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Necessary Evil
by sunshiner, E-mail: wayfarer@cfl.rr.com

About Necessary Evil

Summary: The agricultural planet of Kinfea Prime is an ideal place for a grocery run. But when one of Moyaís crew gets in over her head, the others agree to a little dirty work. The job seems simple enough, but nothing is ever easy in the Uncharted Territories. And the right decisions arenít always the best ones.

Category: Action/Adventure

Notes: Takes place between Scratch Ďn Sniff and Revenging Angel.

Email: wayfarer@cfl.rr.com

Rating: PG-13

Spoilers: Helps to be aware of Suns and Lovers, Eat Me, and Scratch Ďn Sniff. But I donít really give a lot away if you donít.

Disclaimer: Iím only borrowing them. They donít really belong to me. Iíll put them away when Iím done.

Feedback: Oh please, oh please, oh please!


~ Cool Hand Jool ~

It was not so much a junk shop as it was an exotic collection of odds and ends categorized in bins and grouped by like shapes. The bins were further arranged on shelves according to size, with larger objects hung from overhead rafters. It was questionable that the association of like part to like part was any more accurate than it was plausible the items functioned as promised.

The current visitor to the peculiar collection had his doubts. "You’re sure, huh?"

The shopkeeper, a mishmash of body parts that complimented his line of work, gestured with a narrow hand. "It will perform the same function as that which you wish to replace."

"And if it doesn’t, I get to bring back my receipt for a refund, right?"

"It will work as I have said."

John shook his head and set the component back on the counter. "That’s okay. We’ll keep looking around."

"My word is trusted by many, and it can be trusted by you."

"Don’t take it personally," the Human said as he turned for the exit. "But I don’t trust anyone." The door slammed shut behind him.

"That’s not entirely true."

John glanced over his shoulder, shielding his eyes against the glare of Kinfea Prime’s sun. "And what’s that, Jool?" he asked.

"That you don’t trust anyone. You trust D’Argo. And Chiana."

John noticed she stopped short of including herself in that list. She probably didn’t trust him either. He stopped to peer through the window of another shop. The agricultural planet had an overabundance of fresh food but was decidedly lacking in other commerce. Space faring crews frequented the world to re-supply their stores, enjoy the rustic charm of lush gardens, and relax in the security of an alleged crime free world. The crew of Moya wasn’t sure about the last claim, especially when required to pay a hefty protection tax with the Port Authority. Another substantial fee allowed them to continue carrying their weapons. "Fine. Then I don’t trust anyone who says ‘Trust me’"

"But you say just that same thing all the time."

John turned around with an exasperated sigh and focused on Jool. "Why are you following me again?"

"Because," she explained, her expression displaying a moment of annoyance, "You said we should stay in pairs. D’Argo went with Chiana for supplies. That left you and me to find tech parts."

"Right." John’s glance moved over Jool’s shoulder. The open air market was crowded but John was sure the individual examining wares at a stall nearby had been the same one that had followed them into the junk store. He did not feel threatened just yet, however. Legal Authority was on prominent patrol throughout the settlement and he had yet to see anything resembling a wanted beacon or Peacekeeper. Regardless, he thought it best to get off the street. "How ‘bout I buy you a drink."

Jool did not get a chance to refuse or accept John’s offer before he took her by the arm and led her toward an alehouse. They pushed through the door and looked around. "It doesn’t look very clean in here."

"They never do, darlin’. It’s part of the atmosphere." He had seen worse. This particular establishment at least made an effort to sweep the floor and rinse out the glasses. Round tables were scattered about the central area, leaving one wall open for a high counter and stools. There was no overhead illumination; casting most of the room in a smoky twilight broken by tiny table lamps and a narrow glowing strip running the length of the bar. John directed her to a table and sat down. Habit made him find a place where he could easily see the front entrance. The survival instincts he had honed over the last few cycles made him take note of any additional exits.

