light poured in the windows, casting the Transport Pod’s passengers in
an electric monochrome. Outside, the wormhole’s walls pulsed like a
leaned over John’s shoulder, gawking like a country boy in Vegas.
wanna back on up there, Scorp?” John gritted. He hated driving ships
other than his module through difficult circumstances, and an untamed
wormhole was the mother of all difficult circumstances. “Kinda need to
Chiana said, leaning over and pushing Scorpius back into his seat in the
rear of the cabin. “Don’t distract him unless you want to end up
splatted on the walls—”
to you too, Pip,” John spared her.
Chiana turned to snap off some little comment, but was smart enough to
shut herself up. They rode in silence as John followed an invisible path
through the wormholes. Just as the passengers began to settle in, John
jerked the Pod Hammond with “Whoops!” as their only warning. The Pod
barrel-rolled and was expelled into the void of existence.
they decelerated, Chiana rubbed her neck. “Nice ride, John.”
They don’t label those exit ramps well. It’s like driving in
Detroit. Now, let’s be sure this worked.”
skimmed the area with the scanners. No immediate danger, for once. The
area looked familiar enough. Pilot would have been better able to
confirm that, but John trusted his ability with landmarks. “Looks like
we nailed the where. I wonder about the when.”
long as this Tech has a cure for Aeryn, it could be the frelling Rock
Age for all I care,” Chiana said.
Age,” John corrected absently.
Humans had one, too?” Chiana smiled.
threw aside the anthropological discussion for the time being. “Right.
Now the Star Charts say Kornata’s is just over—”
jerked back in his seat as a huge mass filled the viewscreen. A ship
three times their size zoomed past, a strut on the rear nearly clipping
the little Pod.
John cried, grabbing the controls. “Get his license number!”
a Sheyang freighter,” Scorpius observed.
What do they want?”
not us,” Chiana said. “It kept going.”
hit-and-run?” John asked. “Huh. He’s going our way. Hope Kornata
hasn’t made some new enemies since we left.”
followed the larger vessel, keeping a low profile. Coming over a large
asteroid, they beheld a bustling metropolis. What John barely recognized
as NamTar’s asteroid laboratory sparkled with lights in the dark of
space. The imbedded skeleton remained, but seemed less ominous,
overshadowed by urban sprawl. A constant influx of ships came and went
from the planetoid systolically. Distantly, the Sheyang freighter fell
in behind a nasty-looking Zenetan craft and joined the flow. Small
one-man ships flitted about, keeping ships in line.
like the right place,” John said, “but this is not
what I remember. This place was a dive when we were here.”
thought you were aware,” Scorpius piped up. “Kornata came onto our
radar over two cycles ago. She is the premier commercial geneticist in
this half of the galaxy.”
cast his eyes upon the seemingly endless queue of ships stretching
ah, may have a bit of a wait.”
D’Argo approached Aeryn’s quarters, he picked up the raised voices
of an argument. Noranti stood outside the door, speaking loudly to the
privacy blanket. A bowl steamed in her hand, a stalk of vegetation and
what could have been bread with a bit more effort protruded over one
body needs all the energy it can get!”
I appreciate your concern,” Aeryn called back, “but I’m really not
took a breath to reply and noticed D’Argo. A crafty grin came over her
face. “Stubborn girl!” she muttered sotto voce. “Fine! Have it
strode down the tier, catching D’Argo’s arm as she went by. “Get
her to eat something,” she ordered quietly, thrusting the greasy bowl
into his hands. “She’ll listen to you.” With that, the old woman
bustled off to wherever she spent her time.
stared down at the stew-like mush, sniffed it, and recoiled with a
growl. A drannit would snub the concoction. Setting the bowl by the
door, he called, “Aeryn?”
not going to eat it, D’Argo.”
wise, but I just came to ask you something. May I come in?”
was a hesitation and a shuffling like furniture moving. “Um, I’d
rather you didn’t.”
looked down, regretting that fatal muscle spasm. “Aeryn, I—”
know,” she answered quietly. “What do you need?”
we were on the planet, did you notice anything that would have caused
blanket pulled aside and Aeryn peered out at him. The alien skin had
climbed a little closer to her cheekbone, and wrapped her forearm like a
gauntlet. The other arm was pressed around her waist. Her eyes met his
seriously. “If I had any idea why this was happening, I would tell
blanket fell back into place.
nodded. “Right.” So now it all came down to what Pilot or John found
out. He turned away from the wall of silence Aeryn had thrown up and
began the long walk back to Command.
remember a noise,” she added thoughtfully. “Could have been the
paused, frowning. Prominent in his memory was the eerie stillness of the
planet. The fog seemed to muffle what little noise could be heard. He
shrugged mentally. They had been separated in the mists, so who could
say? He wished John was there to play witness.
Aeryn. That’s something, at least. Pilot’s doing a study of the fog,
so maybe we’ll know something soon. Try and get some rest.”
resumed his stride, her soft voice caught him again.
