|Crichton vs. Predator: In the Belly of the Beast (Part 2)|
by Spacelord, E-mail: Spacelord
About Crichton vs. Predator: In the Belly of the Beast (Part 2)
Rating: PG-13 (Profanity and violence).
Summary: With the temperature increasing to near fatal levels for Aeryn and the others, Crichton travels into the bowels of the leviathan ship to face the alien hunter. Though the odds are stacked against him, he has a weapon the creature is unaware of, and his name is Scorpy.
Spoilers: Various, through the first two seasons, but before LG&M.
Disclaimers: See Part 1 for details.
"In ancient times skillful warriors first made themselves invincible, and then watched for vulnerability in their opponents." - Sun Tzu, The Art of War
"Aeryn! Aeryn! D’Argo! Somebody get this goddamned door open!" Crichton slammed his body against the locked door to the medical lab, frantic to reach the others behind it.
"Frelling creature thought of everything," said Pykis, joining Crichton in unison to breach the door. "He must’ve manually locked it and is controlling the codes."
"May as well forget them Crichton, the creature is in there with them," Selane said coldly. "They’re already dead."
"The hell you say!" he roared back. "One of your own is in there, Selane. Are you going to let her die, too?"
"You saw her wound, she is as good as dead."
"Pilot!" Crichton shouted into his comm. "Can you get a fix on our position?"
Pilot’s voice responded instantly. "Yes, Commander. You are on the top tier in front of the officers medical bay."
"Can you manually access the door code? We have to get in now, Aeryn and D’Argo are trapped!" Crichton slammed his body against the door again. It would not budge.
"We’re working on it, Commander, with all possible haste."
"John?" Chiana’s voice came in over the comm. "What’s happening to them?"
"No time to explain, Pip." He slammed against the door again. He told himself not to panic, but the feeling grew stronger inside. With each microt, any chances of saving them slipped away.
Aeryn lay on her side, the blood from her leg wound pooling underneath her. Her gaze remained locked on the creature standing in front of her. Its weapon was targeting her and preparing to fire.
From an early age, she realized she might not live a long life. Premature death was the big downside to a Peacekeeper’s career. Life on the run with Crichton and the others practically made it a guarantee. It was just as well; she had no regrets about it, particularly where Crichton was concerned. He had saved her life the day Captain Crais deemed her irreversibly contaminated. She would have died then anyway. Her only regret now would be she could not say goodbye. Such is fate, she thought to herself.
"Get it over with," she said, her voice barely a whisper.
"Need to be more alert, woman…" the creature said. Aeryn blinked, startled. It was using Selane’s voice.
Closing her eyes, she waited for the killing shot.
"Demon! You killed my brethren! Now, I will kill you!"
Vaal came up from behind with his sword, striking a glancing blow to the creature as it turned at the sound of his voice. It faced the enraged Illanic and expertly blocked and countered the blows from Vanth’s Kalta Sword with the blades on its gauntlet.
Unable to move, Aeryn could only watch and wait for the outcome of the battle. Her pulse rifle lay out of her reach, and the Molotov she carried had been knocked loose from her belt, lying near D’Argo where he fell when the creature struck him down.
The Molotov. Hope seized her again, but it would need some assistance.
"D’Argo…D’Argo, can you hear me," She said faintly. "I need your help."
The injured Luxan stirred, oblivious to the fight raging before him. Slowly lifting his head, his gaze met Aeryns.
"D’Argo, the bomb…Roll it towards me."
D’Argo’s eyes fell on the Molotov, lying within arms reach of him.
Despite his considerable skill with the sword, the Illanic was beginning to lose ground to the creature. Though his tenacity was ferocious, the creature parried each blow and inflicted far worse damage to him with its blades. Vanth’s black tunic was shredded with open gashes on his chest and arms. Dark blood spilled from him.
D’Argo slowly extended his arm. His hand contacted the Molotov. With a push, he rolled it towards Aeryn.
Vaal moaned in agony. The creature’s blades severed one of his chin tenkas, causing him immense pain. Blood shock began to set in. He now struggled to counter the creature’s blows. It’s strength and stamina were superior to his.
The Molotov rolled right to Aeryn’s extended hand. Ignoring her discomfort, she struggled to light the cloth fuse to the bomb.
There was a loud thud as the creature rammed its blades upward into Vaal’s chest, lifting him off the ground. Slowly his limbs went limp; his sword fell from his hand. Vaal Targus, Illanic warrior, veteran of the battle of Skander that defeated the Scorvians, was dead. The creature easily flung his lifeless corpse to the side. For a moment, it stood there looking at his body, reflecting on the battle.
The creature turned to D’Argo, looking over the barely conscious Luxan. The combination of the shock from the energy blast and the attack from behind had weakened him more than expected. The creature stood, looking over its handiwork, until a clicking noise diverted its attention.
Aeryn desperately tried to light the fuse to the Molotov, but the igniter she had was not working. Hope turned to panic as the creature turned its head to the noise of her igniter and it began to approach her once again.
A bolt of light from a pulse pistol raked the creature’s arm, causing it to stumble. Turning around, it faced the source of the attack. Officer Gemmin had managed to prop herself up on one elbow and squeezed off a shot from her pulse pistol.
"Officer Sun, you have to stop it! Hurry before-"
Aeryn’s igniter sparked to life, as the blast from the creature’s shoulder weapon struck Gemmin in the head, silencing her forever. She collapsed dead on the table. Flames licked the cloth fuse of the Molotov as it caught fire.
Instinctively, Aeryn threw the bomb as the creature turned. There was the shattering of glass, the splattering of liquids, then nothing. Her aim had been true, she struck it square in the chest, but the fuse fell out of the bottle as she hurled it. The creature raised its arms and looked down at itself as the liquid streamed harmlessly down its torso. She could feel her heart sink.
"We’ve done it, Commander! We have accessed the medical bay!"
The door swung open hard with the added momentum of Crichton and Pykis’ weight against it. The creature again reacted mechanically to the intruders, turning with its weapon, ready to fire.
But Crichton spotted it first and fired. He only got off one shot, but it was enough. The bolt from the pulse pistol ignited the fuel drenched all over the creature. There was a burst of bright light and a horrific scream as it lit up like a funeral pyre.
Aeryn gasped as the burst of heat from the Molotov’s fuel seared over her, and she fainted. Pykis, Selane and Kymera also buckled from the sudden wave of heat. The creature used the unexpected opportunity to flee. Running past Crichton, knocking him over, it fled down the corridor unchallenged by Zhaan and Jhennazim. Only Rael was able to fire off a few shots as the creature escaped, its body a fireball on two legs.
"Oh Jesus. Zhaan, is she still alive?"
Crichton crouched down beside Zhaan, looking over Aeryn’s unconscious form. His mind raced, hopeful for an outcome, but afraid of what it might be. The spear impaled in her thigh and the blood she had lost only exacerbated the situation.
"Don’t die, Sunshine."
Zhaan finally looked up. "She’s alive, John. But she has lost a lot of blood. The spear has ruptured an artery. We have to remove it, somehow."
"That’s not going to be easy, Zhaan. Look at the tip. It’s going to tear the flesh coming out as well."
Zhaan reached into her medical bag, producing a dark blue bundle she unrolled containing surgical instruments. "I have some tools that will minimize the damage. But we have to work quick."
"We need to leave now," Selane said, perspiration beginning to drip down his face. "If that creature’s still alive, it may come back."
"No!" Crichton said forcefully. "Aeryn and D’Argo have a better chance of surviving here where they can be treated. If we move them now, they could die."
"That’s not my problem, considering you’re all wanted fugitives. I’ve lost two more of my crew since you arrived, I’d prefer to stay alive."
Crichton did not look at him. "Go then, see what your chances are by yourself."
"With all due respect sir, Crichton is right." Pykis said. "If we split up now, we will all surely die. You’ve seen what the Haaksekah has wrought."
Selane’s lip curled, he was not amused- or used to- a subordinate agreeing with the enemy. Crichton looked up from his work to glance at the tall Peacekeeper, thank you etched in his face. It was always good to meet a Peacekeeper with some common sense.
Selane, Pykis, Kymera and Rael checked the room for any other entrances while Jhennazim helped D’Argo to stand up. Two deep gashes ran down his back from the creature’s assault. Black blood stained his clothes.
"Blood… must… run clear…" D’Argo said weakly.
"I know," Jhennazim said, inspecting the wounds. "The wound is not toxic yet. I can heal you."
D’Argo pointed towards his wounded comrade. "No. Help… Aeryn first."
"Will she live Commander?" Pilot asked apprehensively. He was aware of Crichton’s feelings for Aeryn, but it never diluted his own concern.
"We’ll do everything we can, Pilot. You know we will. Have you had any luck on the docking bay doors?"
"I’m sorry. Moya and I have run every access code in her database. We have had no success. The only thing we could suggest, if possible, is reviving Acroyan’s pilot."
"Already way ahead of you on that one, Pilot."
"Crichton? How is D’Argo, is he all right?" Chiana had been pacing Pilot’s chambers non-stop, filled with concern for him, her mind playing out the worst possible scenario with each thought.
"I’m all right Chiana," D’Argo replied. "I’m being taken care of. We’re already in a medical bay."
"Crichton! You have to hurry back and get us out of here! Get me out of here! Chiana is going mad, she hit me because-"
The sound of a loud smack was heard over the comm signal.
"Was that Rygel?" Crichton asked.
"Was being the operative word," Pilot said. "Please stay in touch, Commander. Moya and I will do everything we can to help all of you."
The comm went silent. Pilot sighed deeply, keeping his thoughts to himself. Chiana continued pacing the chamber restlessly, now and then stepping over Rygel’s unconscious form. She could not reach them or help them. All she could do was hope for the best, and that was never an acceptable alternative to her.
"Stupid, overbearing, immature dredgenauts," she said quietly.
Pilot gently put a clawed hand over hers, hoping to give her any comfort he could. She looked up sadly into his eyes. They had to sit this one out. Life in the Uncharteds could be unfair that way.
Removing the spear’s barbed tip from Aeryn’s leg proved to be difficult. The gash was large, and the serrated blade had sheared through half of her slender thigh. Zhaan placed two flexible silver coils on each side of the spear’s head and gently slid them in. Crichton watched them melt like wax and conform to the edges of the spear’s head, covering the jagged edges of the blades. This enabled it to be pulled out without tearing delicate tissue any further.