A solid door at the back of the building. An arched corridor opening from one side. A service hallway behind the bar leading to kitchens. Nothing too far away a mad dash couldn’t reach.

A dark skinned, black haired female standing just shy of four feet approached them for their drink request. Her eyes were solid white, with no pupil or iris to break the color. It gave the eerie perception of blindness although it was obvious she could see. Pale silver garments covered her form. The loose and practical outfit of shirt and trousers seemed favored by the planet’s inhabitants.

"Whatever’s on tap," John muttered in reply. He looked up into the server’s confused expression and waved a hand. "The house brew. Local favorite. Whatever everyone else is having."

The female gave a hesitant nod before moving away.

"You really shouldn’t try to make yourself so obvious. In case you haven’t noticed, there is not a single individual in this entire star system that looks like you." Jool folded her hands in her lap, gazing impertinently at the Human.

John’s eyes flicked from their patrol of the room toward the Interon. " And you don’t stand out? Besides, there’s only one of me no matter what star system we’re in."

"Two of you."

"What?" he mumbled distractedly. Their shadow from the market had followed them inside. The Kinfea male stood in the door a moment before walking toward the archway. He passed through without a look back. John relaxed only slightly.

"There’s two of you, remember?" Her voice dipped as the server returned with a pair of metallic mugs.

John reached for his with a tight grin. "Almost slipped my mind. Thanks for reminding me. Don’t know what I’d do without you." He took a sip of his drink, pausing a moment before deciding the taste of it wasn’t that bad. Sort of like Ovaltine with a hint of Zippo lighter fluid.

She peered into her mug but declined to taste it. "How long do we have to wait here?"

"Until D’Argo and Chiana let us know that they have the supplies." John was slowly convincing himself he had only been paranoid. Three cycles on the run would do that to a person though, he consoled himself.

The server returned shortly to refill their drinks. "Might I offer a diversion?" she asked. The woman gestured toward the door in the back. "Our Games Room is one of the finest in all of Kinfea Prime."

"Games. Like gambling?"

She smiled. "Perhaps you would like to try your hand at luck?"

"No thanks. My luck sucks," John muttered as he took a swallow of his drink. "But if you want to go check it out," he said to Jool. "Feel free."

"I will." Jool rose from her seat. "Anything to break the tedium."

"Knock ‘em dead." John made a dismissive gesture but the woman had already left his side and disappeared through the doorway. He was thankful for the respite from Jool’s condescending chatter but the sudden solitude quickly made him reconsider.

The dark skinned Kinfea farmers and laborers dominated the room. There was a striking enough variance from the Sebacean mold to make John feel like an irregularity. He had long gotten used to being the only human around, but Aeryn looked enough like his species to keep him from feeling totally alone. Intellectually, John knew how different they were and on occasion, the difference was unquestionably obvious. But when he looked at her, the tiny part of his brain that still wanted to believe all of this was a horrible, twisted dream insisted they were the same. It reminded him of the parakeet he had as a kid. The pet shop clerk had instructed him to put a small mirror in the cage so the bird was tricked into thinking it wasn't alone. Parakeets apparently could die of loneliness. John didn’t know if this was true or not, but he took the clerk’s advice and the tiny blue and white bird spent years chirping happily at its own reflection.

Aeryn had been his mirror.

But it had been too long since he had seen her. Rising from his seat, he decided to join Jool in the Gaming Room. She at least was a familiar face and that would have to do.

John was almost there when the front door of the drinking house slammed open. His hand fell to his side, fingers brushing against the smooth surface that made up the butt of his pulse pistol. He watched as first one male and then two more entered the establishment.

Dressed in matching uniforms of starched blue cloth, they moved with a swagger that came from possessing some high authority. The leading male continued further in while his companions took up positions on either side of the door. They drew rather misshapen pistols from hip holsters as obvious deterrence should anyone decide upon foolish bravery.

