|Crichton vs. Predator: In the Belly of the Beast (Part 1)|
by Spacelord, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
About Crichton vs. Predator: In the Belly of the Beast (Part 1)
Rating: PG-13 (Profanity and violence).
Summary: Deep in space on a disabled prison ship, Crichton, Aeryn, D'argo and Zhaan are trapped with a band of Peacekeepers and their prisoners who are being killed off one by one by a lethal alien who is hunting them for sport.
Spoilers: Various, through the first two seasons, but before LG&M.
Disclaimers: Farscape and its characters is the property of Henson Company, Hallmark Entertainment and the Sci-Fi Channel. PREDATOR is the property of 20th Century Fox. All other characters and story concept is the property of Christopher L. Stine. All characters used here are for entertainment purposes only. No copyright infringement is intended and no monetary compensation has been received.
Category: Crossover, Farscape/PREDATOR.
Archiving: Certainly. Please let me know when you do it.
Note: "Pink Moon" by Nick Drake. Please send feedback to email@example.com.
Space is deep here, and deadly.
Reason enough why anyone would ever bother to traverse this part of the Uncharted Territories to begin with. There was nothing around for over a trillion metras. If you were stranded, you were doomed, end of story.
"Lieutenant, do scans indicate anything?"
A vessel raced across the darkness, occasionally disappearing behind a swirling dark cloud, and swiftly appearing out another. Subterfuge hardly seemed necessary, the expanse stretched on to infinity. Electronic scans from the craft searched methodically for any signs of traffic that it might happen to encounter. Nothing found. It was the same as always. The region kept its secrets well hidden.
"Negative sir. No ships detected anywhere in the Nil."
"Fine. Continue on, then."
It was aptly named. The Nil was an absence of anything tangible. It was swarms of vaporous clouds, cosmic debris and nothing else. The only resident planet was a gaseous giant with a few tiny moons slowly orbiting it- the last survivor of a long dead system. To the Peacekeepers, it was merely journey marker #1138, not even important enough to give it a proper name. Only after their ships passed it did they acknowledge some minor significance to it: the voyage to lifer’s colony Ivon-Arda was halfway complete. Other than that, it remained permanently obscured by clouds.
The vessel continued on its way in blissful solitude. Peacekeeper prison transport Acroyan traveled undeterred to its destination for the last time.
"Increase speed to hetch five."
The Nil had its uses. Its cloudy tendrils reached out and connected Peacekeeper, Scarran and the uncharted territories together. The Peacekeepers braved the routes through the Nil on many occasions, using its location to their advantage: circumventing enemy planets, ambushing Scarran convoys and clandestine operations. And, though they seldom talked about it, prisoner transports. It suited their purposes, even if they hated it. It was suffocating, lonely and just plain dead. Even starlight died inside it.
And it was haunted. At least, the Peacekeepers thought so. They could find no other reason to explain how their ships were found drifting lifeless with whole crews murdered and no evidence of who did it. Bodies were always discovered lying in neat rows found mangled and butchered, or hanging by their ligaments, stripped of their hides. Whole ship’s corridors found splattered red with blood. And, if the tale could not get any more gruesome, many of the bodies were missing their heads. Final log entries repeated themselves on a dozen different ships: whatever it had been, they never saw it coming.
"Journey marker #1138 on viewscreen, sir."
Stories of a murderous ghost exacting retribution on the Peacekeepers for some wrongdoing made for bad propaganda, let alone crew morale. Peacekeeper High Command made no levity for tall tales. Officers, techs and soldiers alike said nothing, disallowing any admittance to superstitions in front of their superiors, fearing reprisal for believing such things more than the ghost itself. It reeked of a children’s fable; something meant to frighten you into staying in line. Perhaps it was nothing more than a rogue Scarran, exacting revenge for its fallen comrades. It would have been the most plausible explanation.
"I can see it, Lieutenant."
Plausible, until Scarran ships began to be found drifting lifeless. Several of its crewmembers strung up and decapitated. That was the bittersweet: at least whatever it was did not discriminate in its choice of victims.
They called the ghost Haaksekah (demon head hunter).
He stood in front of the Acroyan’s viewscreen on command, staring out at the empty field before him. Belzar Selane hated the Nil. As much as the next Peacekeeper captain waiting impatiently for its boiling clouds to subside and see the calm of normal space again, he loathed every assignment through it. It was grot work, at best. Then again, prisoner transport was not an elite position to lust for anyway, for that matter. He liked to tell himself that they groomed him for better things. So he did as instructed keeping those in Peacekeeper High Command satisfied. Eventually they would come to know he had all the ambition of a blade striking in a dark alley. Haaksekah was the furthest thing from his mind. Fear was, especially in front of the prisoners they transported. The mission took full priority. In five solar days, the ship would arrive at Ivon-Arda, their task completed. The Nil and its ghosts would be put behind them. Then, it was downtime, hot raslak and women to be had. He smiled at that last thought. There was always that to dream about.
The faint green glow of the gaseous giant pulsed intermittently as they approached. Halfway point. There was only the need to press on a little longer. The journey, for better or worse, was half finished. Relief was the only emotion felt on the Acroyan.
No one felt caution. They did not even pause to consider three dead moons slowly orbiting #1138 being used as cover for a potential ambush. No one even noticed a gray craft that glided out from beyond the planet’s farthest moon. Sleek and fast, it raced towards the hammond side of the Peacekeeper ship, stealth mode rendering it invisible.
The craft jettisoned its front assembly and turned away, quickly fading into the dark clouds surrounding it. Only the egg-shaped pod, now floating into the Acroyan’s flight path, remained behind as evidence.
"Captain Selane, there is a small craft approaching us on the hammond side."
His eyebrow arched up, only mildly curious something else would be out here. "Is it Scarran?"
"Unknown sir. It doesn’t match any known ship designs in our data stores."
He walked over to the female officer. "Distance?"
"Twenty metras and closing."
He wasted no time in contacting it. "Unidentified craft, this is Peacekeeper prison transport Acroyan. Identify yourself and your intentions."
"Unidentified craft, this is Captain Belzar Selane. You are approaching the Peacekeeper prison transport, Acroyan. Identify yourself and your intentions, or we will apprehend you and find out by force, if necessary." His impatience grew fast; reputation never mentioned it as a better virtue.
Again, there was no response.
"Enough of this. Capture it!"
Acroyan’s docking web deployed and easily snared the small pod. As it entered into the docking bay, the echo of boot heels marched in unison as the detachment of soldiers formed in the main hangar, ready to seize the pod and capture any crew. They smiled to themselves, grateful for a little excitement. It eased all the boredom they had suffered through for the past weeken. They could not wait to see the look on the pilot’s face when they confronted him.
The occupant in the pod observed the landing approach as the hangar doors opened, sizing up the squad of waiting soldiers. A clawed finger extended and pressed a sequence of buttons on a gauntlet it wore on its arm. On the other gauntlet it wore, twin blades extended. It held them up to inspect their edge: sharper than a razor. Even in the subdued lighting of the cockpit, stainless intensity flashed while they were examined.
It completed its checks, all systems and weapons fully operational and in perfect working order. Although it did not resemble one, a smile began to form under the helmet it wore. In less than two solar days, most of the Peacekeeper crew and their prisoners would be dead.
Haaksekah had arrived on the Acroyan.
Even through the thick window, he felt the cold.
John Crichton stood on Moya’s terrace looking out at the abyss they had been traveling through for the past three solar days. But for the lone DRD that silently glided into the doorway to observe him, he was alone, preferring the moment for privacy. It had never been his nature to be elusive, but recent events had not been kind to wayward humans, particularly him.
Pilot had suggested an emergency exit through what he called the Nil to widen the distance between them and another addition to the long list of people who wanted to kill them- him. Much to their chagrin, since they had not finished restocking their dwindling supplies. It came as no surprise; these things always seemed to happen with him around.