Don’t die, Aeryn.
With that task accomplished, the bleeding had to be stopped. There was considerable hemorrhaging, and with the spear removed, the bleeding had worsened. Aeryn remained unconscious, her breathing becoming shallow.
"Zhaan?" Crichton looked at the Delvian healer and priest for a sign of hope.
"I don’t know, John," Zhaan said. "She has lost so much blood," "Too much." Her voice failed to hide despair. Despite her skills, she was unable to stop the bleeding. Wet crimson slicked her hands. As she worked, she quietly began to recite prayers if the end suddenly came. John lowered his head.
Please don’t die on me.
"Oh, do not mourn so, John, she knew the risks as a Peacekeeper. I’m sure she would appreciate your caring for her as you do. Still, she makes a good-looking corpse, doesn’t she?"
It was Scorpius again. His face grimaced. He was reaching the end of Scorpius and his taunting.
Die, you bastard.
It chuckled. "Unlikely."
A hand gently touched his shoulder. Looking up, Jhennazim was standing over him. She began to lower her other hand down to Aeryn’s wound.
"Please. Allow me to help her."
Zhaan looked up, surprised at her actions. She slowly backed away, as did John to allow the Proximosian to kneel down beside Aeryn. She placed both hands over the wound, lightly touching the surface of her skin.
There was a soft crackling noise heard that slowly grew in its intensity. Crichton was reminded of the sound of static electricity. The description was not far off. Blue sparks became visible around the tips of the woman ’s fingers. Jhennazim tensed, her back arched, her face began visibly straining from the release of the energy she was administering.
They watched in amazement as the gaping wound on Aeryn’s thigh began to shrink, torn tissue and blood vessels began to repair themselves. Her blood, which had run in rivulets down her leg, began to draw itself back into her body. The others slowly gathered around, watching the scene unfold before their eyes, scarcely believing what they saw.
After what seemed an arn, Jhennazim collapsed, weakened from the energy she expended during the healing process. Crichton, Zhaan and the others looked at Aeryn’s leg where the wound had once been. No trace of it was visible. Only the torn hole on her pants and some dried blood crusted on the leather remained as evidence.
Aeryn’s eyelids fluttered, then slowly opened. She looked straight up at Crichton’s smiling face. She remembered an attack, a spear piercing her, a creature looking down at her, fire and then darkness.
"Welcome back, Sunshine," he said quietly.
She blinked her eyes several times. "Does this mean I’m not dead?"
"You were very lucky, Aeryn," Zhaan said, stroking her long dark hair. "Jhennazim possesses a unique gift, she healed your wound. You might not have made it otherwise."
‘I’m glad to have helped your friend," said Jhennazim, her voice now hoarse. "Unfortunately, I can do nothing about the temperature increase in the ship."
Crichton looked up at the Peacekeepers standing around him and Aeryn. They were all beginning to perspire, their breathing becoming haggard.
After descending more than a dozen tiers, the creature finally came to rest in one of the lower maintenance levels. Choosing an empty room used for equipment repairs, it sat its aching body down on a stool beside a table laden with tools. A shaky hand pressed a sequence of buttons on its gauntlet, checking its cloaking device. Sparks flew from the gauntlet, followed by thin trails of smoke. Looking towards the wall into a smudged mirror hanging over the table, it accessed its wounds.
It had been wounded on hunts before; it was quite common, but never this badly. The pale gray skin on its torso, upper legs and upper arms were severely burnt. It was falling off in white flakes and leaving a mottled texture that was raw and sensitive to the touch. Much of the netlike mesh that had covered its limbs had all but burned away, partially stuck to its skin in places. Waves of searing pain washed over the creature like currents of water.
Detaching a silver oval-shaped box off its right thigh, it placed it on the table where the top automatically slid open, revealing some first aid tools. There was a syringe with a pistol grip, a thick hemostat-like instrument and a tripod assembly that completed the top section.
The creature pulled out a gold metallic container with a silver nozzle and handle on its top. Several stone colored vials lined the bottom half of the case. Popping off the lid of a coral-colored vial, it poured the contents into an opening beside the nozzle on top of the gold container. It reached for the small tripod and- with a quick flip- unfolded completely with a bowl and a small flame flickering underneath it. Grabbing a handful of silicon knobs that lay in a box on the tool bench, it placed several in the tripod’s bowl, and poured a fluorescent liquid over them from a black vial in its kit.
While the solution cooked, the creature removed the syringe, pulled its plunger back, and stuck the needle into its midsection. A blue coolness slowly settled over its body, providing the anesthetic for the necessary repairs.
Carefully pouring the glowing mixture from the bowl into the gold container, it closed the valve and shook the chemicals, mixing them together. The healing salve would repair the severe burns. The silicon substance would harden after spraying; protecting the skin, but the momentary reaction of spraying it on would not be pleasant.
Extending its limb the creature depressed the trigger on the valve; a green mist coated its upper arm. Instantly, the sensation of a million white-hot blades reacting against skin shot through its body. The creature threw back its head, and roared in pain.
Selane looked up, startled. "What was that?"
A faint sound reverberated through the corridors of the Acroyan, resembling a deep-throated moan.
"I would say that psycho-killer is still alive and nursing its wounds," Crichton said. "That also means whatever it is ain’t a ghost. We wounded it, so it can die, too."
"If so John, we still have to keep moving," said Zhaan, looking up briefly from her work on D’Argo’s injuries. "I sense the temperature is still going up, and Aeryn and our Peacekeeper allies are in danger of heat delirium if we don’t reach cooler temperatures."
Selane snorted, amused by her choice of words. "Figured that out all by yourself Delvian? That had already occurred to us."
"If the creature is repairing its wounds as we speak, then this is the safest opportunity to leave sir," added Pykis. "We have already lost too many people." He looked over sadly at Gemmin’s still form. He did his best to hide the grief he felt from her death. They had been lovers. Even though Peacekeeper policy forbade relationships, he had grown fond of her. Now she was gone.
Selane sighed, too tired to argue. "Agreed. We need to leave."
"Well, we’re in agreement then, what a surprise," said Crichton. He stood up from where he kneeled beside Aeryn. "We need a cooler place, so I recommend the galley. That is, if that thing hasn’t turned off the refrigeration units."
"Fine," said Selane. "It’s not too far. Let’s get moving now."
Crichton walked over to D’Argo. "How you doing, big guy?"
D’Argo groaned. "I feel like dren. Zhaan gave me an anti-coagulant to hold off blood shock, but I’m not out of the hood yet."
Crichton smiled. "You mean out of the woods. Well, never mind, that works just as well."
He returned back to cradle Aeryn’s head in his hand. "How do you feel, Sunshine? Good enough to move?"
Aeryn cleared her throat. "Still feel weak. I’ll try to walk…"
"Uh-uh, forget it. Save your energy. I’m carrying you. It gives me another chance to be chivalrous."
She smiled. "You’re starting to make it a career."
Gathering their things, Zhaan helped D’Argo up, with assistance from Pykis. John picked Aeryn up in his arms, and headed for the door. Aeryn cradled the spear that nearly killed her, surmising it may be useful if they had one of the creature’s weapons. Rael sniffed the air in the corridor, searching for any sign of it. Kymera and Jhennazim clasped each other for support as they walked out of the room. Selane stayed in the back, walking slowly. Despite being weakened from the heat, he was too proud to accept any help.
The procession slowly descended the Acroyan’s tiers; hopeful the center chambers and the galley’s refrigeration units would offer a brief respite from the increasing heat. As they descended downward, heat was already present or beginning to increase on each tier.
"It’s herding you and the others John. Don’t you realize all of you are doing what it wants?"
Crichton straightened himself, refusing again to show any sign of Scorpius’ presence in front of the others, especially not while carrying Aeryn.
"They’re coming to get you, Johnnnn…"
You know what Scorpy? I really hate it when a bad guy quotes ‘Night of the Living Dead.’
The creature put the now-empty container down on the table. The salve did its job, hardening the burnt patches of skin, numbing it while it healed. It sprayed the remaining amount on the pulse pistol wound that had raked its arm after fighting the Illanic.
The discomfort subsiding, the creature quickly packed up the medical kit and proceeded down to the bottom tier of the ship where it had set up camp while on board.
After repairing the gauntlet, it began sorting through the weapons cache. It had to leave the spear in the Peacekeeper female’s leg after the human male had burned it, and there were no more remaining. There was another snare net, an attachment to its shoulder cannon that fired fork-shaped projectiles and a glaive.
The creature reached down for the glaive and placed its fingers into the grooved holes in the center that served as its grip. Its thumb nudged against the button that polarized the blades. Instantly a hum generated and the silver blades expanded to twice their length and hardness.
Looking up, there was a Sebacean skull sitting on a dais it had fashioned from its most recent hunt. With an abrupt swing of its arm, the edge of the glaive sheared the top of the skull off. The top flew through the air and struck the wall, falling to the floor with a rattle. After spinning a few times, it came to a rest. The bottom half of the skull remained on the dais, perfectly still.
The creature admired its own handiwork and stared intently at the new weapon. It would do just fine.
"Easy pickings…" it said.
"How do you feel?" Crichton asked.
Aeryn sat up straight from where he had placed her in the galley’s refrigeration unit. To everyone’s relief, it was still functioning. The other Sebaceans quietly sat, grateful for a reprieve in the cool air.
"Better than I did," she said. "Did we kill the Haaksekah? I remember your shot ignited the fuel from the bomb I threw at him, but after that…"
"No. I’m sure we only wounded it. And as my Dad used to say when he took me hunting, there’s nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal."
"You’re father was right about that," said Jhennazim, who walked up and sat down in front of them. "I fear the final confrontation with it has yet to happen."
"Aeryn smiled. I want to thank you for what you did," Aeryn said. "For a moment, I thought that creature had finished me."
"Yeah, thanks for saving her," Crichton added. "That’s a nice little gift you have there. Do all of your species have that ability?"