Every conversation within the tavern stopped, some coming to an abrupt end while others faltered like the last drips of a leaky faucet. Only a few heads turned in the direction of the trio. Most of the customers discovered something intensely fascinating at the bottom of their glasses or growing beneath unkempt fingernails.

One of the servers approached the single male, appearing more annoyed by his arrival than concerned. "Good eve, sir. Would you care for some refreshment?"

John suppressed the urge to duck through the door, grab Jool, and make for the nearest exit, but he was sure any suspicious move on his part would draw unnecessary attention. So far, there was little indication the events unfolding before him were out of the ordinary for this place. He forced his stance into a more relaxed pose and prayed to whomever was listening that D’Argo did not take this moment to show up. The Luxan would undoubtedly overreact.

"No," the man replied without physically acknowledging the server. His gaze slid across the beings in the room, granting each one a practiced sneer, but not focusing on anyone in particular. "Just tell Cabmauri I am here."

Before the server could comply with the demand, a voice issued from the archway. "What do you want, Dartoi? I paid you yesterday."

John turned his head toward who he assumed to be Cabmauri. All he saw was a dim silhouette.

"Yes, you did." Dartoi embarked upon a languid stroll through the room. "But that was yesterday. Today, if you wish preferred treatment from Legal Authority, we need to renegotiate."

There was a palpable silence emanating from the archway before a dark skinned hand moved with a beckoning gesture. "Very well," Cabmauri said.

Conversation resumed, slowly at first but quickly picking up in volume, as Dartoi disappeared after the proprietor of the drinking house. Only then did John realize he had been holding his breath. He exhaled, leaning heavily on the wall behind him.

It felt good to be an innocent bystander for a change. The universe was frelling with some other poor sap and leaving John Crichton alone. It was almost too good to be true.

"And if something is too good to be true-," John muttered under his breath. He turned his back to the room and activated his comm. "Hey D’Argo. How you guys coming with the supplies?"

"We are almost finished," the Luxan responded. "The supplies should be loaded onto the transport pod within the arn."

Chiana’s voice interrupted, smooth as silk compared to D’Argo’s gruff tones. "But the Port Authority says we can’t leave until morning. They only allow off world travel at designated times. Free of charge, that is"

"Why doesn’t that surprise me? Okay. I’ll call up to Pilot that we’re spending the night. I’ll grab Jool and meet up with you."

He disengaged his comm and stepped into the adjoining chamber. The Gaming Room was half the size of the outer tavern. Games of chance were played at one of six crescent shaped tables. Currently, a small crowd was gathered around one of them, all attention diverted to the battle being waged by a card dealer and Jool.

John made his way through the throng and stood beside Jool, looking down at the table. The purpose of the game was not clear to him. It consisted of playing cards that resembled round plastic disks, each one imbued with its own color. Some of the shades dipped into spectrums no human eye had ever seen before, but there was only one color per card. Three of the disks were placed on the table in front of the dealer while three others rested before Jool. A short stack of cards was located in the center, faced down so the color was obscured. A second stack, with colors facing up, sat near the dealer’s right hand.

"So. You winning?"

"Be quiet," Jool hissed. Her expression bounced between stress and excitement as she studied the cards on the table. "I need to concentrate."

John bit back his reply, knowing it would be wasted on his companion anyway. Since he didn’t understand the rules of the game, he diverted his attention from the table and glanced around to those gathered nearby. Most of the spectators watched with the same intensity as those playing the game. They did not dare to speak to each other except in hushed whispers. No one wanted to take responsibility for ruining the concentration of the players.

Jool tapped the center card, biting her bottom lip as the dealer took it and put it in the pile beside him. He reached for one of the unknown disks and with a flip, set it face up in the empty spot. A murmur rippled through the audience, echoing the pleased smile on the Interon’s face. "Beat that," she smiled.

The dealer tapped one of his own disks, removing it to the discard pile. Although John had little idea as to what was going on, he found himself watching the table expectantly. The next card in the unknown pile was taken from the top and deposited with a flourish in front of the dealer. The color it displayed made John’s eyes water and he was forced to look away.