He could practically write the story on a note card, since they had become second nature to him. Only names and places need to be changed: Human goes down to a commerce planet with companions to purchase supplies; local mob boss recognizes his face as the fugitive on the Peacekeeper wanted beacon in the Market Square; tells the people the fugitive broke his nose and is dangerous; said mobster does not say that he propositioned the raven-haired companion of the fugitive with a perverted sex favor and tried to grope her, hence the reason for the right hook to the mobster’s snout. Then there is the inevitable shooting and fleeing and barely getting away from the unruly mob, all of which worked for the mobster. It was always a risky venture, and costly.
But the look he gets to see on his raven-haired companion’s face? Priceless.
Pilot felt confident the mobster’s pursuing ships would not follow Moya into the Nil, even if it were only along its outer edge. Reputation alone kept the shipping routes empty. Besides that, the mobster had contacted Scorpius and his command carrier and they were already sighted nearby. A few days through the Nil would put them in much safer systems.
He agreed with that, assuming that there would be a few days of rest without any major new problems to deal with, such as the one where the voice of Scorpius keeps whispering to him in his mind.
That name had become a curse. The Peacekeeper scientist had pursued him relentlessly since discovering that the secrets of wormhole technology were hidden deep within his subconscious. It was not like deer hunting with his father back on Earth when he was young: Here he was the prey to a predator in black leather. Scorpius lusted for him more than gold or diamonds. It would never be a comfortable relationship.
"The wormhole technology you possess in your brain makes you to my knowledge, unique in the galaxy. And unique… is always valuable."
He cherished and despised the knowledge at the same time, wishing it were not there, yet hoping to unlock it and find his way to Earth. For right now, he would gladly be content just being left alone.
If only the voice would leave.
At least Moya has had peace and quiet for the past several days. Zhaan kept to herself, occupied with meditating to her goddess and preparing medicines she was able to purchase on the commerce planet right before he scored his knockout punch on Al-ien Capone, the mobster. Rygel painted another one of his self-portraits, complained about Chiana cheating at a game of Tadek, farted enough helium to fill balloons at a children’s birthday and ate, ate, ate. D’Argo spent his spare time detailing the Shilquen he had crafted several monens ago, only to be interrupted by Chiana who distracted him from work from time to time by dragging him into her room. A little stress relief, Crichton thought with a snicker. Pity Aeryn did not have the same idea.
Her name had become his medicine to Scorpius’s sickness. When she was not working on her Prowler, she began to spend more time with him, much to his delight, even if he tried not to show it so much. Even a bad day of arguing with her was better than a day of anything else. Her words, her smile and her support made up for all the nights lying alone pondering his final unforeseen fate.
"Oh John, you are such a romantic."
Go away, Scorpy.
Two days ago, he finally started to talk to her about the voices, which were occurring in their frequency. She would nod sympathetically, trying to find some words of comfort. Her eyebrows would arch up sadly when he talked about the relentless taunting that vibrated between his ears. He smiled just for the compassion in her eyes. Had it not been for her, he may have eventually taken Farscape One and flown it kamikaze right into an asteroid. While he hurt, she mended a broken soul. A guy could not help but love her for that.
But he still felt the cold.
He looked back out the window. A swirl of purple and blue streamed faintly along the contours of the terrace’s canopy, fading into the dark. It almost felt like moving underwater. 20,000 leagues in space and Captain Nemo still had not sighted the giant squid. A kraken in space would have been a little too much to deal with.
The Nil began to give him goosebumps. For a region of space, it really was eerie. He was beginning to understand the dread that D’Argo told him about. From his vantage point, the Nil looked like it might be an Oort cloud, or the remains of a massive star factory that had ceased production. Either way, it was a phenomenon.
Through the glass, he could see the faint glow of a planet forming through the mist. It was the only visible reference point in what had been a field of black. It looked like a gas giant, with swirls of green and blue mixing and moving slowly around it. The resemblance to Neptune was more than passing, but that was another galaxy away, perhaps. Hope flickered inside him for a moment, wishing that it really were some reference point that could tell him where he was in the universe.
Finishing off the bottle of Enkh Zhaan had introduced him to, he turned and walked down the corridor to the main hangar, the little DRD following him from behind. He and the planet were alike after a sort- alone and drifting off in the dark, clouds covering up their perception from everyone.
"I saw it written and I saw it say, pink moon is on its way…"
His voice echoed off the walls in a solid vibration, it was not unlike like sharing words with Aeryn.
"And none of you stand so tall, pink moon gonna get ye all... And it’s a pink moon, yes, it’s a pink moon…"
"Crichton, I doubt you saw a pink moon out here in the Nil. How the frell it could be pink to begin with is anybody’s guess."
He turned to the sound of the voice, and grinned. He was being treated to the best view in the Uncharted Territories. Aeryn Sun, former Peacekeeper and object of his undivided attention, was bending over working on the controls in the cockpit of her Prowler. She never even looked up to respond to his singing, all he saw was her backside. That was fine with him.
"And quit staring at my pink moon, or you will get a black eye," she said, trying to disguise her half-hearted attempt at earth humor.
He could barely contain himself. Of all the people he could have been stuck with, fate put him with her, Miss tough chick of the universe, black leather and all. Not surprisingly, it had become his favorite garment on a woman, especially her.
"Now, Aeryn, my little ginger snap, would I do that?" He said, walking up to her. "I’m a southern gentleman."
She grunted. "Right. And moon-keys might fly out my pink arse."
He started to laugh. Hearing her develop a sense of humor, even an infrequent one, never failed to brighten his day. "Warning, you’re in danger of becoming a bona fide human if you keep that up."
Aeryn stood up, wiping her hands on an old rag. "You have my permission to shoot me if that ever happens." She turned to face him, her long dark hair swinging around, tied back in a ponytail. "Why exactly are you so happy? Not that I’m complaining, but we’re flying through the Nil, it’s not exactly friendly to high spirits."
He reached his hand up to help her off the platform she was standing on. The timing seemed bad to tell her his feelings. Maybe she already knew. His current situation made him hesitant to blurt out anything rash since Scorpius might cause that to happen, anyway.
"I’m forever the optimist," he said. "It’s a human trait, like singing silly romantic songs."
"Or punching out an oversexed mobster who wanted to tie me up and stick his shirkie right in my-"
"Whoa! Stop! Okay now, that’s too much information, Sunshine. My virgin ears can’t handle that right now."
She grinned. An embarrassed Crichton was a very satisfying thing. For a change, she got the opportunity to put him on the spot. She never thought she would see the day she adapted some of his habits. Seeing him rise up to ‘defend her honor’ as he had called it, was a whole new experience to her. No one had ever come to her defense like that, not even as a Peacekeeper. She liked the feeling, even if she were too proud to admit it to him openly.
"Anyway, it’s time for dinner," she said. "The others are probably getting ready now. Pilot says we should be out of this void by tomorrow, and I, for one, will be grateful."
"Ladies first." Crichton said, extending his arm to the doorway. "So what is it about the Null that you get so creeped out about?"
"The Nil, John."
"Whatever. Why the big deal?"
She looked at him; not surprised to hear him ask it. Stories of the Nil were common knowledge to most, not to lost humans. Ignorance could be seen as a blessing to some.
"There are stories. To many, this is a place of no return. A lot of people have been killed out here. "Whole ships’ crews have been found massacred, and their heads taken as trophies. They say you never see it coming until it’s too late."
"See who coming?"
"No," she said softly. "Haaksekah. The demon that hunts for heads."
His mind shifted for a moment, absorbing what she had just told him. There was a ghostly serial killer in the Uncharted Territories? May as well be, he had encountered just about everything else, and they tried to kill him, too.
"And you," he said. "Do you believe these stories?"
She tilted her head, black tresses falling to one side, unsure how to respond. "Well, Peacekeepers have some documented reports that I saw. I don’t really believe in ghosts, but there have been many Peacekeepers killed out here by someone. Or something. And they still don’t know what."
He nodded. It was another list to add to the list of killers he knew of. Jack the Ripper, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gaines, Charles Manson, The Night Stalker, Jeffrey Dahmer and now Haaksekah. No surprises there: more tales of brutality. The universe was not his friend. Life out in the Uncharteds might have been amazing and full of variety, but most of it seemed to hold on to their homicidal impulses.
Carl Sagan would have been disappointed, he thought. E.T. should have stood for extremely terrifying.
