yes.” 

“Then we don’t have time.” John scrambled to his knees. “We’d have to hide from him the whole time – I’m amazed he hasn’t found us already. And Aeryn is in immediate danger.” 

John shook his head against the shiver of discomfort that touched his mind. “What did he say?” he asked Zhaan at once, eyes shifting to her face. They froze at once. The Delvian’s expression was a mask of sudden horror. 

“That can’t be…” she whispered. 

John didn’t like the emotion in the Delvian’s eyes. “What?” he exclaimed. “Zhaan, what can’t be? What the frell is going on?” 

The priestess turned to the human. Her eyes were haunted. 

“John,” the words were a soft touch against the air. “According to Kir…..” She paused and took a breath. “According to Kir, Aeryn is in danger from more than just Pilot. For reasons he does not understand, her mind is also susceptible to the tentrite.” 

John pulled a face. “Susceptible? What does he mean by susceptible?” 

Zhaan sighed. “Susceptible like Pilot’s. He sensed it happening earlier today – when she shot at you in the cargo bay. That power surge in the pod was not Pilot’s doing; it was Kir. He was trying to break the cycle growing in her mind before it got the better of her and he succeeded – briefly. But now he fears she may be in danger again, especially whilst trapped in such a resonant centre of vibrations as Pilot’s chamber.” 

John was staring at the Delvian. There was fear within his eyes. 

“Zhaan, what cycle?” he said softly. “What are you talking about?” 

The priestess returned his frightened gaze. “Aeryn has begun to turn, John,” she whispered. “And her mind is too fragile to take it. If we do not hurry, she will become as psychotic as Pilot. And then she will die.” 

# 

“Are we sure about this plan?” 

John sighed deeply, a long drawn out release of breath that portrayed his general weariness with the world with such distinctive feeling. 

“Pip.” He expelled the word like a gunshot. “We’ve been through this three times.” 

Chiana shuffled her position, wrapping her hands around her elbows as she glared at him from beneath a spiky halo of solidifying hair. “No, you went through it – you and D’Argo and Zhaan and even shining boy! Me and Ryge – we didn’t get a word in! We didn’t even get a say!” 

“Right now, you don’t deserve a say. So shut up!” John was in no mood to humour the Nebari. He had bigger things to worry about – his survival for one, and Aeryn’s for another. 

“Oh yeah, like you’ve never made a mistake! Like you’ve never frelled up!” Chiana pouted angrily. “This isn’t fair! I’m being dragged into a plan that… that I’m not even sure about, a plan I could get killed in and all you can do is…” 

“Okay, okay!” Rolling his eyes, John turned to her. It was hard to miss her as they crouched alone together in the constrictive expanse of golden ribbed shaft, gazing uncertainly through the latticed grate as the quiet, empty echo of one of Moya’s corridors. “Just keep your frelling voice down! You know we’re exposed here without Kir’s aura! All it takes it one DRD with good hearing…” 

Chiana drew herself up emphatically and stabbed the air with one gloved finger. “See, that’s one of the things I don’t get! What the frell is that aura thing that Zhaan was going on about anyway?” 

John could feel the slow incursion on a migraine against his skull – and this time it wasn’t caused by Kir’s desire for a conversation. “Oh, for God’s sake…” he muttered. “Weren’t you listening when Zhaan explained? Kir is made of tentrite energy – the same energy that is saturating the ship and making Pilot nuts. So when Pilot scans the ship, Kir is invisible – just a part of the background noise. That’s why Pilot’s scans of Kaalene didn’t pick him up and why he never detected him on Moya. And he has an aura – a kind of halo of loose energy around him that cloaks anything within a couple of yards. So as long as we stay close to Kir and avoid visual contact with DRDs, Pilot can’t detect us either.” 

“So we’re safe when we’re near him?” 

“Yes.” 

Chiana’s expression flared. “Then why the frell aren’t we near him now?” 

John returned her gaze with icy impatience. “Because right now, D’Argo needs him more. Besides, we wouldn’t make much of a distraction if Pilot couldn’t see us.” 

The Nebari only just remembered to keep her voice down. “Oh, yeah – the distraction. Now, that bit I followed!” she exclaimed. “And, you see, the running out and get shot at part – that’s the part I have a problem with! Why the frell do we have to risk our necks whilst D’Argo does the snurch? I’m the frelling snurcher on this ship!” 