Jhennazim smiled. "No. Orgone energy. I am blessed among my people with the power to heal. It is seen as a spiritual gift. But I can only do so much in a certain amount of time." She looked over at D’Argo, who was still having his wounds tended by Zhaan. "I would help him in an instant, but the orgone within me must be replenished."
"Is your ability the reason you’re a prisoner?" Aeryn asked.
Jhennazim tilted her head, and clasped her hands together. "It is. When the Peacekeepers discovered my ability, they wanted me to heal their wounded when they returned from battle. As I said, I can only do so much. The amount they would require me to use would have killed me."
"Besides," she said, " I only use my gift on the needy. Those with a good soul I bestow my gift upon, such as you." She put her hand on Aeryn’s knee. "The Peacekeepers imprisoned me for refusing to heal those who would go out and kill the innocent, again and again. Namely themselves."
Aeryn nodded, but said nothing. If the alien woman had known everything of her past, she might not have been as generous to her with her talents.
"You would have gained better treatment had you cooperated with us, woman," said Selane. "Our soldiers need medical attention when they are injured just like any other species."
"I did not see ‘other’ species slaughtering the people who took me in, Captain," replied Jhennazim. "Nor did I see them setting fire to entire villages, like the Peacekeepers did."
"So, where exactly are you from?" Crichton asked, ignoring Selane. "Where’s Proxi- whaddyacallit?"
"Exactly. Everyone here seems to find you as strange as they find me."
Jhennazim sighed. "If I could tell you, I gladly would, but I am lost out here. Mine is a primitive world, we do not travel the stars, and my world has had no alien contact." She shrugged her shoulders. "At least, until me."
"So, how did you wind up here?" Aeryn asked.
"I was abducted from my home one night by strange beings. While they examined me on board their ship, we were thrown through a maelstrom in the sky. My abductors were killed by the Peacekeepers. I escaped with several other abducted beings, and found shelter on another world, a peaceful one. But the Peacekeepers found me again."
She shrugged her shoulders. "And now, here I am."
Crichton stared at the beautiful alien in shock. Her story sounded exactly like all UFO abduction scenarios he used to read about back on Earth. She fell through a maelstrom in the sky? A wormhole? He could scarcely believe it. Sitting before him, was another lost soul, just like him.
A loud thud jarred Crichton out of his thoughts. "You are going to have to hit harder than that, Zhaan," D’Argo moaned. "It’s a frelling big wound."
The Delvian stroked his forehead. "Be patient, sweet D’Argo, I have the blood running clear in one wound. But the other wound is larger. It will take some time."
"I’m afraid our time is running out," said Kymera, inspecting the temperature sensor on the refrigeration unit’s wall. "Captain? According to this reading, the power is beginning to drop in here as well."
Selane growled. "Frell! That creature is relentless! It’s not going to rest until we are all dead or cooked alive."
Crichton nodded in agreement. "It’s trying to flush us out, draw us towards it. It wants us to fight."
"Fight?" Pykis said. "We can’t function in the heat. Only a few of us can at the moment. Who does it intend to fight?"
Good question, Crichton thought to himself. There were only a few people left on the ship, and the creature was not discriminating between Peacekeeper and prisoner. There was a method to everything it had done. There were the bodies lying in neat rows with weapons lying respectfully beside them, heads missing from the larger bodies, the use of spears, nets and other assorted weapons. The thing was practically on a safari.
Scorpius’s voice interrupted again. "Oh, very good, John. You are getting red hot!"
"It’s on safari."
Aeryn looked at him. "What?"
"The damn thing is hunting us," Crichton said. "It’s looking for some action, and we’re it."
She paused a moment, suddenly remembering the creature’s appearance. "John, the creature had skulls tied around its waist."
Crichton nodded. "Yep, that thing is definitely collecting trophies. It’s bagged a Scarran, a couple of Illanics and a few Peacekeepers. Now, it’s looking for some more variety."
"Then we need to take it down before it takes us down."
All heads turned towards D’Argo, who lifted his head. "That beast will be coming back, so I suggest we prepare for it."
Two arns passed with no sign of the creature. Crichton, Zhaan and Rael worked quickly, setting up barricades in front of all the openings to the center chamber. Jhennazim remained in the refrigeration unit tending to D’Argo’s wounds. Aeryn, Selane, Pykis and Kymera all sat against the wall, their faces plastered with sweat. They were growing steadily weaker from the increasing temperature. The power in the refrigeration unit had died over an arn ago, and entry and exit into the room had been kept to a minimum to conserve the remaining cool air. But, even that was fading fast.
Crichton looked through the transparent door of the refrigeration unit. Aeryn and the others would succumb to the Living Death if something were not soon done. Options were limited: awaken the pilot to restore control, or attempt to blast the hangar doors open and flee. Either choice meant venturing out into the ship where the creature was waiting, cloaked and ready to claim another victim. A fight seemed to be the only option, but that was exactly what the creature wanted. And the hunt is what it excelled at. Killing was its business, and business was good.
Crichton wiped his arm across his damp forehead. "Zhaan, this isn’t going to work. We can’t stay here any longer. Aeryn and the others are not going to make it if we do."
Zhaan nodded her head. "I know, John. But, I don’t understand why the creature is doing this. What is it trying to accomplish?"
"It doesn’t want us to stay in one place and hide. It wants us moving around. That’s more of a challenge for it." Crichton looked over the nearest barricade, seeing only an empty corridor. "We have to get moving anyway. This is a big ship. Maybe the lower tiers are still cooler. If they are, we can get to Moya’s transport pod. The creature can’t control the temperature in there."
"John Crichton, may I suggest we create a diversion that will allow the others to make it to the pod?"
Crichton and Zhaan turned to face Rael. She had spoken only a few words during their entire time together. They had almost forgotten about her presence.
"We’re open to ideas," Crichton said. "What do you suggest?"
"There is only one Haaksekah on board, surely it can’t be in two places at once."
"I think I know what you’re suggesting. That’s way too risky, Rael. If we split up, we’ll be even more vulnerable."
Rael frowned. "That is an inevitability, Crichton. We either try or we die," she said calmly. "And besides, I am not long for this world anyway. I sense my own death soon approaching."
"What do you mean?" Zhaan asked.
"That demon killed my mate. I will stay and fight until I have killed it, or it has killed me. That is our way. I owe my mate R’urga and his memory that much, and I will honor him."
He knew little about Vocarians, but from what he and Aeryn had once encountered on the planet Dam-Ba-Da over a cycle ago, they were pure instinct, if not mathematically challenged.
"I’m trying to save everyone on board from this creature."
"That’s not ours to decide, John. Alien life practices alien ritual," Zhaan said.
"All right," he finally said. "Let’s get ready then. Zhaan, do you have anything you can give Aeryn and the others to help them fight the heat?"
Zhaan reached into her pouch and produced a clear bottle filled with round violet –colored pills. "Xohlox Extract. This will reduce body temperature temporarily while they are out in the heat."
They walked into the refrigeration unit in time to hear the faint crackling of energy from Jhennazim’s fingers as she finished on the wounds on D’Argo’s back. She fell back as he sat up straight.
"Blood is running clear," she said, completely exhausted.
Crichton smiled. "Finally out of the danger zone, huh, big guy? How do you feel?"
D’Argo looked up, more than a little irritated. "Like dren. I have a backache for some reason. Any idea why?"
"I hope you’re up for moving around, we have to get out of here and fast."
Selane stood up. "Is that more of your brilliant reasoning, Crichton? How many more of my soldiers are going to die because of you and your tralk here?" He indicated to Aeryn. "We will go where I say we go."
Aeryn ignored the remark. Reasoning with Selane was next to impossible.
Crichton walked up to him and stood toe to toe with the Peacekeeper Captain. "I have had just about enough of your shit. You think you would still be alive now if we hadn’t come? This thing is hunting all of us in here. I’m trying to keep us all alive, you included, but I’m running out of reasons to do that. Can you give me one?"
Selane only stared back at him.
"Now," he continued, anger building up inside of him, "do you want to stay here and let the Living Death take hold or do you want a fighting chance in our transport pod?"
Selane laughed. "So, you’re a martyr now are you? It looks like our salvation is up to this human. No one here asked for your help, now did we?"
Pykis and Kymera remained silent, watching the whole proceeding.
"We’re Peacekeepers. We fight our own battles. Give me one good reason I should even agree to anything you say, you frelling egomaniac?"
"Fine. I’ll give you two."
Without warning, Crichton’s fist slammed into Selane’s abdomen. The Peacekeeper doubled over, unprepared for the blow. Crichton followed through with a solid punch to his jaw. Selane went down hard, sprawled out on the floor.
"Good shot, John! Now, kick him in the groin a few times. Let’s test how much adrenaline you can produce."
Crichton stood there, his fists clenching and unclenching. Surprised by own his actions, more so because it wasn’t all his doing. He could feel Scorpius inside, trying to wrest control from him.
"John, stop!" Aeryn gasped. "If we fight amongst ourselves, we’ll never get out of here alive."
Crichton stood silently. He took a deep breath. Go away, Scorpy. You’re not in control here.
"Perhaps I just want you to think that, John."
You want to try me, asshole?
Crichton watched Selane stand back up, to weak from heat delirium to retaliate. "Sorry about that, Selane. But… don’t push me again."
Selane remained bent over, holding his abdomen. He glared at Crichton. They were never going to be friends at this rate.
"So, now what?" D’Argo asked.
"We’re going down to the transport hangar. Aeryn and the others here will be safer in the pod, where the creature can’t control the temperature. We’ll be closer to the docking bay doors, too. One way or another we are getting off this tub."
Zhaan began to pass the violet-colored pills around to all the Sebaceans. "These will lower your internal temperature briefly, so you will be able to function out there. But we have to move quick."
"All right," said Crichton. "Let’s get out of here."
The group walked slowly down the access arteries towards the transport hangar. They stayed close to the walls, on constant vigil for a sign of the creature. Each Sebacean walked with support from an ally, except for Selane, still seething at his recent humiliation in the refrigeration unit. Only anger kept him going without help. Rael sniffed the air at every intersection, her sense of smell honed to detect the slightest scent of the creature. She had burned its pungent odor into her mind, ever since the moment it butchered her mate several solar days before.