"It would seem some things never change, eh John? You should feel right at home out here."
"Pity if you never see them coming up from behind you until its too late."
Crichton’s hands went to his temples. Go away…
"That includes me John. You’ll never see me coming, either."
Go away… Go away… Go away…
"I’m going to get you, John…"
"I’m going to take everything, John. You will lose your friends, your freedom and your mind. Why don’t you just turn yourself in? Make it a lot easier for you?"
Goddamn you go away you freak get out of my head leave me the hell alone…
"Would you like to know what will happen to Aeryn if you don’t give yourself to me?"
GET OUT OF MY HEAD!
Crichton held his head, cursing silently to himself. His mind was silent again. The voice had left. He opened his eyes; Aeryn stared back at him in shock.
"John? What the frell was that? What just happened? Why did your face convulse?"
He rubbed his forehead gently, not answering.
She looked at him, worry etched in blue-gray eyes. "It was Scorpius again, wasn’t it?"
"Yes. The bastard. He comes and goes. Butts right in on any conversation."
"All right, that’s it. We need to say something to the others. We’ll go to Zhaan, maybe she can give you something to stop what’s happening."
"Its not that easy, Aeryn. This is not just random. It’s like he knows what I’m thinking and he adds to my conversation. I think he really did something to me when we were on that Gammak base."
"Beware, John. Beware of Jack the Ripper of the Uncharted Territories coming to get you. Or her." If Scorpius had mastered anything, it was the art of irritation.
He looked up. "Who what?"
"Who is Jack the Stripper?"
"Ripper, Aeryn. Jack the Ripper. Did I say that out loud? Never mind, it’s not important," he said, scratching his head. "Someone I hope you never find out about."
They stood there for several moments, saying nothing. He waited in silence to see if the voice would again return. Finally, he opened his eyes, his body finally relaxing. The voice was gone.
She managed a weak smile. "We’ll get some dinner, then we’ll ask Zhaan if she can give you anything. Hopefully it will take your mind off of this dren." She stoked his face lightly; wishing she could do something more.
He smiled and put his arm around her, wishing he could give more reassurance. Her concern was more than adequate; he could take comfort from that. He walked with her down the corridor to the mess hall.
"I just hope Rygel didn’t eat all of that stew Chiana made," Aeryn said. "I wanted some."
"Commander Crichton, Officer Sun," Pilot’s voice came in over their comms. "Could you please come up to command? Something has happened."
Crichton closed his eyes. "What’s wrong now, Mister Doomsday? Your timing is perfect, as always."
"Moya and I have picked up a distress signal, Commander. Very faint, less than a quarter solar day from here."
He paused for a moment, remembering the planet he saw while on the terrace. "By any chance would it be coming from the area of that Jovian planet?"
"The gaseous giant."
"Recognition sparked in Pilot’s voice at his human terminology. "Yes. The signal is quite close to the proximity of that world. To be precise, from behind one of its moons."
"Then we should avoid it Pilot," Aeryn said. "It could be a Peacekeeper ship."
"Understood. But Moya is very concerned for this ship, Officer Sun. She is already heading in the direction the signal is coming from."
"Why?" Crichton said. "She knows we have to avoid detection, right?"
"She does indeed, Commander. But this distress signal," Pilot paused for a moment, "it’s coming from a leviathan ship."
He sighed. "Why do I have a bad feeling about this?"
The lone DRD that had followed Crichton into the hangar watched as he and Aeryn quickly walked towards command. Its eyestalks rose up, as if puzzled. Some saw ignorance as a blessing.
"Yep, that’s a leviathan ship all right." Chiana said, matter-of-factly.
At Pilot’s request, the crew gathered in command and watched the scene unfold before them on Moya’s main view screen. The fluorescent green hue of journey marker #1138 filled the screen in front of them. Floating between the farthest moon and the gaseous giant, the outline of a leviathan ship took shape. Except for its darker color and the presence of a Peacekeeper control collar attached to its front, it resembled Moya in every respect.
Except that there were no signs of life on board.
"Well, it’s definitely a Peacekeeper leviathan, Chiana," Aeryn added. "It’s a prison transport, just like Moya was. Pilot, does Moya recognize this one?"
"She does, Officer Sun," Pilot replied. "Moya says it’s the Acroyan, a much older biomechanoid. The Peacekeepers have had it in service at least fifty cycles before they ever captured her."
"I knew there was bad voojoo about this place," D’Argo said. "And that was before this showed up."
"How nice," Rygel groaned. "If the Peacekeepers decide to come out and start blasting us, at least our ships are on familiar terms. I wouldn’t expect any special treatment, though."
D’Argo grunted his agreement. "If there are any Peacekeepers on that ship, then we need to leave now! We should not have stopped here in the first place!"
"D’Argo, chill," Crichton said, trying to calm the Luxan’s apprehension. "If there were any Peacekeepers on board, I’m sure they would have sent the ‘surrender or die: we’re superior’ signal by now."
He scowled. "Do I need to remind everyone that Scorpius is looking for us?" And we are also short on supplies due to one of us punching out a planet’s leader who was letting us buy provisions on his planet, until someone here decided to be chivalrous!"
"Yeah, and for a change it wasn’t you," said Chiana. "Can we forget about that, please?"
"There is no indication that there is anyone else out here, D’Argo," Zhaan said. "Besides, Pilot indicated earlier there was no activity on board and no transmissions being broadcast except for the faint one we intercepted, and that was an encrypted code." She turned to Pilots image. "Is that correct, Pilot?"
"Yes, Zhaan. And it is not on a standard Peacekeeper frequency. Perhaps it was broadcast by a prisoner."
"Which means there may have been a prison break on board," said D’Argo. "What do you suppose the odds of that are?"
"I seem to remember being pulled aboard a leviathan during a prison break, D’Argo. I wouldn’t rule out the possibility."
D’Argo rolled his eyes at Aeryn’s response. The irony of the situation was not lost on him. Moya had been liberated well over a cycle ago. Perhaps another band of prisoners were repeating history.
"Maybe so, kids," said Crichton, "but I don’t recall Moya floating lifeless either. Pilot, is there any sign of power?"
There was a tense silence while the crew waited for Pilot to confirm his findings. "Main engines are off line, Commander. Internal gravity bladders are functioning normally. Climate regulators are operating higher than normal. Acroyan is trying to compensate but there is no communication between him and his pilot. He seems to be drifting in and out of consciousness."
"Still operational. But Acroyan’s pilot is not the one regulating it. I am unsure of the power source. I have never seen this energy signature before."
"Keep trying to establish communications with the ship’s pilot," said Aeryn.
Crichton sighed. "I have a bad feeling about this, kids. Do we jet away from here or go over and try to turn the HAL 9000 back on?"
Zhaan looked over at him, visibly confused. "The what?"
"Uh, never mind," Crichton waved his hand dismissively. "That’s a bad example, kids. He went insane, killed the whole crew except for Bowman."
"If there are prisoners over there, we should try to help them," Zhaan said, unfazed by Crichton’s vague human expressions. "After all, they are victims of the Peacekeepers. They may also have supplies or map fibers. Furthermore, we could even liberate Acroyan," her finger pointing to the restrictive control collar attached to the leviathan. "Does he deserve to be in such bondage?"
"But if there are Peacekeepers on board, we might get captured! So could Moya, and then we would all be back in bondage," Rygel said. "I’m not going to chance that."
Chiana frowned. "If I were captured again, I would sure as fek appreciate someone helping me out. Maybe you forgot how it feels, Froggy?"
Rygel grunted. "Certainly not."
The crew all looked at each other. The situation was not new to them. To help or not to help to help was the dilemma. Supplies were needed. Allies were always needed. Both were in perpetual short supply, and they could use both of them. Providing there was anyone still alive on the Acroyan, that is.
Crichton stood up straight, from the console he had been leaning on. "All right, then. If we are going to do this, there is something we need to do first. It’s a hunch, but it might help us." He turned to face the clamshell projecting Pilot’s image. "Pilot, we will need our comms modified to send and receive encrypted signals."
"I will have several prepared as soon as possible, Commander."
Aeryn looked at Crichton, puzzled. "What is your hunch?"