“Yeah, but can you survive a vacuum long enough to cross an airless maintenance bay, get to Zhaan’s apothecary and steal her very specific list of ingredients?” John was getting tired of this. “I don’t think so! This is not a difficult plan, Pip! You and me play hey-look-at-me! for the DRDs and keep Pilot busy trying to kill us. D’Argo, protected by Kir, sneaks into the airless maintenance bay, takes the relevant ingredients and meets Zhaan back at the vent junction. Then Blue will brew us up a nice little sleeping potion that Rygel will take down into the lower vent and inject into Pilot’s tendrils. Then Pilot zonks out, we rescue Aeryn and wean him and ourselves off the spheres over however many days it takes without him trying to kill us! Then Kir takes the spheres and goes back to Kaalene and we get the Hell out of here. We don’t blow up Pilot, we don’t shut down Moya, and absolutely nobody is dead! It is a perfect plan! So sit down, shut up and wait!” 

During the course of John’s outburst, the Nebari had slowly leaned back, moving softly away from the heavily gesticulating human. “Wait for what?” she ventured warily. 

John’s ears pricked at a sudden, distant whirring. “That,” he whispered. Quickly, quietly he grasped Chiana’s arm with one hand and abruptly yanked back the grate with the other. “Come on,” he breathed, unfolding his cramped body from its restricted crouch as he dropped into the corridor, hauling the unwilling form of his gray companion behind him. The soft whirring noise grew slowly louder as they stood poised, exposed, in the curve of Moya’s passageway. 

Chiana thrust her face into Crichton’s line of site. “That is a DRD!” she hissed. 

“Yep.” John nodded, attempting to peer past his intrusive companion but she was not to be ignored. 

“It’ll see us!” she exclaimed, her fingers grasping at John’s arm as she sought, with little success to drag him back towards the safety of the vent. 

“That’s the idea.” With a twist of his arm, John pulled himself free of the Nebari and flicked his eyes towards a second grate, set high above his head. A small green face peered down at them, waiting for the alert, the signal, the sign that it was time to begin. With a flicker of a smile, John made a brief gesture with one hand. Rygel nodded once and vanished into darkness.  

There was no going back now. 

And the whirring was getting louder. The DRD could be only microts away. 

John caught Chiana’s arm. “Brace yourself Pip,” he murmured. “And try to stick with me.” He smiled softly. It was ridiculous. He was about to risk his life, possibly sacrifice it altogether, but all he could think about was how good it felt to be fighting back.  

Two light-bulb eyes stared straight at him. 

“Let the games begin,” he declared. 

The flash of red fire missed his ear by scant inches. Ignoring Chiana’s screech, he grasped her arm even harder and hauled her along behind him as the air around them lit up in a firework display to rival any Fourth of July. He could hear nothing but the scream of weapons fire and his own harsh breath, punctuated by the pounding staccato of a heartbeat that echoed through every sinew of his body. Chiana’s arm was warm, fleshy dampness in his hand, her face, visible as he dragged her alongside him, a pattern of grey strobed by the harsh red light of the airborne death around them. She looked furious, terrified, determined and peeved all at once, her expression a cocktail of emotion as she ran, just as he did, for her life. 

Judging by the sudden thickening of weapons fire in the air, several more DRDs had joined the fray, but John did not dare glance back to find out their numbers. Ahead the corridor branched out in two separate directions, and from the first rode a yellow wave of death – the only time John could recall seeing more DRDs in one place was when he had been ambushed at the start of Moya’s pregnancy. Inexplicably though, the second way was clear – veering off, he dragged Chiana in a new direction. 

“This way!” he roared, his voice all but inaudible. 

“No dren!” was the snapped response. “And I can run by myself!” 

With an abrupt twist, his grip on the Nebari was gone and she ran freely at his side, her dark eyes gleaming. Despite himself, John did not bother to re-establish his hold – it was much easier for them both to run without it and he would only have to hope that they would not be separated now. 

Gold flashed by on either side – John lost all track of his bearings as one golden corridor merged into another, each blurred and indistinct, made one by the constant invasions of deadly red and the endless beating of his intrusive heart. The original DRDs dropped back a little, left behind by a frantic pace born of sheer adrenalin but there were plenty more to take their place, rumbling out of this or that ubiquitous passage or grate, with eyestalks waving and murder in their gun barrels. At one point, Chiana clutched her arm with a cry, staggering and tumbling towards a fall, but John steadied her quickly and hurried her on, trying to ignore the seep of blue blood trickling down the Nebari’s shoulder. 