"What?" Jool’s tone was incredulous. "That’s impossible."

A collective groan of disappointment sounded from the group as they began to disperse. From the scattered bits of conversation John could pick up, most of the spectators had expected Jool to win as well.

John rubbed his thumb and forefinger across his eyelids to refocus his vision before looking at Jool. "I take it you lost?"

"There is no way I could have lost." Jool’s hair bounced around her shoulders as her head turned toward John, then back toward the dealer. "You cheated," she accused.

"The House requests that you settle your wager," the dealer said.

"I will not," Jool replied indignantly. Her lips parted wider as she prepared a barrage of insults, but John grabbed her arm and pulled the Interon close.

"Just pay up and let’s go. Whatever passes for law enforcement around here is in the next room and we don’t want to cause trouble. Okay?" He loosened his grip and smiled at the dealer. "She’s a little high strung. You’ll have to excuse her."

"But Crichton-" Jool moved to stand between John and the table. "I can’t pay the bet," she said through clenched teeth.

"How much did you lose?" John reached into his pocket. "I’ve got some money if you need it."

"This is Bacria. You don’t play for currency." Jool held up her left hand and wiggled the fingers.

John’s eyes narrowed and his head tilted to the side. "You bet your fingers?" he asked after a moment.

"No. The whole hand."

John blinked rapidly, his mouth open as he gathered words. "Are you nuts?"

"I’ve never lost at Bacria before. A mathematical formula dictates the color of the disks and which order they are played. The only way he could have drawn the Vue card was if he cheated." The last few words were spoken loudly and directed with venomous accusation toward the dealer.

The dealer apparently disagreed with the allegation. Reaching under the table, he withdrew a weapon and aimed it at Jool. "The House must insist you settle your wager." John spotted a second individual approaching the table, summoned by the tense activity. He was taller and broader than the others, leaving little doubt to his purpose in the Game room. In a game with stakes this high, apparently not everyone lost to Bacria willingly.

"Crichton!" Jool wailed, darting to stand behind the man. "Do something!"

John groaned and pulled his pulse pistol from his thigh holster. He alternated his aim between the bouncer and the dealer. His other arm extended out at his side, providing a barrier between them and Jool. He was painfully aware that every eye in the room was now directed toward him. "What we have here," he said, trying to keep his voice as level as possible. "Is a failure to communicate."


~ Easy as Pie ~

D’Argo deactivated his comm and uttered a string of Luxan curses. One hand slammed into the side of the transport pod as he slid into words that Chiana’s translator microbes were able to understand. "I should have known better than to leave them alone together."

"It was your idea to come with me." Chiana folded her arms in front of her. She was highly amused by the outburst, more so because she was not at the receiving end. The fact that Jool was at fault this time was icing on the cake, as John would say.

"Because none of you can be trusted to be left alone. I assumed John could handle the Interon. Obviously, I was wrong." D’Argo’s long legs took him away from the transport pod and in the direction of the farming community.

"Hey, where do you think you’re going? We’re supposed to stay here."

D’Argo stopped and turned around. "You really believe Crichton is going to talk his way out of this?"

Chiana tried to think back to a time when John had successfully used words to get out of a bad situation. Her mouth hung open as she stood there thinking.

"That’s what I thought." D’Argo spun on his heel and continued walking.

"And just what exactly do you think you’re gonna do?" Chiana jogged to catch up but movement between a pair of docked spacecraft caught her attention.

Two Kinfea males huddled close together, speaking in low, conspiratorial tones. One of them inclined his head over the shoulder of the other, as if spotting Chiana standing there. He reached out and gently touched his companion’s arm, drawing him further along the side of one of the parallel ships.

She muttered an apology and stepped out of their line of sight, but curiosity prevented her from going far. There was a familiar tingle at the back of her mind, a beckoning that she was growing accustomed to, but didn’t understand. Chiana had no choice but to respond, although common sense said otherwise.