Um, if you aren’t needed elsewhere, would you stay with me? Just for a
smiled. “Of course, Aeryn,” he said, settling down in front of the
grate. That, at least, he could do for her.
can’t believe I’m waiting in line while Aeryn’s back home mutating
into a Pilot.” John drummed his fingers on the Pod controls.
least the line’s moving now,” Chiana offered, stretching out lazily
in the copilot’s chair.
about time,” John grumbled, rubbing his eyes. “We’ve only been
sitting here for a quarter arn.”
John,” Scorpius said from the back of the Pod, eyes closed in bored
relaxation. “You must always have patience.”
bit back any remarks defending his irritation that would have raised his
feelings for Aeryn for discussion. Inside, this heart ached to think of
her on Moya, facing this alone. Outside, he kept his eyes on the
viewscreen. “Not looking for a sermon, grasshopper. You’re starting
to sound like Harvey.”
we even bring him?” Chiana complained. “Without him, we could be in
the fast lane.” She gestured out the window at the speedily
progressing line beside them consisting of one- or two-man vessels.
but who knows what he would have done while we were gone.”
looked up now with a sharp intake of breath. “Really, John, if I meant
you any harm, I would have acted by now.”
barked a single skeptical laugh. “Wish I could believe you, Scorp, but
you can’t show up out of the blue when you’re supposed to be dead
and buried and expect me to trust your word. Doesn’t work that way.”
was silent a moment, then said softly, “If it means anything to you,
John, know that I would never use Aeryn Sun or her child against you.”
eyes hardened. “You already have.”
smirked at the hybrid. Knowing not to press the issue, Scorpius sat back
this,” John muttered after a moment of tense silence. He threw open
the comms. “Hello! Anybody out there? Ground control? Security?
slim, one-person vehicle pulled in front of their viewscreen.
“Transport Pod,” a voice buzzed, “settle down and wait your turn.
We have many ships to deal with and will get to you as soon as
this is an emergency, so get Kornata on the horn and tell her there’s
someone here to see her about NamTar’s last experiment.”
the alien asked, confusion written in his voice.
tell her. She’ll understand.”
guard seemed hesitant, but switched to another channel.
she recognize your name?” Chiana asked.
And so might anyone else on this channel,” John answered.
comm sprang back to life. “Alright, Transport Pod, if you would move
above the line, a security drone will be by in a microt to guide you in.
Sorry for the inconvenience.”
doin’ your job. Thanks.” John shut off the comm and pulled the Pod
vertically above, relatively, the large ships surrounding them. “You
see? If you want into a science lab, just bring up one of their past
offer them exactly what they want, apparently,” Scorpius muttered to
frowned, glaring straight ahead. “Apparently.”
John looks down, and all he’s wearing is a pair of women’s
and Aeryn laughed uproariously.
I’m sorry I missed that,” Aeryn gasped. Her laughs just as quickly
turned into a fit of coughs that wracked her frame.
he asked anxiously, wishing she would let him in.
let out a shuddering breath. “I’m alright.”
you in pain?”
didn’t need to see her to know the expression on her face as she
answered, “Oh, no. Just my bones shifting and my organs mutating.”
least she was well enough for sarcasm. He worried more when she denied
her discomfort. D’Argo winced sympathetically. He wished Noranti could
give her a painkiller, but who knew how her system would react in this
condition? Unsure what to do, he let her ride it out. He could hear her
quiet choking noises, the result of her military training. PeaceKeepers
her breathing eased, D’Argo looked around, seeking anything to divert
her attention. He grimaced at the bowl of stew, which now sported a
dench-thick skin. The stalk had wilted and the bread had soaked up the
gravy and flopped onto the floor. “You going to eat any of this
until my stomach settles,” she answered. Then, in that vulnerable tone
she never used outside of Moya, “Do Pilots have
winced. “I don’t know. They have mouths, and they have to eat
somehow before bonding with a Leviathan…” He glanced at the door.
“And I’m not helping, am I?”
heard her half-smile in her voice. “No. D’Argo, thank you for
staying. I know you have better things to do.”
you’re what’s most important right now. I’ll stay as long as you
need me.” He paused a moment. “Unless I have to pee.”
laughed again. “I know, D’Argo. Thank you.” Soberly, she asked,
“No word from John yet?”
yet. But don’t worry. We’ll get you back to normal.” He got the
impression that she nodded acceptingly. In the calm silence between
them, he heard her grunt and shift uncomfortably. His hearts twisted.
“Aeryn, I’m sorry.”
I’m sorry this happened to you in the first place. I should have seen
what was going on. Should’ve done something…”
shook her head. “Don’t D’Argo.”
The blanket slid back slightly so her orange-flecked gray eye could peer at him. He realized with a start that she had been sitting just on the other side of the door. “It wasn’t your fault,” she said firmly. “We were different people then. We had no reason to care about each other.”
you and John did.”
cared,” she demurred. “I just followed my PeaceKeeper belief in
loyalty to the unit. Besides, what did the two of us have to lose?”
let the question hang. “I’m still sorry it happened.”
wrapped around his hand. He looked down and saw that Aeryn had snaked
her hand under the blanket and was squeezing his comfortingly. Her three
middle fingers had fused at the first joint as the chitin gloved her
arm. A clear, sticky discharge covered the new tissue. He belatedly
realized she held the blanket back with a tiny third arm on her midriff.
appreciate it, D’Argo.”
stared at her warped hand, trying not to show the grief on his face.