They knew not where they ran. Corridors, vents up and down, tier to tier, side by side, through ion chambers, quarters, cargo bays and storage holds they ran, their motions mechanical, their bodies exhausted, powered by nothing more than desperation and the inability to stop after running so long. 

And the DRDs kept coming. 

By now John knew. There was only one way this was going to end. He began to wish he had not involved Chiana at all, that he had left the Nebari girl behind to live at least a little longer. She was faltering now, her steps a stagger, her breath a rasp, her face pale and weakened through loss of blood. She could not continue much longer and John knew that neither could he. He found it hard to believe that at the beginning of this chase, he’d been sure he would survive. He only hoped that he had bought enough time for the others for finish this once and for all. 

“Are you having fun?” he roared at the ceiling, his voice jerky between gasps of breath. “Are you enjoying hunting us from tier to tier, you bastard?” 

Abruptly, he stopped. His legs, still caught up in the unending rhythm of the run almost tumbled over themselves at the sudden cease in motion. Beside him, Chiana had slumped against a wall, her breathing shallow as she clutched her bleeding shoulder. All around them, above, below, ahead, behind, black eyestalks gleamed with evil yellow light. Gun barrels stared like maws. 

They were surrounded. 

 “I was.” The voice of Moya’s navigator echoed against the golden walls like a wrath. “But then I released just what your incredible stupidity was in aid of. I’m not a fool, Crichton. I know a distraction when I see one.” 

A succession of unpleasant words hovered on John’s lips. With a gulp, he forced them back, concentrating instead on edging next to the fading Chiana, and trying not to think about what would become of them if Pilot knew it all. 

“Nothing to say?” Pilot’s words were soft, deadly. There was no nasty playfulness now – the navigator was all business. “No denial? No words of defiance? You disappoint me, Crichton. You could have at least thrown yourself a little more into your role, instead of plodding mindlessly from tier to tier for a quarter arn, trailing the Nebari behind you. If I’d have known you were going to be so dull, I’d have finished you sooner.” 

 John met Chiana’s tired, dark eyes. He saw the fear that played within them and fought down a rush of guilt and anger. But he forced his lips together. He would not play Pilot’s game. He would not dance to order like a puppet on a string. If the navigator wanted amusement he could go elsewhere. John Crichton was done with being manipulated. 

“Fine.” The dismissal echoed from the empty air. “Be like that. Now this – this goes out to you all, to you, the trelk, the priestess, the warrior and the Dominar. I know what you’ve done. I saw Ka D’Argo in the maintenance bay, raiding the apothecary. I don’t know what trick you pulled to blind my DRDS afterwards but it doesn’t matter. You will not get away with this. I will find whatever hiding place you have – you can’t run from me and hide away forever. And I’ll be taking very special care. My tendrils will be guarded relentlessly. If I so much as catch a sniff of one of you in the vicinity of any part of me, Officer Sun will die a very painful death. And I’m sure you would not be so foolish as to doubt my sincerity.” 

Abruptly John found his voice. There was one question he’d gladly risk death to answer – just to know once and for all. “I don’t doubt you’d kill her,” he rasped, his voice still gritty beneath the heavy demands of his lungs. “But how do we know you haven’t killed her already?” 

“John.” 

John felt his heart, already pulsing like wildfire, skip into overdrive at the sound of his name, of the voice he had so longed to hear. 

“Aeryn,” he whispered back. 

“John, I’m alive.” Her voice rasped almost as much as his did – she sounded exhausted, battered, worn. But she also sounded real and fairly sane and to John, in that instant, that was all that mattered.  “But I don’t know how much longer that will last. Please, John. Just do as Pilot says.” 

“Aeryn, are you all right? What has he done to you?” John forced his exhausted body upright as he stared in the unseen direction of her voice. “Aeryn!” 

“Enough of the touching reunion.” Pilot’s dry drawl intruded heartlessly. “To be honest, it hardly matters anyway. You are never going to see her again.” 

John felt anger rise in his throat. “But you just said… what the frell good is a hostage if you kill her before you need to?” 

John could sense Pilot’s slow, cold smile. “You misunderstand. I’m not going to kill her. I’m going to kill you. Now.” 

A hundred gun barrels snapped into position as one. All were trained with unerring determination on the worn forms of Crichton and Chiana. 

“Goodbye, Crichton.” Pilot’s voice was ringed with icy fatality. “And this time, I mean it.” 