"Boy Scouts always need to be prepared" Crichton said, holding up a pair of crossed fingers.
Crichton, Aeryn and D’Argo gathered in the transport hangar, checking their weapons and readying the pod to board the Acroyan. Zhaan soon appeared, her bags loaded with medicines in the event that anyone still alive on the Acroyan needed a healer’s attention.
It was decided that Chiana and Rygel would stay on board the Moya. To no ones surprise, they received no protests from the diminutive Dominar. Rygel’s justification was that someone should remain on board to make important diplomatic decisions if a hostage crisis suddenly arose. Chiana was not so agreeable.
"Why can’t I go?"
"Because, Pip." Crichton said. "If we get ambushed, we don’t all want to be over there. Besides, the Peacekeepers don’t know much about you, so let’s keep it that way."
"We won’t be long," Aeryn added. "You don’t need to snurch anything. We’ll be doing that."
Crichton nodded, still apprehensive. "We go over, stay no longer than we need to and see if we can salvage anything that we can use."
"I agree," said D’Argo. "But be ready to fight our way out of there if we have to. Pilot? Have Moya ready to Starburst at the first sign of another Peacekeeper ship."
"Ka D’Argo, Moya and I will not leave without any of you."
"Relax, Pilot. We’ll be back over quick enough," Crichton said.
"Very quick," D’Argo added.
"The Goddess will protect us," Zhaan said, reciting a Delvian prayer.
Aeryn said nothing. Faith in deities was never an issue in a time of crisis. Peacekeepers were not spiritual. Even though she was no longer one of them, old beliefs always died hard, she was not one to pray. Her protection always took the form of something she knew could be relied on. Her fingers lightly brushed along the pulse pistol in the holster strapped to her thigh, and she felt a trace of comfort. She looked over at Crichton, who was rubbing his head, and felt her concern shift. Was he hearing the voices again?
She wished that Zhaan’s goddess, or any deity for that matter, would help him more than anything else.
"Good luck, gang," Chiana said.
The transport pod flew gently out of the treblin side of Moya, and quickly closed the expanse between them and the Acroyan. Pilot positioned Moya to keep a safe distance between her and the elder leviathan in the event of any sudden change in its position. The exterior hangar doors were open on the hammond side of the Acroyan, offering a portentous welcome to the crew on the transport pod.
"Deeper and deeper into the interior, wilderness calls, John. Do you feel your heart beating faster?" Scorpius’ voice called.
Crichton tensed, trying not to show his crewmates his current situation. "I have a very bad feeling about this," he muttered.
"Why didn’t you say so before?" D’Argo said, irritated.
"I did say so before. Twice."
Aeryn looked at him, hiding her worry from the others. "Don’t argue. We’re almost there."
The interior lights in the cavernous docking bay were dimmer than normal, but the hangar doors responded to the transport pod as it approached the landing pad. As the doors opened, spilling bright light onto the ship, the crew each breathed a sigh of relief. Not a single Peacekeeper in sight.
But there was no one else in sight, either. Even the ship’s DRDs were nowhere to be seen. The hangar was deathly silent as they exited the transport pod.
"Goddess, what is that smell?" Zhaan gasped as she stepped down the transport’s ladder.
Upon exiting the transport pod, her nose had wrinkled and her eyes began to squint from the odor. A burning, acrid stench was lingering heavily in the air of the Acroyan. No smoke was visible, but the smell remained thick in the hangar.
Crichton, Aeryn and D’Argo spread out, inspecting their surroundings. The devastation before them stopped them in their tracks.
The main hangar of the Acroyan resembled a battlefield. Spread out before them was a detachment of half a several Prowlers and a Marauder, each one had been burned and blasted beyond repair. The closest Prowler to them had both wings shot off, and another one down the line was severed completely in half. Engine parts lay shattered and leaking, torn cables hung from the bottoms of several ships and all of them were peppered with large holes in their metal skins. The Marauder lay on its side, its landing gear assembly completely disintegrated. Faint trails of smoke still curled out of some of the ship’s gaping holes, a testament to the recent battle. The ceiling up above was blackened from smoke.
"Looks like somebody brought down the lightning and the thunder," Crichton said, his nostrils flaring from the burning stench. "Aeryn, would prisoners have been able to get hold of a weapon that could turn these ships into Swiss cheese?"
Aeryn shook her head, still absorbing the scene before her. "No. They would at least need a pulse cannon to do this, and prison transports don’t carry them."
"And besides," she said, surveying the damage on the closest Prowler, "why would they destroy these ships? They could have used them to escape."
"Escape from what?" Crichton asked.
"And just what the hezmana is that?"
Crichton, Aeryn and Zhaan turned to the direction D’Argo was pointing. At the far end of the hangar was a large egg-shaped pod, grayish-white in color. No markings were visible, but it was the only ship that remained undamaged.
Crichton walked up to the pod, taking in the odd design. "Okay. Is it safe to assume this is not standard Peacekeeper issue? I would guess if it was, it would have been blown to dust as well, right?"
"I’ve never seen anything like this," Aeryn said, running her hand along the ship’s smooth exterior.
"Neither have I," said Zhaan. "But why is it on board?"
Before anyone could answer, D’Argo quickly turned his head and sniffed the air, his body tensing, shifting his Qualta Blade into pulse rifle mode.
"What is it? What do you smell?" Aeryn asked, raising her own pulse rifle.
"It’s burning flesh," said D’Argo, sniffing the air cautiously.
Crichton removed his pistol from the holster. Zhaan held her bags close to her, shuddering from the revelation.
"A lot of it too," he added.
On a ledge close to the roof of the hangar, the creature perched, silent as a hawk. It watched the four beings exit the hangar with an intense curiosity. It blended into the shadows, invisible. Pressing a button on its gauntlet, the heat signatures of the four beings took on greater clarity through its helmet.
One was very large. A Luxan. Excellent. It would be a formidable opponent.
The tall blue-skinned female barely registered: a Delvian, perhaps? No weapons. No challenge there.
The Sebaceans were another matter: both the male and female had weapons, and they had the taint of the Peacekeepers about them. Perfect, it thought. They would be good for the hunt.
The creature tilted its head, noticing the readings for the male Sebacean. His core temperature was much higher then the females. It tapped its helmet slightly. Perhaps there was a simple error in the thermal registers.
Pressing several more buttons on its gauntlet, the exterior and interior doors of the docking bay locked silently, trapping the new visitors.
The creature lunged silently through the air, landing gracefully on a ledge beneath where it had sat, and disappeared through a portal into the lower tiers of the ship.
"Bring down the lighting and the thunder," it said to itself.
"Pilot, are you receiving this?" Crichton tapped the button on the encrypted comm.
"Yes, Commander. The signal has slight distortion in it, but Moya and I can compensate by increasing the modulation."
"Perfect. Tell the others we’re fine. No sign of any Peacekeepers or prisoners. But someone acted out Desert Storm here, all the ships were blasted to dren except for some weird looking pod."
"I will relay the information, immediately. Please be careful."
Aeryn smiled slightly. "It looks like your ‘hunch’ paid off, Crichton. Since the signal we had intercepted was on an irregular channel, something in here must be trying to block communications."
"Yep. And using encryption is overcoming that," he said, touching the gold comm pinned to his vest. It still resembled the normal comms the crew carried except for its interior modifications. "Now all we need to know is who is doing it, and why."
"The better question," D’Argo said quietly, pointing towards the opening of the maintenance bay "is who did this?"
They had followed the scent D’Argo picked up in the main hangar, and followed the Luxan through the access arteries. The scene before them caused their jaws to drop in horror.
Strewn about the floor, at least a dozen Peacekeepers lay dead, victim of some recent massacre. Many had been shot through the chest by an energy weapon, some at such close range that their bodies had caught fire. D’Argo’s eyes watered at the scents, now stronger than ever. The weapon used on them generated so much heat; some of the bodies were partially incinerated.
Looking up, five Peacekeepers hung from the ceiling by their feet, cables twisted tightly around their ankles. Their arms reached lifelessly towards the floor. Crichton shuddered at the sight. They were nude. No clothing, and no flesh. Their bodies had been completely skinned. They were reduced to dark shredded masses of red and purple. Pools of blood clotted on the floor beneath them, and were splattered on the walls and equipment all around the hangar.