“Was it this bad last time?”
she answered steadily. “It’s still early.”
grimaced and a shudder ran down her arm. “Hurry, John,” she
I can do for the pain?” D’Argo asked.
it’s not the pain,” Aeryn answered, her voice rising noticeably.
“I can handle that. It’s just…” She hesitated and her hand
squeezed his harder, seeking more strength to help her voice her fear.
”I’m not just turning into a Pilot. I’m becoming a male
Pilot.” Her eye met his again. “What’s going to happen to my
horror of that thought flowed over D’Argo in a wave. Immediately, his
mind rushed to Jothee, remembering Lo’Laan’s own pregnancy and how
much he had worried and prayed for a safe birth for his infinitely
vulnerable child. There was nothing he could say.
him, Aeryn groaned, her hand going to her temple. “D’Argo, could you
tell me that thing about…stringing my thoughts?”
small part of his mind noticed that her voice sounded modulated, closer
to Pilot’s slow tones than her own natural cadence. But the gentle
request was all he needed to pull his mind from the fears of the past
and focus it on usefulness again.
Um, alright. You have to ignore all the loud, major thoughts in your
mind. Push them aside and listen for a quiet sound underneath. Your
hand clenched his, her eyes closed. “Okay,” she whispered.
start with the quietest thought,” he continued in his smoothest,
least-distracting voice, “and hang that off your pulse. Keep working
your way through until they’re under control.”
sat for a long time, listening to her pull herself together. Her breath
hitched, then resumed shakily. D’Argo reached over and tenderly
stroked her hair, as he had cycles ago when Moya’s powerful pulse had
coaxed the toxins from her bloodstream. Now her hair was wet with sweat
and goo and patches of her scalp had hardened with the new skin.
his touch, her breathing eased and smoothed until gradually, he realized
she was asleep. Assured she would remain so, he quietly eased free of
her hand and stood, joints creaking. One leg had fallen asleep, so he
limped down the tier, trying to shake the circulation back into it. In
doing so, he nearly walked into Rygel.
Watch yourself, Luxan!” the Hynerian complained, jerking his
ThroneSled back to avoid collision.
your eminence,” D’Argo grumbled. “Any results from the scans
what I was coming to tell you. Pilot’s not answering comms.”
D’Argo called, “Pilot? Pilot, respond!”
may as well have been yelling into a canyon. Only his echoes came back.
you,” Rygel said. “The other comms—”
is it, Luxan?” the perennially peeved alien answered.
“—work fine, but why don’t you check?” Rygel muttered.
you been able to call Pilot?” D’Argo asked.
but then I haven’t been trying. Is that all?”
yet. Stay on the line.” D’Argo growled and looked around.
could go up to Pilot’s Den and talk to him,” Rygel suggested.
shook his head. “No. He could just be in a mood, or something could be
really wrong. Where the frell is a DRD?” He looked back the way he
came. “I hate to wake Aeryn, but he’d probably answer her.”
strolled back down to her cell. The blanket had fallen shut and she had
pulled her hand back in. “Aeryn?” he summoned her quietly.
drew a sharp breath as she awoke. After a brief grunt as her senses
overwhelmed her, she spoke muzzily. “What?”
crouched by the door, Rygel at his side. “Aeryn, we need you to comm
Pilot. He’s not answering us.”
sighed heavily. “Give me a comm.”
blanket pushed aside as she extended her hand through the grate. Rygel
drew back in shock. Her entire forearm was shelled by this point and she
held her thumb and pinkie apart from the other fingers in the
configuration of a Pilot’s claw. D’Argo laid the comm in her palm
and the arm retracted.
she called from within. Then her voice lapsed into a language the
Translator Microbes rejected.
hesitation, Pilot responded in kind. After a short exchange, Aeryn held
the comm out to D’Argo again.
you,” he said, taking it. “Pilot, are you alright?”
fine, Captain,” Pilot’s calm voice flowed over the channel.
why the delay?” Rygel snapped.
have a lot to do, Dominar. Forgive me.”
boys exchanged a look. “Do you have the results yet, Pilot?”
and I have scanned the planet repeatedly and found nothing outside the
usual. Magnetic fields are normal, solar radiation is within acceptable
ranges, the fog is merely water vapor. I see no danger.”
what is causing the mutation?!” D’Argo roared. “And why did the
wormhole speed it up?!”
do not have those answers for you at this time,” Pilot offered.
“When I do, you will know.”
see to that.” D’Argo closed the comm to Pilot and muttered,
“We’ll see how he follows through with that.”
you guys hear what Aeryn said?” Sikozu asked quietly.
shot a warning look at Aeryn’s quarters. The blanket hung calmly and
all he heard behind it was her steady breathing. He guided Rygel down
the tier until they were out of earshot, then replied, “I heard her
speak Pilot. Don’t know what it meant.”
everything in Pilot can have a hundred different meanings,” Sikozu
said didactically, “but unless she asked Pilot why the ear medication
is yellow, she just told him to go into a lower orbit around the