The DRDs whirred forward. John felt his stomach drop as he exchanged a last, long glance with Chiana, her dark eyes bright in her pale face, searching for some brief, desperate sign that she might be ready for one last kick. But one gaze told him the Nebari was spent – she could run no further, not even one last heroic dash into the jaws of death itself. Instead she simply flashed a weary smile, and buried her face into her shoulder behind closed eyes. 

“Sorry,” she whispered. 

“Me too,” he whispered back. 

The DRDs took aim…. 

The surge of light was blinding. John felt himself flung back by the impact of its power, a raw lightning surge that seemed to course through his entire body like a wave flung against rocky shores. For instant he thought he was dead – that this was what being blasted into pieces by a thousand pulse barrels felt like. But then through eyes that glittered behind a million sparkling coloured lights, he caught a wayward glimpse of the surrounding pack of DRDs as they spun in frantic circles, their antennae waving like tortured beetles beneath the sun-stroked magnifying glass. 

What the frell? 

 A sharp shock, like a mild electric surge whistled through the skin of his wrist. Abruptly, he felt himself being dragged forwards through the afterglow, a stunned Chiana at his side. A surge of raw energy seemed to hurry his movements – he felt himself almost leave the ground in his haste of motion, struggling through the air in a body too weak to support what it was achieving, as he hurtled blindly on and was flung, headfirst into the first available exit. 

It was a shaft. He didn’t know how it got there and he didn’t care to contemplate – all he wanted at that moment was a chance simply to lie, motionless, gasping for breath so that he could quietly die in peace. 

He didn’t get it. A sharp shock, like the business end of a cattle prod jerked him back into alertness; his eyes opened to meet the stunned and not quite comprehending eyes of Chiana. She was lying on her side but her expression implied she had just received a wake-up call of similar potency. 

“What….the….frell?” she mouthed, the words a bare expulsion of air. 

A soft glow of light warmed the side of John’s cheek. Without turning, he realised all at once just who he had to thank. 

“I think that should be who the frell…” he murmured hoarsely. His gaze softly swung in the direction of the beacon gleam. 

Kir’s black, oblivious eyes gazed right back. As far as it was possible to tell, he looked annoyed, impatient, little sparks of energy coursing across his features like a miniature maelstrom. With one sparkling hand, he made an insistent gesture. 

John was stumped. “Huh?”  

He immediately regretted it as pain surged abruptly through his skull. He winced angrily. As if he hadn’t enough to contend with, now he had to play Lassie with a walking ball of light! 

“Hey, there is no point is fricasseeing my brain, pal!” he exclaimed. “We don’t speak the lingo of light, okay?” 

“He wants us to hurry,” Chiana’s soft voice brought John to a standstill. “He needs us to get back to the others quick, so he can protect them too.” 

She paused as she felt John’s eyes boring into her head. “No, I don’t know what he said,” she declared in response to the unasked question. “But I can get a feel of what he wants, okay?” 

John regarded her. “Pip, you sure?” 

The Nebari didn’t answer. She simply shrugged. 

Kir was glaring. 

The human sighed. “Well, I guess it’s as good a plan as any,” he muttered to himself. With a weary groan, he forced his tortured muscles back into motion, and with Chiana and Kir just behind him, set out at a crawl into the vents. 

# 

From the look of deep relief that flashed across Zhaan’s features when she caught sight of the battered and weary forms of John and Chiana crawling breathlessly out a nearby shaft into vent junction, Pilot’s message had indeed been heard by all the crew. The Delvian rose to a half crouch, moving quickly away from a rainbow assortment of vials and pouches that lay spread over the golden floor in favour of coming to their side, aiding first the human and then the Nebari down onto the undulating surface. Her eyes fixed at once on the bloody tear across Chiana’s shoulder and with brisk efficiency, she eased the girl down against a golden wall and reached for her newly acquired medicines. 

“Thank the goddess you are both unhurt,” she exclaimed, with a sigh of obvious relief as she carefully examined the Nebari’s wound. “After hearing Pilot’s words we were so afraid that Kir would not be able to reach you in time. And when you took so long to return…” 

“Well, we’re alive,” John muttered, leaning back against a bulkhead as he enjoyed the blessed feeling of not moving at all. “The giveaway is the pain.” 

When the priestess glanced at him anxiously, he quickly shook his head. “I’m fine. See to Chi. She got the worst of it.” His gaze performed a brief sweep of their hideaway and belatedly noticed two absences. He fought down a chill as Pilot’s words danced across his heart; “I know what you’ve done. I saw Ka D’Argo in the maintenance bay, raiding the apothecary…”    

In spite of the creaking protests of his body, he pushed his upper body upright.  