As they approached the transport hangar, Aeryn breathed a sigh of relief at the gust of cool air in the room billowing around her. At least the heat hadn’t touched this part of Acroyan- yet. She removed her arm from Crichton’s shoulder, feeling strong enough to stand on her own.
"How is everyone doing?" Crichton asked.
"I’m feeling better," Aeryn said. "A little bit, anyway."
Zhaan quickly checked the others to assess their conditions. "D’Argo’s wound is healing but he is still weak from the blood loss. Jhennazim is still weakened from using her healing powers. Captain Selane and the others are cooling down, but I think we should still put them and Aeryn in the transport pod as a safety precaution."
"Still not a good checklist, but I agree." Crichton said. "Hey, Zhaan? I’ve been thinking about something Rael was saying, that the creature couldn’t be in two places at once. We could run a distraction."
Zhaan looked at him, puzzled. "How do you mean?"
"That thing stopped us before from trying to reach the pilot, but we were all together. If we can keep it occupied down here while one of us goes up to the pilot’s chamber and revives her, we could get the edge on it."
"That is still too risky, John. You saw what the creature could do, and all the deaths it has caused. I’m sure the Peacekeepers already thought of that idea, why would this time be any different?"
Rael’s head snapped up abruptly. She sniffed the air in the hangar. "Prepare."
Crichton turned to the Vocarian. "What? Rael…"
Simultaneously, all the doors to the hangar began to close. D’Argo and Pykis rushed to the door where the transport pod sat, to stop it from sealing. They were still too weakened from the heat and from injury, the closed before they could reach them.
"Dammit!" Crichton said. "It’s a trap!" He cursed at himself for not seeing it sooner. Aeryn, D’Argo and the others formed a tight circle with him to prepare for the coming assault. All eyes were focused on the doors.
"No, John. Look above you, it’s coming through the vents."
Crichton looked upward, responding to Scorpius’s instruction, just in time to see a transparent distortion in the air moving out of a hole in the upper part of the hangar, just below the ceiling. Without hesitating, he opened fire with both his pulse pistols, with Aeryn and the others doing the same. They did not question his actions; they merely followed him on faith that he knew what he was doing.
The creature lunged, trying hard to dodge the energy bursts from their pulse weapons. It failed to get the advantage, not being prepared for their surprise assault.
The creature somersaulted into the air, landing behind some storage crates with a loud crash. Moving quickly, the others surrounded the large pile of boxes, containers and engine parts ready to shoot at the first sign of movement.
Nothing. There was nothing there.
"Where the frell did it go?" D’Argo said. He sniffed the air for a trace of the creature’s presence, but was unable to locate it.
Rael detected the creature first. "Luxan! Behind you!"
D’Argo turned in time to swing at the creature with his blade. The creature ducked and struck D’Argo with a hard tackle. Aeryn, Pykis and the others pointed their weapons towards the struggling bodies on the floor, unable to get a clear shot for fear of hitting their ally.
Suddenly, a hard blow from the creature knocked D’Argo back, sending him over a table to land beside Pykis. The others began shooting at the rapidly moving distortion, unable to make a hit as it weaved around and behind the storage crates and metal containers that were stacked all over the hangar.
Aeryn quickly checked the oil level in her pulse rifle. "Spread out, this time we can finish it!"
Without warning, the creature came out from behind a large Marauder engine and broke into a charge. It dodged the weapons crossfire that had erupted, trying to stop it in its tracks. Spotting it, Pykis lit the remaining Molotov and threw it; assuring Gemmin’s death would be avenged in only microts.
It was ready this time. An instant the bomb left Pykis’ hand the creature’s energy weapon struck it, igniting it into a brilliant flash of light. The blast caught Pykis and D’Argo head on, blinding both of them. The sudden burst of heat in close quarters weakened everyone in the hangar.
Crichton had managed to pull Aeryn and Zhaan behind a table to deflect some of the heat, but the blinding flash had disoriented them. Over the sound of pulse rifles firing, a loud cry of pain and a woman’s scream jolted them back into action.
"Help! Help me!"
Getting up, Crichton saw Jhennazim being carried off kicking and screaming by the creature. Pykis was lying on the floor, curled up and bleeding from a gash in his side where the creature had stabbed him, in its rush to escape with the Proximosian.
The hangar doors began to open. Just before the creature slipped through, it turned to look at Crichton, it’s yellow eyes flashing.
"Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?"
"Dance with the devil."
The creature disappeared behind the door. Crichton followed in hot pursuit.
"Rael! Zhaan! Go through the other doors, try and block it!"
With a snarl, Rael ran through the farthest door. Zhaan grabbed a large wrench and ran through the door to her right.
Zhaan nearly collided with the creature as it ran down the corridor towards the lower sections. She struck it hard in the leg with the wrench, causing it to turn and retaliate, its shoulder weapon pivoting with its head.
But the creature continued to turn its head, left, then right and back again, confused by the images that registered through its helmet. No images would be a better description. It saw nothing in the corridor that could have struck it.
Zhaan backed away slowly. She was barely an arms reach away from the creature, but it did not seem to notice her. It was not making any eye contact, but clearly scanning for its attacker.
The creature turned and moved quickly down the corridor. The unconscious Jhennazim was slung over its shoulder. She had fainted from fright. Zhaan stood there for a long time, her mouth open from astonishment.
"It didn’t see me."
As she walked back through the door, she heard Aeryn and the others cry out. The vents were now blowing hot air into the hangar.
Rael ran through the corridors hot on the trail of the creature. A bitter scent hung in the air, making it easy for her to track it. Jhennazim’s scent made it twice as easy.
Coming to an intersection in the corridor, she stopped. The creature was nearby; its scent was everywhere, but nowhere to be seen. Sniffing the air, she cautiously walked into the doorway to her right. Lying on the floor was an unconscious Jhennazim. Her dark red hair lay all around her head in a silken mass. It almost resembled a pool of blood under the dim light in the room.
Rael kneeled down to check her pulse. She was unharmed. As she did, she became aware of a presence slowly moving behind her. Out of the corner of her eye she detected a distortion in the air.
She tucked and rolled forward as a blade flashed past her head. Turning quickly, she fired her pulse rifle on full auto in a sweeping arc. There was a cry of pain as a shot contacted the creature’s leg. Fluorescent blood splattered on the floor.
"Crichton was right. You can bleed demon," Rael hissed. "Then, you can die as well."
The creature circled Rael, thrusting and parrying with its blade. Ral countered the blows with her pulse rifle, snarling in defiance. Revenge for her mate’s death pressed her to fight harder.
For an instant, they seemed evenly matched. But the creature’s energy was boundless. Rael began to struggle. Determined to end their duel, she leveled her pulse rifle and squeezed off several shots.
The creature saw an opening. In a blinding instant, the blade from its gauntlet sheared the side of her neck. A spray of scarlet mist left Rael’s body, splattering the wall to her left.
Falling to her knees, Rael looked up at the creature, now standing still. "I have cut you for my mate, and I spit on you."
Blood began to run down the corners of her lips. "Your blood will spill to the ground and nourish nothing," she said, using an old Vocarian insult.
Rael fell forward, dead. The last sight her eyes saw was Jhennazim waking up and gazing at her straight in the eye. Terror framed her delicate features.
"Where is Rael?"
Crichton slowly walked into the transport pod where Aeryn, Zhaan, D’Argo and the Peacekeepers quietly sat, the cooler temperature of the pod holding off the Living Death for a short while longer. He did not answer the question immediately.
"She chased the thing," Crichton said in a low voice. "Looks like she managed to wound it, there was some weird, glowing blood on the floor. But… " He paused. "She still lost." Crichton sat down beside Aeryn. "At least the creature didn’t take anything. But it still made off with Jhennazim."
"How are your eyes?"
D’Argo exhaled in disgust at Zhaan’s question. Suffering two debilitating injuries in one day was very degrading to the Luxan warrior. "Well, I just got over a near-fatal injury. But now, I can’t SEE A FRELLING THING!"
"Neither can I," said Pykis. "Will this be permanent, P’au Zhaan?"
"No, Pykis. Your retinas are not permanently scarred. I’ll give you and D’Argo some healing drops that will repair eyesight." Zhaan finished up cleaning the Peacekeeper’s wound the creature had inflicted. "Or perhaps Jhennazim’s gift can heal them much faster. But it won’t matter much if the heat comes back on."
"You said earlier outside that you don’t think the creature saw you. How could that be?" Crichton asked, confused. The creature had excelled in everything it did, was it possible it had a weakness in its vision?
"I stood right in front of it John, it did not seem to know I was there. I don’t know the reasons."
"Oh Crichton, You are disappointing me so much. You are a scientist. Think about this: There are great temperature extremes on this ship. That is the key."
John reflected on what Scorpius’ voice was telling him. He might be on to something. This time, it might actually prove to be valuable.
"If sight is its weakness, then that could be our key to beating this creature," Aeryn said, her face slick with perspiration. "Oh, for the love of Chilnak, Zhaan, aren’t you hot too?"
"I do not get hot, Aeryn. My body regulates heat as well as cold temperatures. It is a natural occurrence in Delvian physiology."
Crichton suddenly looked up. "What did you say?"
Zhaan looked at him, perplexed. "I do not get hot John."
"No, no, no. Zhaan, would you say your body temperature is the same as the temperature in the room right now?"
"I suppose so, yes."
Crichton snapped his fingers and clenched his fist. "That’s it! That thing sees by heat. That’s why it didn’t see you, you were the same temperature as the air."
"She was invisible?" Aeryn asked.
"That’s right. Hell, that’s probably the reason it wears that helmet. Then, it uses that cloaking device it has to get the jump on us. If we can make ourselves invisible to him, we got him nailed." Crichton pulled Zhaan’s medical bag closer to him. "Blue, do you have anything in here that can mask my body heat?"
Zhaan reached in and carefully removed a jar full of a clear salve. "I have some Thermafen paste. If you rub it on the exposed areas of your skin it will mask your bodies heat signature. Why?"
"Perfect. I have a plan, and I need you to help me pull it off. We are starting this ship back up and nailing the Martian manhunter."
Selane leaned forward. "What are you getting at, Crichton?"
"That thing kidnapped the supermodel. So, it must know of her healing abilities. I think it’s baiting us to come after it and fight; otherwise the rest of you may die." Crichton’s face tightened. "Actually, I’m pretty sure it’s me that it wants."