The yellow sun was dipping behind the planet’s horizon, creating long shadows throughout the spaceport. One shadow moved apart from the others, flitting across the top of a transport ship. Chiana watched it closely until she could just make out the outline of a man crawling along the roof of the vessel. He stopped at the edge and produced a weapon that reminded her of Aeryn’s pulse rifle. He aimed it at the two men standing below.

"Look out!"

One man spun around, the other ducked. The flashing light of the rifle shot burst against the side of a ship and showered sparks on what had been potential targets. Both men were propelled into action, fleeing from the scene.

Chiana did her best to make herself invisible as the first man ran past her. The second stopped long enough to meet the Nebari’s gaze and mouth a quick word of thanks before darting in an opposite direction.

Spectators were beginning to mill about, drawn by the noise of weapon fire. The authorities would be here soon. Chiana pulled the hood of her traveling coat over her face and melted into the throng of onlookers. Sure enough, a group of Kinfeas in dark blue uniforms arrived and began dispersing the crowd, asking questions of anyone nearby.

Chiana was more than happy to leave.

***

"Help me understand, because I really want to know how this works." John paced along the back wall of Cabmauri’s office. As he spoke, he turned his head toward Jool. She sat in a chair across from a sprawling desk of wood and stone. All he could see was the back of her head and tense, rigid shoulders. "For someone who keeps preaching how superior and civilized they are you did a really dumb thing."

"Bacria is a game of skill and aptitude. Only the intellectually elite can play it and win consistently."

"What exactly do you win?" John watched the ceiling as he walked back and forth. "I hope it’s something real good."

"Prestige."

He came to a halt, staring at the Interon with an expression of disbelief. "Prestige? That’s it?"

"It is an accomplishment worthy of respect."

"That’s gonna do you a whole lotta good in the middle of the Uncharted Territories where the only people who know you, don’t care."

"I should not have lost. The dealer cheated," Jool stated for perhaps the eleventh time since they were brought to the office.

John put his hands on his hips. "Real original defense. I’m sure no one has thought of that one before!"

"Stop yelling at me." Her voice started to rise, threatening to level out in a crescendo that made the fillings in John’s teeth ache. "You should be angry at them!"

"I can be mad at more than one person at a time. It’s a talent." John closed his eyes and counted to ten. Just once, he would like to visit another world and be bored. Was that too much to ask? Apparently so. Someone, call them fate, destiny, or the Sta’ Puft Marshmallow Man, had decided that John Crichton and company were the only players in a galactic game of dodge ball. He hoped the other him was having more luck.

Or depending on the situation, less luck.

"Are you positive he cheated? Be real sure."

"Yes," Jool answered. She looked back at him. "I am sure."

The office door swung open, permitting the bouncer from the Game Room admittance. He took a few steps in and moved to the side as a second person entered behind him.

"Well, you kept us waiting long enough," Jool said. She directed a nearly physical wave of animosity toward the new arrivals.

"My apologies. It was not easy convincing the officers that there was nothing to be alarmed about. Just a slight misunderstanding."

"We appreciate your time," John said to the unidentified man. He came to stand beside Jool, resting one of his hands on her shoulder in silent reminder to be nice. It was his intention to reason with the owner of the drinking house, perhaps offer to pay Jool’s debt in currency instead of limbs.

"I am Cabmauri Mudest," the dark man said as he took a seat on the corner of his desk. "The card dealer you have accused of cheating is my closest friend. I am disturbed by your allegation."

"I’m disturbed at losing my hand."

John squeezed Jool’s shoulder, eliciting a muted squeal but ultimately hushing her. He hoped all the time spent listening to Rygel would pay off and at least make him sound as if he knew what he was doing. "No one is accusing anyone of cheating. I’m sure it was just a simple, honest mistake and there’s no need to point fingers."