“Zhaan,” he said anxiously. “Where are Rygel and D’Argo?”

“I’m here.”  John almost jumped out of his skin as the deep voice of the Luxan growled at him from within an adjacent passageway. A moment later, the still haggard but much more lively looking form of D’Argo hauled himself out of the darkness and came to an abrupt halt beside John. “And I’ve left Rygel keeping watch at the foot of the shaft. We still can’t be sure we weren’t followed.” 

John managed a half smile. “Sparky keeping watch? How’d you talk him into that?” 

D’Argo shrugged. “I told him if he didn’t, I’d strip off his pathetic hide and use it to make a sheath for my Qualta blade. He became very helpful after that.” 

John’s half smile blossomed into a grin. “Did you mean it?” 

The Luxan regarded him for a moment. “Of course not. It wouldn’t be strong enough.” 

“D’Argo,” Zhaan’s eyes had fixed on the Luxan the moment he had appeared and abruptly the atmosphere shifted to business. “Is there any chance?” 

The Luxan met her anxious eyes and sighed. “None. Pilot has locked down the maintenance bay like a fortress. Every possible entrance has been sealed and there are enough DRDs on patrol to dispose of an army. I’m sorry, Zhaan. Not even Kir would be able to get near your medical bay now. We cannot retrieve the Gosh’cha berries.” 

John was instantly alarmed. “Wow, guys, slow down,” he exclaimed, leaning forward with a brief wince. “What’s happened?” 

Zhaan and D’Argo exchanged a tired glance. “A stray DRD caught a glimpse of me whilst I was gathering ingredients for Zhaan,” the Luxan explained. “Kir scrambled its systems temporarily with a pulse of light so that we could escape, but I dropped the berries Zhaan needed as I left. By the time I noticed, it was too late. I went back with Rygel to see if I could reach them but….” 

He did not need to continue. John sighed, trying to ignore the heavy feeling of dread that gathered in chest like a lead balloon. “Were they crucial?” he asked softly. 

Zhaan’s expression wavered. “For a sleep potion, no. For the potion I had in mind, yes.” 

John frowned. “What’s the difference?” 

“The Gosh’cha berries are a very potent sedative.” Zhaan took the scrap of material she had just torn from the hem of her robe and tied it carefully around Chiana’s wounded shoulder. “The potion I would have made with them could have been injected directly into any of Pilot’s tendrils for an almost instant unconsciousness. But without them…” She sighed. “There is no potion I can make from these ingredients that will be powerful enough to have such an effect on Pilot from such a distance. I can make him sleepy, perhaps a little less alert. But I cannot knock him out from here.” 

John waited. He had a bad feeling that he knew where this was going. “Go on.” 

The priestess seemed pale. “In order for Pilot to fall into a completely unconscious state, he will need to receive an undiluted dose directly into his body. That means he must take the potion either orally or through an infusion at the base of his tendrils. Those are the only two places where the dose will be able to affect him quickly enough to ensure Aeryn’s safety. Anywhere else….” 

She did not bother to complete her sentence. She didn’t need to. 

John felt strangely cold. His body seemed chilled, icy, emotionless, as he forced down all shadow of painful feeling and concentrated on pure intellect. 

“And that’s the best you can do,” he murmured softly, his voice containing neither praise nor reproach, just a simple statement of fact. 

Zhaan’s eyes were filled with fearful sorrow. She nodded. 

The levers clicked sharply into place. It was all suddenly, horribly clear.  

“Then we don’t have any choice,” John’s voice, when it came, was cool and alarming calm. “Zhaan, make your potion. D’Argo, Chi, you help me to get hold of anything remotely resembling a weapon.” His heart felt like a block of ice encased in a ring of fire; the secret, most instinctive part of his brain was screaming that he was a traitor. But there was nothing else left. He knew what they had to do; he must have known all along deep down, for there was no surprise. It had been inevitable from the start and he’d known it. 

His eyes skipped from one face to the next, determined D’Argo, fragile Chiana, worried Zhaan and incandescent Kir. All would be in danger; all could lose their lives. But the situation was out of control now – the time had come to abandon the frying pan and head straight for the fire. 

It was live or die time. 

It was time to go face to face. 

“We’re out of options.” The words felt remote, as though they were passing the lips of someone else. “Aeryn or not, we have to finish this once and for all. We’re going to storm Pilot’s chamber.” 

End Part 6

Part 7

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