"What?" Aeryn said, stunned. "Why you?"
"Before it ran out of the hangar with Jhennazim, it said something to me, an earth saying. I’d recognize it in an instant. And if it does see by heat, then it can tell my body heat is higher than a Sebaceans. That thing knows I’m Human." Crichton stood back up. "So, I’m going out to fight it."
"Her eyes widened. "What? John, that’s suicide!"
"Absolutely out of the question," exclaimed D’Argo. "You are not a warrior. That thing butchered a Scarran and a clan of Illanics. What kind of chance could you possibly have?"
"I have knowledge," Crichton said, putting a finger to his head. "And a little something extra."
"Excellent, John. You will make me proud of you yet."
Shut up Scorpy.
"John, who are you talking to?" Zhaan said.
Pilot’s eyes widened at Crichton’s words. "Commander, if this creature is that dangerous, should you be attempting to challenge it?"
"I’ve already gotten the speech from Aeryn and D’Argo, Pilot. There is no other way around this. I’m going to get the Proximosian woman. Zhaan is going up to Acroyan’s pilot to revive her. We have to restore internal temperature within the arn, or Aeryn and the others won’t make it."
"Understood, Commander Crichton. But I think I should tell you that Moya has detected a vessel on its way towards our location."
"Is it a Peacekeeper ship?" Aeryn interrupted, her voice barely a rasp over the comm.
"Unknown, Officer Sun. It is still too far away to determine, but we will be cautious in any case."
"Don’t worry gang," Chiana said. "I’ll get Rygel to help me hook up the defense shield from the Zelbinion. That should hold them off."
"I’m not helping her! She tried to kill me twice already! Pilot, I say we get out of here right this moment. I’m-"
The sound off Rygel loudly protesting while being carted off by Chiana faded from the comm.
"Hold down the fort, Pilot," Crichton said. "One way or another, we are getting out of here. But, in the meantime, I want you to maintain radio silence until I call you."
Pilot returned his attention to the controls, tracking the unknown ship. It was not following the standard trajectory the Peacekeepers normally used, nor did its design match anything in Moya’s data stores. If the ship belonged to the species that was hunting Crichton, Aeryn and the others, what chance would they have, considering the slaughter that one creature alone had wrought?
He suppressed a shudder.
Crichton worked quickly, with Zhaan’s assistance, smearing the menthol-smelling paste on the exposed areas of his skin. Although he hated to do it, he covered his private areas too, per Zhaan’s suggestion, since one can never be too sure. After a quick weapons check, he transferred all the remaining Chakan oil to Winona, his favorite pistol. He picked up the alien spear the creature had used on Aeryn, rotating it in his hand, and checking its balance. If he had to fight the creature, using its own weapon against it might work in his favor.
He paused. She was giving him that look again. The same one she gave when he departed for the Gammak base to get a tissue sample to save her life, the one when she wanted to leave on Talyn to watch after its well being, the one that always looked like goodbye.
"We don’t say goodbye. Remember?"
"John, this is madness, please reconsider this," pleaded Aeryn. "You said it yourself. It’s wounded, and nothing is more dangerous than that wounded creature."
"If I don’t try, Aeryn, we all die anyway. Besides, I’m the only one unaffected by the heat and who’s not injured to go out there and fight it."
"Then take this, you’ll need all the firepower you can get." She handed him her pulse rifle. "There’s enough oil left in it to shoot several bursts."
He accepted it with a smile. "I’ll consider this my good luck charm."
"John, if you don’t make it back, and the Living Death takes hold of us, I…"
He held a finger up to her lips. "That’s not going to happen. Zhaan and I are going to do whatever it takes. We are getting out of here alive and in one piece. Understand?"
She said nothing. The look in her eyes spoke volumes. Never give up on hope. Fight, resist and press on. Or knock out the one that tries to hurt her. That is what made him Crichton. Her hero, she thought with a smile.
"So go already," Selane said, with no small amount of contempt.
Paying no mind to Selane, Crichton walked to the door of the transport pod. "You ready, Zhaan?"
Zhaan gave the bottle of Xohlox pills to Kymera. "Dispense these to your comrades and to Aeryn every quarter of an arn. They will hold back the heat until we restore the internal temperature to normal."
"But what if you can’t?" Kymera said. It was not a good time to worry about the final outcome.
"Then, I will pray to the goddess for all of us."
Selane rolled his eyes, deciding not to say anything further. Pykis sat quietly against the hull with Kymera, gold bandages covering his eyes. D’Argo and Aeryn sat beside each other trying to ease the other’s discomfort. With one final look back, Crichton and Zhaan slipped out the door and down the ladder into the rising heat.
"Good luck," Aeryn whispered.
He pressed the comm’s button. "Zhaan, can you read me?"
"I’m here, John."
"How are you doing? Where are you at now?"
"There is no sign of the creature. I am just below the top tier. I’m going to take the same route Aeryn and the Peacekeeper woman took to reach the pilot."
"Sounds good. As long as tall, dark and gruesome doesn’t see you. Let’s maintain radio silence until I contact you again."
Crichton’s eyes adjusted to the dimly lit corridors as he descended the tiers of the Acroyan. His breathing grew heavier; the air began to feel like inhaling a blast furnace. He was perspiring heavily. Had he been a Sebacean, he would no doubt be comatose by now- or dead. He treaded the corridor silently, staying close to the walls as the others had done. The ship was deathly quiet. It reminded him too much of the Nil outside.
Instinct told him to descend into the Acroyan. He actually had no idea where the creature would be waiting, but a gut feeling told him to go downwards. It was that, and the voice of Scorpius chattering in his head. The thing was still giving out advice.
"You are taking a big risk, Crichton. This creature is a predator, he wants you for a trophy, and I cannot allow that. He does not value the knowledge that is locked in your brain the way I do."
Damn, Scorpy. I’m going to start crying in a minute. I didn’t know you cared so much.
The voice continued, unabated by his sarcasm. "You are a vitally important asset John. Now listen to me, your survival will depend on the information that I can impart to you. I have knowledge of this creature from the past encounters the Peacekeepers have had with it in the Nil. I know some of the strategies it uses. Why do you think I anticipated the attack in the transport hangar? You have the right idea by masking your body heat. The key to victory in the art of war is deception."
Wonderful. I see you have been doing some reading while you’ve been in my head.
"I must say I am quite impressed by the literature of your world, John. The Peacekeepers would benefit greatly from some of these precepts. But never mind, I believe you should be coming soon upon the creature’s lair."
He peered slowly around a corner. There was a long room being used for storage, filled with crates and containers. It was dimly lit, with a makeshift torch flickering in the center. Shadows danced back and forth on its vaulted ceiling. Flashes of gold shimmered along the walls from the torch’s reflection. A doorway sat open at the far end, spilling faint light into the chamber. Through the door, the muffled cries of a woman could be heard.
Jhennazim Zern. She was still alive.
Moving slowly along the wall, his eyes darted about, hopeful to spot some sign of the creature. The room was quiet. There were no transparent distortions in the air, no silhouettes of a large body and no voices. Nothing.
"You need a piece of bait, John. Lure the creature here."
Crichton reached into his pocket and produced the small recorder he carried to make messages for his father. The tape from his most recent log entry was still in it. Moving through the mass of crates and containers, he sat it on a small box closest to the torch. He quietly depressed the play button.
"Hey Dad, it’s me again. I did reckless act number six hundred and sixty six again. I punched out this guy on a commerce planet. Hey, believe me it was completely justifiable after what he said to Aeryn. But let me tell you-"
He moved silently back into the crates and patiently waited for the thing to appear. He knew for certain he would not have to wait long. The thing hungered for a fight now, just like him.
"Frell, is this heat ever going to end?"
Pykis exhaled deeply. His last comment took some effort to say. Despite being in the cooler air of the transport pod, the temperature was still rising. The creature had managed to insure that full power was limited to any vehicle in the leviathan. The pod’s systems struggled to maintain low temperature, but it was failing. The creature had thought of everything. Whatever modifications had been set up, they insured that Peacekeepers, prisoners and anyone else would not be leaving.
"Crichton and Zhaan will restore systems," Aeryn said. "Just give them some time."
"Crichton? I’ve frelling heard enough about your bastard human to last me ten lifetimes," Selane said, perspiration spitting off his lip along with his words.
"Were it not for him, you would be dead already," she replied.
"Then I’d be better off!" He struggled to his feet. "I’ve suffered enough humiliation at the hands of that inferior parasite, and I’ll not let him control our fate anymore!"
"That inferior parasite kicked your eema all over the refrigeration unit as I recall," said D’Argo. "So why don’t you sit down now before I do it to you as well?"
The captain turned to the blinded Luxan. "You? You will be in one of our cells when this is over. Besides, you can’t see a thing right now. Just how do you-"
"Shut up, sir."
Selane’s mouth dropped open. "What did you say to me, Officer Pykis?"
Pykis lifted his head slightly, his expression covered by the bandages over his eyes. "I said shut the frell up, sir. All of our crew is dead except for us, and I am tired of listening to you. You whine like a tralk."
"How dare you."
"Shut the frell up, Captain. Or I’ll finish what Crichton started."
"I will have you court-martialed for that, Officer Pykis! I might have given you and Tovin here partial credit for capturing these escaped convicts, but now I will see to it you are declared irreversibly contaminated!"
"The Illanic was right," Kymera said quietly. "You’re without honor."
Selane screamed in rage. Defiance from his own crew was his breaking point. With a backhand slap, he knocked Kymera to the ground and took the near empty bottle of Xohlox she had been dispensing to the others. Grabbing his pulse rifle, he ran to the transport pod’s door.
"Selane!" Aeryn cried out. "What are you doing? We need those."
"All of you can frelling die, as far as I am concerned."
D’Argo blindly lurched forward to grab him, but was struck in the head by a blow from the butt of a pulse rifle. Selane jumped through the door and down the ladder, swallowing as many of the round pills as he could.
Selane ran down the access arteries to find Crichton and the creature. Hate burned his insides even more than the air he was breathing. He ignored the discomfort. Revenge had a strong numbing effect on him.