Worst of all, several were missing their heads.
"I don’t think I want to know the answer to that, D’Argo." Crichton said.
"Goddess take pity," Zhaan said mournfully. "No one deserves to die like this." She began reciting prayers for the deceased.
Crichton walked around the carnage, inspecting the decapitated bodies. "This just happened within the day. Aeryn, why would prisoners be this brutal? It doesn’t make sense, if they could escape why not just take the transport pods and leave?"
Aeryn turned her head and paused. "I don’t think they did leave, Crichton. Take a look."
Crichton and the others walked to the end of the bay where Aeryn now stood. Before them were more bodies. A dozen species at least: A young Sheyang, a Vorcarian, two ravaged and headless corpses of what appeared to be Luxans, a large body with deep red skin they could not identify as well as several Sebaceans. The rest were mutilated beyond recognition. All except for a large reptilian corpse whose head and spine had been removed.
Aeryn recognized it immediately. "John, this was a Scarran!"
"Yeah, I recognize that, Sunshine," Crichton said. "What the hell did this to him? They’re not exactly easy to kill."
D’Argo reached down to inspect the Scarran’s corpse. His fingers ran along the length of the cavity where the spine had been. There was a continuous incision along each side of the spine that sliced smoothly through the ribs. The cuts were clean with no hacking or sawing through the bone.
"This could not have been done with a knife or sword, this was done in one stroke," D’Argo said. "And do you have any idea of the strength needed to tear out the spine and head of a Scarran? It had to be immense. I could never do this."
"But why would they have taken the time to arrange the bodies like this?" Zhaan indicated the layout of the prisoners’ bodies. They were laid in perfect symmetry side by side. The weapons they had used, presumably during a revolt, were laid beside each user, perhaps as a small gesture of respect. But why or by whom, no one could even hazard a guess.
"I’m pretty sure Peacekeepers wouldn’t have bothered to do this," Crichton said. "Hell, they didn’t even do that for their own over there," he indicated to the charred bodies. "So, who did all this?"
"Haaksekah," Aeryn whispered. "The stories must be true."
Crichton looked at her, the realization of what they talked about earlier becoming very clear. "Then we need to get the hell out of here. Is Acroyan’s pilot even alive?" He walked over to the hangars clamshell. "Pilot of Acroyan, are you able to communicate? Please respond."
"Pilot of Acroyan? Are you there?"
"This is bad. Very bad." Crichton pressed a button on his comm. "Pilot, can you communicate with the Acroyan’s pilot? So far we found no one…" He swallowed hard. "It looks like everyone here is dead, some kind of a massacre took place. Have you found any signs of life on board?"
"Yes. There are now several life forms on the bottom tiers, Commander. They seem to be heading your way." Worry sounded in Pilot’s voice.
"No need to tell us twice, Pilot. We are out of here." Crichton turned to the others. "C’mon, gang! We need to make like a banana and split, real fast."
D’Argo stood silently by the two headless bodies lying before him. "These must have been Luxans," he said, sadly. "This is no way for a warrior to die."
"They were Illanics, not Luxans," came a deep voice from behind them.
D’Argo hissed and turned instinctively towards the being that emerged from an exhaust vent. Crichton, Aeryn and Zhaan moved quickly to his side, weapons ready.
"They were Illanics, like me," the tall being said. He was cloaked in a black, quilted tunic. His heavy brow ridge ended in tentacles emerging from the sides if his head, indicating his heritage. In his hand was a Kalta Sword, weapon of the Illanic warriors.
"And you can forget about leaving," he added. "By now, the demon has locked the hangar doors and trapped you in here with us."
"So, are you three all that’s left of the prisoners," Crichton asked. "Did any Peacekeepers survive this little war you had on board?" Crichton referred to the two others who had followed Vaal Targus, the Illanic, out of the exhaust vent.
"I am called Rael."
She was a Vocarian female. The dead Vorcarian male lying on the floor had been her mate. Unlike the ill-tempered blood trackers he and Aeryn had met on Dam-Ba-Da over a cycle ago, this one was cleaner, and seemingly less aggressive. She bore no scars and, except for carrying a pulse rifle, showed no open hostility. Cycles of Peacekeeper incarceration can break even the strongest spirits.
"And I am Zern. Jhennazim Zern."
She was also female, and a beautiful one at that. She was tall, with deep gray skin and long locks of dark red hair. She wore the equivalent of a bikini with a long green loincloth that stopped at her sandaled feet. She carried no weapon.
"I am Proximosian."
The others only looked at her, puzzled. No one had ever heard of a Proximosian. It was just as well, they probably never heard of a human, either.
After the quick introductions, the prisoners led Crichton, Aeryn, Zhaan and D’Argo single file through the exhaust vent to the main hangar where Moya’s transport pod sat, gratefully undamaged.
"We are all that’s left," Vaal said, scanning the hangar for any signs of life. "When the cell doors on the ship all unlocked, we thought someone had come to liberate us. After we procured our possessions, this bloody melee began and almost all the prisoners were slain as well as the Peacekeepers." His teeth clenched at the memory. "My brethren, they all lay dead back there."
"My mate was one of the first to die," Rael said, no emotion evident in her voice.
Aeryn frowned. She felt sympathy for the prisoners standing before her. No one had asked them what crimes they had been imprisoned for, it hardly seemed important. Getting to safety was now the primary concern. After what they witnessed on board, compassion was not something to be refused, especially if the Peacekeepers were responsible.
"Who the frell did all this?" she asked. "How many of them are there, anyway?"
"Only one," said the Proximosian in a high-pitched voice. "There is ghost on board Acroyan, the very one that haunts the Nil."
"A ghost did this?" Crichton eyed the tall woman disbelievingly. "Hey lady, they may scare the crap out of you and walk around in a sheet, but they don’t leave trails of corpses that would leave the Manson family trembling, let alone take their heads."
D’Argo nodded in agreement, even if the meaning of Crichton’s words were confusing. "Agreed. Something living is responsible for all the hezmat that happened here."
"You believe one being did all this? What goddess could create something so cruel?" Zhaan still recoiled from her surroundings. She could barely accept the horror she had seen, let alone attribute it to one creature.
"Who knows," said Rael. "I caught its scent, but I never sensed anything like it. The species is not familiar to me. Just like you." She looked at Crichton. "What species are you? You’re not a Sebacean, the scent is all wrong."
"I’m human. No one’s heard of us out here. Which is probably a good thing."
Crichton manually checked the controls to the hangar door. There was no response.
"Enough chitchat, we need to get going. Pilot! Can you get the hangar doors open?"
Static was audible over Pilot’s comm signal. "I’m sorry, Commander. The doors have been closed and locked. I’ve been trying to use all available access codes on the Peacekeeper database in Moya’s systems, but nothing works. The override controls have been compromised."
"Keep trying, Pilot." He turned to the others. "So now what?"
Aeryn brightened up. "I’ll bet the unknown power source that Pilot detected is coming from the chambers of Acroyan’s pilot. He did say it was drifting in and out of consciousness. If we can get there and revive it, I’m sure we can restore some control to the ship, at the very least."
"That way is death," Vaal said. "It has already been tried. The ghost watches carefully and has killed those who try to reach the pilot’s den."
"But we have to try," Aeryn said.
Moya’s crew and the prisoners turned. Standing behind them with pulse rifles raised were several Peacekeepers and their captain.
"What the frell do you mean they can’t get out?"
"I’m sorry Chiana," Pilot said, trying to maintain patience with the Nebari girl. "The hangar doors on the Acroyan have closed and I am unable to manually re-open them. Until they can restore full power to the ship, or revive Acroyan’s pilot, we are unable to help them."
Chiana frowned. "So, would this be a good time to hot-wire Aeryn’s Prowler and go out there to shoot the doors open?"
"I don’t recommend that, Chiana."
"I knew it was a trap! I warned them not to go," exclaimed Rygel, his throne sled circling around Pilot erratically. "I demand you prepare a transport pod and get me the yotz out of here immediately, Pilot!"
"Rygel, we are not leaving the others. Now please calm down."
"Froggy, take a breather," Chiana said. "We’re staying put."
"It’s a conspiracy!" Rygel’s tantrum continued unabated. "They are out to get me, and we have the means of escape and you are preventing me from saving myself!"
Chiana’s lip curled. "Rygel…"
"Back on Hyneria if you refused a Dominar they would flay the skin off your…"
A swift backhand slap from Chiana ended Rygel’s tirade and knocked the Hynerian out cold. Peace and quiet settled over Pilot’s chamber once again.
Pilot sighed, the tension subsiding for the moment. "Thank you, Chiana."
Chiana turned her attention back to the viewscreen showing the drifting leviathan D’Argo and the others were trapped on.
"Hang on, gang. Please hang on," she said softly.
"For the last time Captain Selane, we did not do this to your crew or any of the prisoners. We just arrived on board after intercepting a distress signal from your ship!" Aeryn’s face flushed from frustration. The man resisted all attempts at reason.
"I would expect such an excuse from the traitor Aeryn Sun," Selane sneered. "Yes, that’s right, I know who you are, Officer Sun. I know who all of you are, the escaped prisoners from the Moya. Is it mere coincidence you are here to liberate these prisoners just as you did yourselves almost two cycles ago? I doubt it."
Crichton faced Selane with his arms crossed. Despite his threats, the others had not surrendered their weapons since it was still not obvious to Selane he did not have the advantage. Both sides faced each other with weapons pointed and ready to fire.
Selane himself was unimpressive. He was medium height with a youthful complexion, and closely cropped dark hair. His contempt for everything non-Peacekeeper was evident in his closely set, dark eyes, which never stopped scowling while he talked. The man was all attitude. He must have had a thorn in his ass the size of D’Argo, Crichton thought.
Only four of his soldiers from the original detachment were still alive: two males, a female and a female tech. They all stood behind him grim-faced and silent while their captain ranted on.
"We didn’t detect any signs of life on board this ship," said Crichton. "So where were you guys hiding anyway?"
"We were not hiding." Selane corrected rather quickly. "Peacekeepers do not hide. But if you feel you must know, there’s a containment room beneath the ion backwash chamber lined with vorellium that can block out most ship scans. And now, I believe there’s a considerable award for the capture of all of you. Now that this mutiny has been contained, you will surrender your weapons you used to murder my soldiers."
"Murder your soldiers?" said Vaal, barely containing his rage. "Fekik bastard, almost all the prisoners are dead on this ship. My brethren were massacred by your soldiers, and lay dead on the floor of this vessel!"
"As is my mate," Rael added.
Selane smirked. "I certainly don’t recall it happening that way."
"You’re as transparent as glass, Selane. And you’re without honor, just like all Peacekeepers." Vaal held up his sword. "D’Argo! Stand with me, cousin. We can defeat these cowards."
"It seems to be coming to that," D’Argo said.
"All right, cease fire, all of you." Crichton said growing impatient. "Listen asshole, is it not obvious yet we had nothing to do with this? You said the fighting had been going on for almost three solar days. We just got here."
Selane remained expressionless, but still defiant. "Perhaps you’re in league with the one that came aboard that strange pod. You only just arrived now to help him. That would explain your presence."
Crichton rolled his eyes. "That’s weak, man. I don’t think so, and we’re not crazy enough. Who or what was on that pod?"
"We were hoping you could tell us that."
"Well, we can’t," said Aeryn.
"Actually Captain, I…I think I saw it."
The female tech slowly walked forward. Selane stared at her hard, forcing her into silence. Crichton looked at her eyes. They were filled with fear, and not just from her commanding officer.
"Why didn’t say so before?" Selane asked, accusingly.
"Hell, isn’t that obvious, Napoleon?" Crichton said. "Now, why don’t you back off and give her a chance?"
He looked at her, gesturing with his hands, managing to get the others to lower their weapons. "It’s all right. Let her talk, okay? Let’s hear what she knows."
Selane drew in a deep breath. Finally, he quickly nodded to the tech to speak freely.
"Kymera Tovin, sir, Peacekeeper maintenance provost. We were on our way to Ivon-Arda, a lifer’s colony, when we intercepted an unidentified craft. We thought it might be Scarran, but it didn’t conform to any of their designs. And I was part of the crew that had been examining it."
Crichton nodded as she talked. "Go on."
Prisoners and Peacekeepers alike slowly gathered around the frail looking tech as she recounted the retrieval of the unknown ship. The story unfolded: There had been attempts to open it, but work stopped when unidentified malfunctions with the internal controls of the leviathan ship began occurring. Contact was lost with the ship’s pilot. The prisoner’s cells all unlocked without explanation. There was fighting between the Peacekeepers and their newly freed prisoners. Finally, the violent deaths of Peacekeepers and prisoners quickly followed after. The pieces began to fall into place.
"Only a few Peacekeepers and prisoners died from the breakout," Kymera said. "The rest were killed by him."
"Who is he?" Crichton suspected her next answer, but waited to hear her say it.
Kymera swallowed hard before answering. "Haaksekah."
"Officer Tovin, you should know better than to believe stories that are meant to frighten children," said Selane, amused at her fears. "Besides, no one has seen any other being on this ship except for these newcomers." Selane gave Crichton and the others an accusing glance.
"But I saw it sir. Only a glimpse, but I saw it."
"What did you see?" Crichton asked.
Kymera looked at Crichton, unsure how to word her description. "It was huge, there was nothing there when I looked, just a distortion in the air."
"But, it’s eyes…" She paused a moment. "I saw its eyes flash for a moment. That’s how I knew how big it was. It cut off Markar’s head. He never had a chance. After it happened, I just ran as fast as I could."
Her words trailed off. A tear fell from her eye. Crichton gently put his hand on her shoulder. He could feel a swell of pity for her. Except for her red hair and height, she reminded him of Gilina, when she was still alive. The friend she mentioned must have been among the first to die after the prisoners escaped.
Aeryn stepped forward to the tech. "Why were the bodies of the prisoners laid out in reverence? If the Peacekeepers didn’t do it, why would the Haaksekah?"
Kymera lowered her head, unable to answer.
Crichton turned, and faced the tall Proximosian who had remained silent the whole time.
"As I had said before, it is a ghost. Who knows why they do what they do?"
The creature watched from above. They had all gathered in one place: the new visitors, the remaining prisoners and the surviving Peacekeepers.
The creature pressed a button on its gauntlet. Swirls of blues and greens surrounded the figures, registering cooler temperatures. Except for a few, the figures that filled the viewscreen of his helmet were shades of red, orange and yellow. Body heat.
The creature observed the male Sebacean visitor intriguingly. The thermal registers in its helmet were functioning normally, yet the man’s core temperature was still higher than all the other Sebaceans. There was a familiarity to the readings. Something from another hunt many cycles before.
It raised its head. Now it remembered.
Not a Sebacean. Its body temperature is too high.
It lifted its arm, two blades shot out of its gauntlet. Time to hunt.
"So, we have a truce then?"
"Only for now," grumbled Selane, annoyed that Crichton seemed to be the one commanding the situation, on his own ship, no less.
"It would seem the only way to get off this ship is to revive Acroyan’s pilot, so I would suggest we try to find a way to reach him," Zhaan said.
"We already tried that Delvian," said Pykis, the tall male Peacekeeper standing behind Captain Selane. "The Haaksekah has killed everyone who tried to get to the pilot’s chamber. A lot of my mates are laying dead up there."
"There are alternate routes through the vents, we can try that way," said Aeryn. You have reinforcements now, if we stay here, that thing could attack again."
"It will attack again anyway," said Selane. "Plus, we’re dangerously low on ammunition, Officer Sun. We used all our grenades, and the pulse rifles you see here are only half-loaded. Do you really think that will be enough, after what has happened here?" He made no attempt to hide his sarcasm.
"Then we make some additional weapons," Aeryn said.
"From what, food cubes?" Gemmin, the female Peacekeeper, said angrily. "Everything on the ship has been blown to crank."
"Wait a second," Crichton said. "Do those Prowlers still have any fuel in them? If there are any glass bottles around, we can make some Molotov Cocktails."