Crichton tensed. It had only been a few minutes, but he already detected the creature’s presence. There was a strange sensation he could not describe. Before he could turn his head to look, a distortion moved past him, not even an arms length away. As big as it was, it made no noise. He remained still as death. The creature had come up from behind him, but had not detected him. Perhaps he still had a chance yet.
Carefully shifting his feet, he moved onto a large metal container to get closer to the doorway where he had heard Jhennazim’s muffled cries. His right boot heel dragged and made a barely-audible scraping sound. He froze.
The creature stopped and turned its head. It had detected movement. Scanning across the wall behind it, there was nothing registering a heat signature. Perhaps the noise had been some beetles scuttling between the crates, nothing more.
"Do not use the spear yet, John." Scorpius’ voice warned. "Use the pulse rifle first."
He raised the weapon and waited for the creature to come down to the torch. Its mass settled beside the small box where his recorder laid. A transparent finger extended and nudged the small silver device.
The message on the recording continued: "I tell you Dad, I never fail to be amazed at the stuff I see out here. You never know when something is going to jump out at you and try to stomp you."
He squeezed the trigger. A bright burst of light shot out and struck the creature full center. It turned fast, limbs outstretched and fists clenched. No sooner did it recoil from the shot that retaliation came, firing multiple bursts from its shoulder weapon.
He leaped off the crates. The creature may not have been able to see him, but its accuracy was astounding, even if it was firing blindly. The shots flared, lighting up the wall behind him. He squeezed off several shots as he ran through the doorway, the creature following in hot pursuit.
He barely turned a corner when a stray shot almost clipped him. There was a bright flash and sparks as the bolt exploded against the bulkhead of the Acroyan. The thing caused so much damage that Acroyan might have felt it were he awake. That shoulder weapon it used packed a wallop. He needed to disable it somehow, if he even wanted half a chance against it.
"John, do you remember how you once defeated a Scarran that had kidnapped you on a commerce planet? Do you remember how you used your pulse pistol?"
He held up his pulse pistol and sighed heavily. He hated to lose Winona. Actually, it was Winona number three or four, but he no longer counted the incarnations. Aeryn and the others were far more important. If this were going to work, he would have to time it right.
He found himself at the far end of a long stretch of corridor with an opening to his right. Standing flush against the wall, he focused on the far end of the corridor, waiting for the creature to appear. There was no other way for it to come in, unless it was so smart it used the escape route he was planning to use. He preferred not to give it too much credit, but it had been on the ship longer than him.
He straightened up when he saw the large transparent distortion appear at the other end of the corridor. It stood there for several moments. He remained perfectly still, unsure of whether or not it could see him. Finally, it slowly walked forward; it’s body turning to the left and right. It was scanning for him.
It was at the halfway point in the corridor when Crichton’s thumb flicked a switch on the pulse pistol. A high-pitched whine filled the air as the pistol’s pulse chamber began to overload.
The creature stopped suddenly, focusing its attention on where the noise emanated from. Three red points of light now moved against the wall, slowly making their way to where Crichton stood, frozen.
Come closer, you bastard.
The creature began walking forward again, quicker. The whine from the pulse pistol was increasing in pitch. It was only a matter of microts.
"John! Get down, now!" Scorpius’ voice said.
He hit the floor just as a snare net slammed against the wall, the mesh instantly constricting over nothing. Pulling the pistol out of his holster, he flung it in the air towards the creature as he bolted for the door on his right.
His aim had been impeccable. There was a ground-shaking boom as the pistol exploded right over the creature’s shoulder. Thrown back by the blast, it fell to the ground, badly wounded. Sparks and smoke billowed out of its helmet as well as the barrel of the now damaged shoulder weapon.
He ran fast, not bothering to look and see if the creature was pursuing. Aeryn’s pulse rifle was slung over his back, slapping him with each step he took. He held the alien spear in his one hand, his other hand held nothing. He now wished he had bought more weapons with him. The creature, had recovered from every injury, could it be beyond death?
No. If it bleeds, it can be killed.
A woman’s crying stopped him in his tracks. Up on top of a platform, Jhennazim hung, her feet barely touching the surface. Her dress was torn revealing a pair of long, sinewy legs. The cloth from her dress bound her hands, which were tied over her head and suspended from a cable.
"Crichton! Help me!"
He stepped up to the platform, and with one sweeping arc of the spear, cut the cloth bonds that held her up. She fell against him, her arms struggling to regain circulation. He held her trembling form until she could stand on her own. She looked traumatized, not that he could blame her for it.
Her hands moved down into the small of his back, rubbing him securely. He exhaled, surprised. He felt something soft and warm pressing into him. He could feel her rapid breathing. She arched her back and pressed her ample chest against his. He hesitated to look down. He was becoming excited. Her head tilted up and her left eye met his gaze. She really was beautiful. Liz Hurley in grayish-green makeup with yellow eyes and long deep red hair.
"Been so long… since a man… has protected me."
"Really, John. This is not the time nor place. What would your precious Aeryn think?"
Put a cork in it, Leatherface. What do you expect? I’m only human. I have my limitations, y’know.
"Uh, this is really bad timing, okay? We got to keep moving," Crichton said. "Big and ugly is still gunning for us, I think I wounded him, but we can’t take any chances."
"Crichton, are you there?" Aeryn’s raspy voice came in over his comm.
"Aeryn? What’s wrong?"
"I know you wanted radio silence, but you should know that Selane has taken the heat reduction drugs, and is coming after you. We didn’t get another dose, so you have to hurry!"
"Damn," he whispered.
With Jhennazim in tow behind him, he ran down the last tier on the leviathan, he fumbled for his comm to communicate the information to Zhaan. He failed to notice a large figure trailing behind; it’s failing thermal registers barely detecting the heat signature of a female being pulled along by someone invisible.
Zhaan swung open the grate that revealed the expansive room that was the pilot’s chamber. Reaching the ground below was child’s play for a tenth level P’au. She focused her mind and allowed her body to gently levitate to the walkway below.
Walking behind the control console, she faced the Acroyan’s pilot. She swayed only slightly back and forth, her eyelids fluctuating slightly. One of her four limbs twitched slightly at random. Other than that, she remained unconscious.
Zhaan placed her hands to the pilot’s face and searched her thoughts. Their species had thought processes that were difficult to comprehend. Emotions, thoughts and non-verbal expressions took on the form of colors in the mind, blending and swirling in an endless turbulence. She looked through the curtain of its recent memories and saw a cloud of deep red, etched with a halo of brilliant yellow dancing along its edges.
The pilot was drugged, heavily drugged. Her mind struggled to awaken but could not find its way.
Zhaan pulled out the dark blue bundle that contained her medical instruments and removed an injector. She filled it with nine units of stimulant designed to revive species under heavy sedation. Nine units would have been a lethal dose for any other species, but the leviathan pilots were poured from a different mold.
Injecting the stimulant into the pilot’s thick neck, she placed her hands back on her face, searching for signs of consciousness.
"Zhaan, Zhaan, are you there?"
Her eyes blinked, concentration disrupted. "Yes, John?"
"Hurry and wake that pilot. Selane took all the Xohlox and he’s coming to try and bump off that creature and me with it. Aeryn and the others don’t have much time left."
She stared at the pilot’s still-sleeping form. "Acknowledged."
Reciting a chant, Zhaan placed her hands back on the pilot and began to enter her mind, the need to bring her back to the waking world even more urgent. Lifting back her head, her eyes began to go blank.
"This way," Crichton said.
With Jhennazim holding his hand, they entered into a long room with thick pipes and conduits lining the ceiling and disappearing into the adjoining walls. He sensed some curvature in the floor. Several open doorways were spaced unevenly along the walls. One of the doorways spilled light into the room. It was cooler here than the previous tiers. He recognized the location.
"We’re in Acroyan’s belly, this must be where the creature set up its camp."
"And keeps its trophies," she said. "Look over there."
At the far end of the room, a light source was shining on the wall. They walked up to a grisly display of the creature’s spoils. Mounted on the wall, above two crossed Illanic swords, was a reptilian skull. A Scarran.
Underneath, several alien skulls were mounted in a row. The thick brow ridge and cranial cavities where tentacles had once protruded identified them as Illanics. Several others also adorned the wall that he did not recognize. Most disturbing of all below this was a macabre garden of Sebacean skulls with their spines still attached all standing upright in neat rows on the floor. There were at least two-dozen of these, all facing forward, their hollow eye sockets staring at nothing.
A copper cylinder stood towards the front of the display, a red cloth draped over it. The top remained unadorned by a trophy. He felt his heart leap into his throat. No doubt the trophy had not yet been bagged yet. The creature had to be reserving that place of honor for a skull: his.
"Does it even eat what it kills?" Jhennazim looked ill as she spoke. "So much death, so much waste. Why does it do this?"
"Can’t take any chances," a voice said from behind them.
Crichton turned. A blow from the back of the creature’s hand lifted him off his feet and sent him sprawling, the spear he was holding was knocked from his hands. Jhennazim screamed.
"Jhennazim, run! Get out of here and hide!" He struggled to get back on his feet. The spear lay a few feet from him. He tried frantically to reach it as the creature stood to face him.
She ran towards the doorway where there was a light source. The creature made no move to stop her. No need, the one it really wanted was there, now.
Thin trails of smoke billowed out of its helmet and shoulder weapon as it stood and stared at the dazed human. Crichton froze. He watched as the creature began to disconnect the tubes and cables that had connected its helmet and weapon. The shoulder weapon hit the floor with a heavy clang of metal striking metal. Using both hands, the creature pulled off the helmet.
Under the light, he could at last see the creature’s face. The eyes were small for its head and looked far too human for its features. It had nothing that resembled a nose. Its forehead was large and sloped with a bony plate covering the top of its head. Thick black dreadlocks extended below its shoulders on the sides and back, most of them decorated with gold cuffs and rings.
But it was its mouth he noticed. The thing had mandibles, just like the kind on an insect. There were four of them, two above and two below. They were moving independently around its mouth, filled with pointed, sharp teeth.
The creature’s pale and mottled skin was badly scarred, recent evidence of its burn wounds, in addition to the more recent ones inflicted by Crichton. Skulls hung about its waist as Aeryn had described, yet more trophies it harvested.
Worse yet, it was enraged.