Selane looked at him, baffled. "What is a Mollo- Toff?"
"We just fill a glass bottle with fuel, put a cloth fuse in the mouth, light it and it makes a crude bomb. If we encounter that thing on our way to visit Pilot, we can nail him with a couple of those."
Selane snorted. "Hardly sounds worth the effort. It’s a primitive weapon at best."
"Hey, I said it was a crude bomb. But it’s still a bomb, okay?" Crichton was beginning to lose patience with the captain. The guy could give Crais some serious lessons in arrogance.
"Good thinking, John. Even the simplest things are not always obvious to others, even a Peacekeeper captain, insecure as this one is."
Crichton frowned, not wanting the others to know of Scorpius’ presence in his head. The voice would not be giving him a break today.
"There is still some fuel in one of the Prowlers, John," Aeryn said. "And there are some empty Fellip Nectar bottles around too."
Crichton slowly nodded his head. "Perfect. Let’s make some and this dirty dozen can get going."
The procession of Peacekeepers, prisoners and Moya’s crewmembers moved quickly and quietly through the dimly lit corridor of Acroyan’s upper tier. Only the muffled sounds of breathing could be heard.
Making the Molotovs had been an easy task, after Crichton gave a quick explanation of what to do. Aeryn found several empty bottles with a slight copper color to them, slightly smaller than a wine bottle. Pykis and Doban, the other surviving Peacekeeper under Selane’s command, tore some scraps of cloth off the bodies of the dead prisoners to make fuses.
Aeryn had remarked the fuel would burn very hot once it ignited, making Crichton hesitant to fill the bottles up all the way, as it might be fatal to anyone using them. Gasoline may have been effective, but Prowler fuel was another matter entirely.
With that task completed, it was decided to attempt to reach the pilot’s den through a ventilation duct on the far side of the tier. Molotovs were distributed to Pykis, Gemmin, Vaal and Aeryn. Crichton had no arguments with the distribution of the bombs to whoever was qualified to use them. He had a problem with the positions taken by the members of the unit that had hastily formed to reach the pilot’s den. He balked when Selane insisted Aeryn take the point at the front of the line, and even more bothered when she complied with no argument. D’Argo agreed to cover her from behind, while the remaining Peacekeepers kept Zhaan, the two female prisoners and the tech between them with Vaal, Selane and himself bringing up the rear.
At each turn in the darkened corridors, he turned a hard glance towards Selane, who never seemed to quit staring at him.
"If you’ve got something to say, Selane, then say it," Crichton finally said. "I’m getting seriously tired of the attitude."
"Scorpius has wanted beacons all over the Uncharted Territories for you, Crichton," Selane said, taunting him. You must be quite valuable to him. Although for the life of me, I can’t imagine why."
"Yeah, I can believe that. You can’t imagine much, period. Can you?"
Selane chuckled for the first time since they encountered him. "You’ll have to do better than that to get a rise out of me."
"Ah. Do your girlfriends have that problem?"
He did not respond. His brow wrinkled into another scowl.
Crichton could still feel the captain’s eyes burning into his back. "If you keep doing that, Captain Bligh, they may freeze in that position. Then you might scare all the girls away."
"Have your fun, Crichton. But Scorpius will reward generously whoever turns you in to him. I myself wouldn’t mind a promotion, or a better assignment. Capturing you would be a considerable advancement for me." Selane pointed a gloved finger at him. "Your time is limited, so I would advise you to watch your back."
"Hell, I thought you were already doing that, Selane."
The scraping sound of metal diverted their attention. Aeryn was pushing open an access door with the help of Pykis.
He had not only been bothered by Aeryn’s willingness to take the point, but by how easy she slipped back into the role she had performed many times as a Peacekeepers. Her pulse rifle extended forward, her unspoken communication with the other soldiers as they checked and cleared each intersection and the precision with which it was done. Crichton frowned, wondering if she would ever be free of Peacekeeper influences. Just when it seemed she moved a step forward, circumstances made her go two steps back.
They stopped at a large triangular vent that was flush with the gold walls of the corridor. Under the dim red lights, it was barely visible.
Aeryn began to grope around the metal grid with her fingers to secure a handhold. "We open this, we can climb up to the top of Pilot’s chamber, and see what his situation is."
"Her situation. It’s a female," corrected Gemmin.
Aeryn nodded. "I’ll go up and have a look. We can get a bird’s eye view from the other end of this vent."
"Stay in constant contact, Aeryn," Crichton warned. He hated the idea of her separating from him and the others, but said nothing. She would be irritated at the notion he had that she needed looking after. Besides, he knew she felt she was looking after him a lot more.
"I’ll go too, and cover her back," Gemmin said. "With your permission sir," she added, looking to Selane for approval.
"Proceed, Officer Gemmin."
Aeryn and Gemmin climbed up into the narrow shaft while the others formed a small perimeter around the vent’s opening. There were three long corridors that intersected where they all stood, each one a potential avenue of attack from an unseen enemy. Haaksekah always came without warning, it had been said.
Crichton pressed the button on his comm. "How’s it look in there, Aeryn?"
Her legs tensed with each step as she and Gemmin made their way up the steep shaft to the pilot’s chamber. The walls of the shaft were narrow. It was pitch black in the duct. The light from the top of her pulse rifle was their only source to see where they were going.
Aeryn’s thoughts shifted. The last time she traveled through these shafts was when their pilot disconnected himself from Moya in a fit of anger and despair at the knowledge of a data chip that showed Aeryn as part of a squad executing Moya’s first pilot. She and Crichton made their way through the vents around the armed DRDs with Crichton to try and reconcile with him.
Now she was walking the same path again on a different leviathan, repeating the process with Acroyan’s pilot. Only the reasons for this system shutdown were totally unknown. Whoever did the executing on this ship had not been biased towards prisoners only.
"It’s really warm up here John," she said. Her breathing started to come in hard gasps. The temperature should not have been as high as it was for the ducts connecting the pilot’s chamber. Gemmin’s breathing became ragged as well. High temperatures were anathema to Sebaceans.
"We’re almost there, I can see the light from the chamber now."
"Make it quick, Aeryn. You don’t want to be in that heat too long." He tried his best to hide his concern. He did not want to give the Peacekeeper captain another piece of information to use to his advantage.
Aeryn and Gemmin came to a stop before a metal grate, breathing heavily. A blue light bathed their faces from the pilot’s chamber. Looking down, the large form of Acroyan’s pilot sat, immobile. Her head was slumped down against her chest, and her four arms were folded up towards its body. Only a gentle swaying of the body indicated any sign of life. DRDs were present in the chamber, but were all switched off, like in the rest of the ship.
Gemmin raised her arm, pointing towards the pilot. "Officer Sun, what is that?"
Aeryn’s gaze fell upon the pilot’s command console. Immediately to the left of the sleeping pilot, a box-shaped object was attached. Silver in color with black trim on its edges, several cables came out of the rounded end and into the console. A sequence of red lights on the top flashed every few microts in a consistent pattern.
"Crichton, we see the pilot," she said quietly. "She’s unconscious, she might be drugged. Also, there’s some kind of device attached to the control console. I don’t recognize it. We’re going down for a better look."
"Aeryn, that’s not a good idea. You said the temperature was higher than normal."
She swung the grate open. "Yes, but I think that device is what’s causing the irregularity in Acroyan’s systems." If remove it, I could restore the ships functions back to normal, temperature included."
"How are you going to do that?" Gemmin asked, visibly confused. "The pilot controls all the ship’s functions. How could you possibly know how to do what it does? Those controls aren’t like a frelling Prowlers."
"Just trust me on this, Gemmin," Aeryn insisted. She did not wish to explain how she had traces of pilot DNA in her body to a suspicious Peacekeeper, nor did she want to. She was already irreversibly contaminated to the Peacekeepers; she did not want to add fuel to the fire, as Crichton would say.
"I’m going to climb down, you wait here and-"
She froze. Her gaze was fixed on Gemmin. Three small dots of red light had appeared on her chest in a triangular pattern.
Gemmin looked down at the lights, which began to move slowly over her heart. "What the frell is that supposed to be?"
Realization struck Aeryn, and she pulled Gemmin away from the vents opening just as a bolt of yellow light shot through, missing her heart but striking her left shoulder full force. Gemmin screamed in agony.
"What the hezmana just happened?" D’Argo looked up the ventilation duct towards the sound he just heard. "That was a scream."
Panic flashed in Crichton’s eyes. "Aeryn! Gemmin! Get the hell out of there, now!"
The sound of an energy blast repeated itself over the comm’s transmission. The clanging of boots echoed through the narrow shaft as they rushed down the duct in a hurry to escape. Aeryn’s voice, bordering on desperate, was fractured through the comm’s transmission.
"Crichton… D’Argo… under attack… Gemm… hit… out… now."
"C’mon Aeryn, Hurry!" Crichton looked up the shaft, cursing the distance it took her and the Peacekeeper to get back, wishing for some sign of a safe return. The others raised their weapons, anticipating an attack from any direction.
"John! The lights."
Crichton looked up, responding to Zhaan’s cry. Red emergency lights had previously lit the corridor. Without warning, the main lights came on, temporarily blinding everyone. As their eyes adjusted, they reeled in shock once again. The gold walls of Acroyan’s corridor were splattered all along its walls with blood. D’Argo, Vaal, Selane and the other Peacekeepers raised their weapons down the three intersecting corridors, scanning anxiously for an intruder.
Empty. There was nothing in sight.
"John! Gemmin’s been shot." Crichton turned to Aeryn’s voice. She came out the duct holding up Gemmin, who had a massive wound below her shoulder. He breathed a sigh of relief. Aeryn, though frantic and overheated, was unharmed.
"Zhaan, take a look at this, it’s pretty bad," Crichton said as he gently lowered the female Peacekeeper to the floor. "What the hell hit her, Aeryn?"
Aeryn was still breathing heavily. "I don’t know, but I think it followed us down the duct." You and your men need to stay alert, Captain Selane."
"I think you need to be more alert, woman," Selane snapped. "How did this happen to one of my soldiers? You could have easily done that to her. I’m tired of this ruse; we will take the pilot’s frelling chamber now and see to having the rest of you contained."
Jhennazim gasped. "Captain, behind you!"
"Then I will see to it that- uhh!"
The tall alien woman pushed Selane out of the way just in time. In a blur, an object shot past the captain and knocked the Peacekeeper named Doban against the wall. The others turned in surprise. A snare net had pinned him against the bulkhead and was constricting instantly, crushing him under its mesh.
"Open fire!" Selane screamed.
Pulse rifles and pistols opened fire in every direction hoping to hit whatever had snared Doban. D’Argo and Vaal fired their pulse rifles in the direction the net had come from. Crichton, Aeryn and Rael fired down one corridor. Selane, Pykis and Kymera fired down the other. Gemmin, barely conscious, lay helplessly against the wall.
Zhaan and the Proximosian struggled in vain to free Doban from the net. The thick clamps that held the net in place would not budge. The net constricted even further and became so tight that Zhaan heard him asphyxiate.
An explosion rocked the whole tier as a bright yellow burst from an energy weapon exploded against the wall, throwing Zhaan and Jhennazim to the floor. Both Peacekeepers and prisoners ducked as a second and third burst streaked past, shattering the floor. Whatever the weapon was, its power signature was incredible.
Zhaan and Jhennazim returned to pulling at the snare net, desperate to free the dying Peacekeeper. A sudden gurgling sound and the slackening of his limbs told them they were too late.
"We cannot save him, Zhaan," Jhennazim said mournfully.
Zhaan whispered a prayer for the unfortunate Peacekeeper. During their short period of time working together, he had never even spoke. Zhaan, oblivious to the battle around her, gently closed his eyes, his expression being his only words.
"Retreat and regroup!" Aeryn shouted. "We’re too vulnerable out here!"
"Go!" D’Argo roared, barely dodging another blast. "I’ll get the girl. Take the rear access artery, I’ll be right behind you."
Rael sniffed the air and cast her eyes to the rafters above the corridor. "Look! Up there."
D’Argo, Aeryn, Crichton and Selane looked just in time to see a figure, transparent but with a man-like shape jumping to the floor. It was big, whatever it was. Its outline appeared as a distortion in the air. Two flashes of yellow indicated a set of eyes where the head would be.
D’Argo fired his pulse rifle towards the rippling mass, using the heated shots to ignite the cloth fuse on the Molotov he held in his other hand. With a roar, he threw the bomb towards the creature and ran, taking Gemmin with him.
There was a bright flash and a tremendous burst of heat as the corridor lit up like an exploding star. Aeryn, Selane, Pykis and Kymera all gasped from the sudden wave of heat that struck at their backs as they ran down the corridor. Gemmin cried out in pain. Even with D’Argo shielding half her body carrying her over his shoulder, the heat ravaged her already-burning wound.
They ran non-stop through the corridors for what seemed like half an arn. They passed empty cells, crew’s quarters and several dead bodies they hurriedly stepped over. There was no time to grieve for the dead, anyway.
They finally came to a stop at a room laid out for medical treatment. Fortunately, it had been untouched by the events on the Acroyan for the past few days. Aeryn D’Argo and Vaal quickly scanned the room from the doorway, looking for any signs of the creature’s presence. No other entrance to the room was visible from where they stood.
"D’Argo, take Gemmin in there and put her on the table," said Aeryn. "She doesn’t have much time, Zhaan needs to look after her wound."
She turned to Crichton as Vaal and D’Argo entered with Gemmin, gently placing her on the nearest table. Her breathing was becoming shallow. "John, that thing has drugged the pilot and has remote control of the ship’s functions. We aren’t getting out of here until we get control of ship’s functions back."
Crichton shook his head in disgust. "So until then, it can basically do to us on this ship whatever it wants. Wonderful, we’re easy pickings for the Terminator."
He looked up. "Aeryn, I…Hey!"
An explosion shook the room as a bolt of yellow light shot between Crichton and Aeryn, shattering the floor and throwing Crichton and the others back through the doorway where they had stood. Aeryn was thrown to the ground, dazed from the light’s brilliance. D’Argo and Vaal, both stunned from the energy burst, struggled to regain their balance.
With a push, Aeryn forced herself upright, pulse rifle aiming in the direction of the blast. As her eyes adjusted, she could see the door had swung shut, trapping her, D’Argo, Vaal and Gemmin in the room. The pounding of fists was audible on the other side as the others tried to force open the door.
"D’Argo! Vaal! The creature is in here! Protect Gemmin and get-"
She never completed the sentence. A spear shot across the room like a bolt of lightning and pierced her right thigh. Aeryn hit the floor again, crying out in pain. The spear was sectioned, with both ends bladed, a thick long cylinder served as the center and handle. The blade in her leg had a barbed tip; her futile attempt to remove it only caused her more agony.
Looking up through her tears, she saw a large figure drop from the ceiling and strike D’Argo from behind, sending him sprawling. Vaal, attempting to get back on his feet, slowly drew his blade to try and face the creature. Gemmin, barely conscious, lay helpless on the table.
The creature was now visible. It was a giant, powerfully built, at least as tall as D’Argo. Its bare gray limbs were covered with a net-like material. The head was encased in a large metallic helmet with thick black strands coming out of its head, not unlike D’Argo’s tentacles. Several skulls hung around its waist, all Sebacean. It wore large metal gauntlets on both arms. One of them had two protruding blades that were dripping black ochre from their tips. Luxan blood. The thing had cut D’Argo deeply from behind.
The creature walked to the center of the room, examining the survivors. Perched on the creature’s left shoulder was a thick metal barrel that moved and pivoted in the same direction its head moved. An energy weapon, Aeryn thought to herself, Powerful enough to destroy the Prowlers, incinerate the ship’s crew and annihilate just about everything else.
The creature turned its head towards her, the weapon following its gaze. Three points of red light formed in a triangle on Aeryn’s face, moving to the middle of her forehead.
She froze; her eyes open wide and locked on the creature before her. Her body went numb. She no longer felt the pain in her leg.
All sounds disappeared. The only noise in her ears was the rapid beating of her heart…
To be continued…