"Goddamn," Crichton muttered. "If I were that ugly, I’d be pissed off too. Somebody beat you with an ugly stick?"
The creature’s mouth opened wide, with a roar that stood the hairs up on the back of his neck. Instinctively, he jumped to his feet, surprised at his sudden burst of energy.
"Do not panic, Crichton," came Scorpius’ voice. "I am stimulating your adrenal gland to increase your strength and speed. This should at least give you a fighting chance." He felt his chest begin to tighten and his heart started racing like a trip hammer.
The creature swung hard, again and again, trying to strike him. It had taken off the weapons and was determined to fight him hand-to-hand. He dodged the lightning quick swings by a fraction before they could contact. As the creature swung wide with its left hand, he saw an opening and contacted its face with a hard right hook. It might as well have been made of rock. The creature was not an obese mobster from some backwater commerce planet. Had he not had so much adrenaline coursing through him, he would have felt the bones breaking in his hand.
Before he could react, the creature hammered him with its own right hook. Crichton landed hard on his back; the pulse rifle still slung behind him only added to the pain as his spine absorbed the impact from that as well.
The creature grabbed him by his shirt collar and lifted him up. His world was spinning. Despite the unexpected boost from Scorpius, he was still no match for the creature. Its raw power alone could have brought down an elephant.
Hanging by the creature’s hand, Crichton heard the extending of its gauntlet blades. Hope began fading before his eyes. Before the killing blow, his mind saw Aeryn and the others succumbing to the heat, dying from a promise he could not keep.
"Fight Crichton!" Scorpius growled in his head. "You must not die now, you have made it this far, do not give up!"
"I’m sorry," he whispered quietly. The creature raised the blades.
A burst of light from a pulse rifle struck the creature. With a growl, it dropped him and bolted for one of the doors. He made a supreme effort to get his legs moving underneath him as Selane came running into the room, screaming furiously.
"Oh no, Crichton! The creature can’t have you. Not this time. Now, you’re my prey!"
He managed to grab the spear as he dodged the bolts from Selane’s pulse rifle. Despite the massive dose of Xohlox he had ingested, Selane was still weakening from the heat and his reflexes were off, as well as his aim. Crichton used the opportunity to run through the lighted doorway. If he could find Jhennazim, he could get her to safety at the least.
"Zhaan!" He yelled into the comm. "Have you got that pilot awake yet?"
"She is beginning to stir now, John," Zhaan replied. "Just a few more moments."
"Hurry! I got both Selane and the Rastafarian from hell trying to kick my ass. I don’t know how much longer I can keep this up."
"I understand. I’m working as fast as the goddess will allow me."
He entered into a dimly lit room. He maneuvered through a narrow walkway with skeletal grid work flanking either side. Holding both the spear and Aeryn’s pulse rifle, he searched the shadows between the frames for a sign of Selane or the creature.
"How does it feel, Crichton?" Selane’s voice echoed. "How does it feel to be the one who is hunted, with little hope for survival? This is what we suffered through for days. I sent my best Peacekeepers to kill the creature, and none of them returned. I’ll be damned if I let a pathetic excuse for a life like you take my honor away from me or them!"
Crichton shook his head in disgust. "Why doesn’t that surprise me? You sent your people to their deaths. Did you even care? You’re a lame-ass excuse for an officer, Selane. By anyone’s standards."
"No one talks to me that way, especially you!" Selane was screaming. "You struck me in front of my own crew. You turned them against me! I’ll kill you for that! I’ll take your severed head to Scorpius and I’ll have my honor restored!" His voice was coming from the left side of the room. Crichton saw a light source on the right side, barely visible through the grid work. He slid through the narrow beams, working his way towards it.
"Uh-uh, Selane. Scorpy wants me alive. You would be the next dead guy if you don’t deliver me intact and breathing."
"Frell him! Who cares about him?" Selane boomed. "Peacekeeper High Command will still reward me. We know all about the destruction of a Gammak base, and we know you had a hand in it. Face it Crichton, you are frelled. You will fall by my hands."
Crichton stepped into the lit chamber. It must have been the vorellium-lined room Selane talked about earlier, the one beneath the ion backwash chamber. Silver alloy lined the walls in stark contrast to the gold and copper tones on the rest of the ship. There was a control console against the wall. Opposite of this was an airlock. This was the very edge of the ship. Only the vacuum of space waited on the other side.
The pilot’s eyes fluttered open. "W-what happened?"
Zhaan smiled. "Thank the goddess. Finally."
The pilot straightened herself on her dais. "I-I was running a systems integrity check when something came into the chambers." She blinked her eyes twice, confused at a Delvian’s presence. "Who are you? There are no Delvians on the current prison roster."
"No time to explain," Zhaan said quickly. "You must restore Acroyan’s systems. The temperature is far too high, our friends are in danger of succumbing to the heat." Zhaan pointed at the strange silver box wired to the console. "We believe that device took control away from you. Do you know how to disable its functions?"
An angry swipe from one of her limbs gave her an answer. The box was torn off the console and plummeted harmlessly into the abyss that opened below the pilot’s platform. Utilizing her four limbs, she worked with all due haste restoring power, systems and temperature. Zhaan breathed a sigh of relief. In all the tiers below the pilots, cool air began to circulate through the vents.
"That’s far enough, Crichton."
Selane slowly stepped into the doorway at the opposite end of the chamber, pulse rifle aimed at his prey. But now, he was visibly shaking. Despite his bravado earlier, the heat was finally taking its toll. Crichton stood in the center of the room, holding his pulse rifle straight at Selane. It was a standoff.
"Selane, you can barely hold that thing up, let alone shoot it. Why don’t you cut your losses? That creature is still around here somewhere."
"No, I don’t think so, Crichton. I’ll finish you, get that creature and then maybe I will reward myself with your whore sitting in the transport pod."
Crichton scowled. "Doubt that. This ends now, you understand?"
"Yes," Selane said, beginning to laugh. "It does end now."
A clicking noise diverted their attention. Crichton turned. The creature appeared in the doorway at the other end of the room, trapping him in the middle. It was holding a bladed weapon in its hand. Without warning, it threw the weapon, its blades expanding in size. Selane fired a burst from his pulse rifle at the same time.
Crichton ducked hard as the energy bolt and blade shot past simultaneously, grazing the hair on top of his head. The pulse bolt harmlessly struck the far wall. The blade continued its course, straight towards Selane. He saw from across the room, but weakened by the heat, he could not get out of the way in time. He let out a loud scream a fraction before the blade neatly sheared his head from his neck. His body stood erect for a few microts before finally collapsing, a geyser of blood shooting out of the stump of his neck.
The creature charged at Crichton, its gauntlet blades extended. It continued its attack earlier, its speed and ferocity doubled. Dropping the pulse rifle, Crichton parried and blocked with the spear as best he could. The creature’s blows came down hard, pushing Crichton to his limits to fend off the attacks.
A flickering of the overhead lights and the rush of cool air from the vents caused the creature to pause for a moment- surprised that the ships systems were back on. Crichton seized the opportunity and swiped the spear’s barbed end across the creature’s face, then rammed it into its thigh. The creature screamed. Fluorescent blood streamed down its face and leg.
"That’s for Aeryn, you murdering piece of shit!" Crichton roared. "See how you like being stabbed in the leg!"
The creature struck Crichton hard with a closed fist, sending him against the wall. He gasped. Several ribs had cracked upon impact. He had a white-knuckle grip on the spear, but the blow from the creature had separated the half that was stuck in its leg. Crichton held up a handle with the narrow double-edged blade protruding out the thin cylinder of its other end. Now, it was not much to work with.
He tried to step forward, but two blades flashed down on him and impaled his right arm. He cried out, blood was trailing down his arm as the creature threw him around the room, twisting the blades in his wound. The pain went beyond mere agony.
Crichton slumped to his knees. The creature removed the blades from his arm and slowly walked across the room to retrieve its glaive. Crichton sat bent over, holding his arm, waves of hot searing pain rippled through him. He was battered and broken, barely able to remain conscious.
"Use the spear, John…"
Scorpius’s voice rang in his head yet again. "John, the spear. There is a yellow button on the handle. Point it at the creature and press the button."
Crichton strained, lifting the spear and holding it at the creature. It turned around, its eyes widening at the realization of what was about to happen. Grabbing the glaive off the wall where it had stuck, it pulled back its arm, ready to throw it.
His thumb found the pale yellow button nestled between the grooves of the spear’s handle.
"Now, Crichton! Press the button now!"
Depressing it, there was a crack like a pistol firing. The spear’s razor sharp tip flew from the handle like a harpoon and pierced the creature where its heart would be. Its body jerked back hard and hit the floor, a trail of blood briefly shooting upwards.
Crichton stood up carefully, trying to ignore the pain that ravaged his body. He walked over to the prone form of the creature, its chest convulsing and coughing up its glowing blood, and stood there watching it, silently as a ghost. The irony was not lost on him.
A grotesque head turned and met his gaze.
"Game over," Crichton said at last. "And to answer your question, yes, I have danced with the devil in the pale moonlight."
The creature looked at him a long time. "Game over…" it said.
Opening the gauntlet on its other hand, a clawed finger pressed a sequence of buttons. A beeping noise became audible. Crichton watched the gauntlet. A series of lights were flashing in sequence with the beeping, growing faster as the cycle repeated itself.
"This ends now." It began to laugh.
"Aw hell," Crichton’s eyes widened in horror, suddenly realizing what the device was. He ran to the control console. "Pilot of Acroyan are you there? Respond now!"
The image of Acroyan’s pilot appeared over the console’s clamshell. "Yes, I am here. Who is this?"
"No time to explain. There is a bomb in here, open the airlock in the room underneath the ion backwash chamber! Hurry!"
"You must listen to him, Pilot," Zhaan said frantically. "Crichton was fighting the creature that did this to Acroyan. You must trust him."
"OPEN THE AIRLOCK NOW!" Crichton screamed. The laughter from the creature increased in his ears along with the beeping from the bomb.
The pilot of the Acroyan swung around and depressed a panel on the left side of her console.
"Crichton? Crichton? Are you in here? Are you all right?" Jhennazim ran into the room as the airlock began to open.
He saw her just in time. "Jhennazim! Grab onto something, the airlock is opening!"
There was a roar and a hurricane gust of air, as the door opened wide onto space, pulling everything that was not attached out the airlock. Tools, weapons, an unfortunate DRD as well as Selane’s severed head and body were all pulled out into the Nil’s dark maw.
Crichton and Jhennazim held on for dear life, each with an arm wrapped around the support strut of the control console. Jhennazim’s garments flapped wildly, in danger of tearing off and losing what little she had left of her clothing. Crichton held fast, fighting the blinding pain from his injuries.
The creature began to slide towards the door. As it reached the edge, it hooked its gauntlet blades against the edge of the airlock, resolving to hold on and take the ship with it. Over the roar of escaping air, the creature’s laugh still grew louder.
Crichton looked for something, anything that could jar the creature loose. He was rewarded by the rattling sound of metal dragging on the floor. He looked over and saw Aeryn’s pulse rifle.
He grabbed it as it slid past him on its way towards the airlock. He did not even need to exert himself to lift or aim it. The pull of the vacuum leveled the rifle right at the creature’s head. It’s eyes widened in surprise. Crichton grinned, his expression triumphant.
"You lose!" He squeezed the trigger.
There was a brilliant flash and a final cry of anger as the creature’s body hurled out into the void. With the airlock cleared, the door automatically shut. Everything was silent again, except for the vibrations and low thrumming of the Acroyan’s engines as they powered back to life.
Then, the explosion came. Both Moya and the Acroyan rocked back and forth from the shockwave as the bomb detonated. Between the ships, there was a ball of fire expanding like a dying star. The thick hulls of Moya and the Acroyan withstood the heat, but the unexpected blast had taken both their pilots by surprise.
"Oh! That was a low yield nuclear explosion!" Pilot said, startled. "Where did that come from?"
"Is Moya all right?" Chiana asked, regaining her balance from the shifting of Moya’s position.
"Yes, she is fine. So is Acroyan. We are detecting his power is back on and all functions are returning." Pilot looked again at his control console. "But, that unidentified ship is now approaching us."
Crichton and Jhennazim lay there for several moments. Their clothes and hair disheveled. Their breathing was heavy, but slowing down to normal. They could easily agree they had seen better days if one wanted to bring up the subject.
Jhennazim reached out and brushed her fingers lightly over his wounds. "Crichton, are you all right?"
"I got busted up pretty bad," he said, gasping for breath. "I’m really starting to feel it now."
Jhennazim sat up and placed her hands over his chest. The crackling noise and the blue sparks on the tips of her fingers flowed out of her as Crichton felt his ribs knitting themselves, bones straightening, wounds healing and pain subsiding. As she finally finished, she collapsed onto his chest, drained from the process.
"You should really go into private practice, Jenn," Crichton said jokingly. "You would make a serious fortune."
"I need a vacation first."
The image of Acroyan’s female pilot appeared over the control console. "Commander John Crichton, are you there?"
He stood up slowly, helping Jhennazim to her feet. "Still alive, Pilot. Is everyone all right?"
"Yes. Acroyan is unharmed from the explosion. However, we need to inform you that the Moya and we have detected an unidentified craft slowing down to dock with us. Right in your vicinity, in fact."
"Damn," he whispered. The whole chamber shook as a ship docked outside, and the sound of the airlock being engaged alerted them to a new intruder. He faced the closed hatch, shielding Jhennazim behind him. He inspected Aeryn’s pulse rifle and cursed. It was now empty.
The airlock opened into a dark tunnel. Several transparent distortions quickly appeared along the edges of the airlock, and materialized into more of the alien creatures that had hunted those on the Acroyan. Another appeared. Then another. Then another.
Crichton stood his ground. There were now ten of them standing before him, inspecting the blood trails on the floor that led out the airlock. A glowing green smear intermixed with dark red, still wet on the floor, told them the story.
One of the creatures approached Crichton. It was as big as the one he just fought, and equipped the same way the other one had been. He looked down at the now useless pulse rifle in his hand, and let it drop to the floor.
The creature looked down at it momentarily and returned its gaze to the exhausted human. Reaching behind its back, it pulled out a long curved sword, still in its sheath. He tensed.
Bending down on one knee, the creature bowed and presented the sword to Crichton, lifting it up for him to take. He hesitated, confused by the situation.
"Take it," Jhennazim whispered.
He gently grasped the weapon with both hands and claimed it. The creature stood back up, turned around and walked back through the airlock. The others followed, each one turning invisible as it entered into the dark corridor of its vessel and disappeared into the shadows.
With a hiss, the airlock closed. Crichton heard the ship undocking and departing, fading away again into the Nil.
He stood there for a long time, trying to absorb what had happened. Jhennazim gently took his hand and broke him out of his daze.
"Come. Let’s go find the others," she said. "We can tell them it’s all over now. You’ve beaten the creature."
"I beat the creature." He held the sword up they had given him, his trophy from the battle. His heart leaped into his throat.
The sword was ornate, with a slight curve in the blade. Unsheathing it, it was razor sharp on one side, blunt on the other, with a brilliant mirror finish. The handle was black, decorated with golden dragons and wrapped in a silken red cord, braided tightly.
Crichton inhaled sharply. It was a katana, the sword of a samurai; a sword from Japan; from Earth.
"You did well, John. I am very impressed with you," said the voice of Scorpius. "You have earned your rest from me. I will leave your thoughts for now. But rest assured, I am still in here, keeping you free from harm until I return to claim the knowledge you have."
He closed his eyes.
Crichton leaned against the window of Moya’s terrace. He watched the Acroyan follow Moya out of the Nil’s dark swirling clouds and into normal space. From there, he veered off to their left and starburst away for the first time in over fifty cycles.
With the DRDs re-activated, cleaning up the ship and disposing of the bodies was left to their capable functions. Disengaging the Acroyan’s massive control collar had been put into the more experienced hands of Crichton and D’Argo, whose eyesight had been restored through Jhennazim’s healing touch. This time around, unlike the freeing of Moya’s collar, they performed that removal with considerably less trouble.
That accomplished, the Acroyan and its new crew of ex-Peacekeepers and one escaped prisoner said their farewells. The pilot expressed her and Acroyan’s eternal gratitude. They were free to explore now, just like Moya. Pykis and a now-smiling Kymera rounded up some supplies for the others. They were quite amicable with each other, Crichton thought with a smile. The Uncharted Territories had a new future couple to contend with. D’Argo expressed his thanks but preferred to leave immediately before he was attacked a third time- a bad omen to Luxans, it would seem. Zhaan gave her blessings from her goddess. Aeryn hugged him in gratitude and gave him her million-dollar smile, and then declared she needed a nice long shower. Not a bad way to end the day.
Jhennazim had looked at him for a long time. Her eyes. A man could lose himself in them. But he could not afford to get lost. Besides, beautiful as she was, she would never be able to take her place. Not now.
"Stay with me."
"I can’t do that. There’s someone-"
"We’re so much alike. We’re both lost from our homes. You saved me…"
"Pass it on," he said. "Help someone else who needs it one day." Ironic, he thought. He said that to Chiana once.
"I have been so lonely out here."
"I know the feeling. But I can’t. Aeryn and I-"
"I understand." She was sad.
"I do hope you find your home, though."
"Yes. Yours, too."
The starburst was beautiful. Faint sparks hung in the vacuum for microts before fading away for good. In the past, he had a hard time enjoying the image. Since the few occasions he had seen it, he got left behind. Not today, though. Acroyan was gone. And Pykis, Kymera and Jhennazim…
Aeryn let out a sigh. He looked down to her, standing beside him and cradled under his arm. She turned the sword in her hands, inspecting its details.
"Much," she said. "Did I tell you I was proud of you?"
"You only told me three times already."
She laughed. "Prepare for the fourth."
"I think I was just lucky. Selane came in there shooting. Scorpius was giving me advice…"
"You were there when it counted." She reached up and stroked his hair. "Are you still hearing him?"
"No. I think he’s left for now. He said he’s giving me a break. I guess I at least got lucky with that." He tapped his forehead. "I’m leading a charmed life, for now."
Her gaze went down at the sword she was holding. "And this is what the creatures gave you for beating one of their own? It’s a magnificent weapon."
"If you only knew the half of it. Did I mention it’s from Earth?"
Her mouth opened slightly. She turned it in her hands again, studying it.
"It’s a shame I didn’t get to talk to them," he said. "Maybe they could have told me where Earth was."
"They were there to hunt, John, not to help someone find their way home."
She reached up and gently kissed him. "We’ll find it someday."
He flashed a big smile. "Yeah. In the meantime, isn’t there something we were supposed to do?"
"Yes. We should all be getting some dinner."
They turned to see D’Argo walking in, Chiana wrapped around his arm, neither looking the worse for wear.
"Heavy D," Crichton said. "All recovered from our little ordeal, huh?"
"I’ve been helping out with his recovery," Chiana said. "Yep, he needs a lot of recovery time."
They all laughed. "More than we needed to know Pip," Crichton said. "No wonder you’re hungry, D."
"D’Argo groaned. "I would suggest we move it. I’m starving now, and Rygel will probably be trying to eat the good stuff those on the Acroyan gave us."
Crichton tapped his comm. "Is that true, Sparky? Are you already eating our winnings?"
"And with great relish," Rygel responded, his mouth full of food. "As my way of saying thanks to those who assisted us, inferior beings that they are, I feel my best way to thank them is to enjoy every bite here."
"That tears it," Crichton said with a smile. He walked towards the doorway. "I got a sword, now. I’ll deal with Sparky. How about I jump in with this and shout ‘humans are superior!’ Think he’ll wet himself?"
"Yeah, from laughter." Chiana giggled.
"John pulled the sword from its scabbard. "How did that cartoon go? Daffy used a staff instead of a sword, but this should work. Ho! Ha! Ha! Guard! Turn! Perry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust!" His sword flared around, back and forth. "I’ll scare Buckwheat yet!"
"Ah, we would like to get to dinner without any serious injury," D’Argo said.
Aeryn laughed, in spite of herself. Standing in the doorway was a sight she never expected to see. John Crichton, sword raised in hand, glorious in battle. Crichton the hunter; Crichton the warrior.
It was quite an exciting image, she thought.