Jool drew in a breath of protest but she was interrupted by John’s stern glare and tightening grip. "Ain’t that right?"

"Yes," Jool hissed.

"So, misunderstandings aside, we’d be willing to make a monetary settlement in order to square up this whole fiasco."

Cabmauri seemed to give it a moment thought before shaking his head. "Sadly, this is impossible."

"Nothing’s impossible," John said. Although he was beginning to have his doubts.

"There is honor at stake when Bacria is concerned. If word were to spread that my game allows exceptions, my reputation as a Master will be forfeit."

"We’re not gonna tell anyone. We’re good at secrets. Trust me."

Cabmauri graced John with a patronizing smile. "Trust is an interesting commodity to bargain with. Unfortunately, it is not a very lucrative one."

"Yeah, I can understand that. So, what else is there? I can’t let you take her hand so I suggest you rethink our money."

Jool was trying desperately not to fidget in her chair but she could not stop clenching and unclenching her fingers together. "He can’t take currency. It goes against the rules of Bacria."

John looked down at her. "Anything else you want to bring up now that might have been useful an arn ago?"

"You didn’t tell me that was part of your plan."

Cabmauri seemed to hesitate before speaking. "There may be a way to settle the debt without dishonoring the rules of Bacria or maiming your friend."

The sensation that crept up John’s spine was familiar and it caused a lopsided grin to turn up the corners of his mouth. Resignation. The whole thing was a setup from the get go. He should never have doubted his instincts. What did DK use to say? Just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they really aren’t after you.

"And what way would that be?"

Cabmauri slid off the corner of his desk and walked around to the chair. "I have some items that I desperately need delivered to the settlement on our moon. You have a transport ship, correct?"

Jool’s curiosity made her lean forward in her seat. "What sort of items?"

"The illegal kind," John said, looking from her to Cabmauri. "Am I right?"

The Kinfea nodded. "It is a small shipment, but a very expensive one once bribes are taken into consideration. Port Authority will require a tax for hazardous cargo. Legal Authority will ask for more currency to allow safe passage." He waved a hand as if alluding to other obstacles.

"And since we’re nobodies, you think they’ll let us fly out of here without paying the real stiff fees." John turned around and started pacing toward the rear of the room. He paused halfway there and faced back the way he came. "And that’s it? No hoops or rings of fire?"

"You will of course need to make contact with my buyer and bring back payment." Cabmauri made a gesture imitating embarrassment. "Regrettably, I will require the female to stay here as my guest until completion of the transaction."

"I will not stay here," Jool said, rising from her chair to plant fists on her hips.

John did not like the idea any better than the Interon but he was not seeing many options. And for once, he would like to leave a planet without an exiting hail of pulse fire. Convincing D’Argo this arrangement was for the best was going to be dangerous enough. At least he knew he could count on Chiana to participate. This almost sounded like her idea of a good time.

"Jool. Either you stay here for a few arns or your hand stays here forever. Choice is yours."

She bit her lower lip, letting brilliant green eyes flash between Crichton and Cabmauri. "Since you put it that way," Jool said after a brief hesitation. "I don’t suppose I could get something to eat while I wait."

Cabmauri instructed the silent bouncer to escort the woman from the room before turning toward John again. "I believe the best decision was made."

"Let’s hope we still feel that way in the morning. Give me the details and let’s get this show on the road."

***

It was a simple matter to pay off the dock master so they could fly off world before daylight. No one had bothered searching through their newly purchased supplies after paying the extra tax. The narrow boxes that Cabmauri had given them were securely hidden among larger crates of rations and fresh produce.

"This is a very bad idea, John." D’Argo sat in the co-pilot’s chair. His broad shoulders were squared with tension as the craft lifted off the planet and followed the coordinates leading to the orbiting moon.

Chiana leaned her elbows on the console between the two men, watching through the forward view screen. "You worry too much, D’Argo. Considering everything that’s happened so far, John got off easy."

"First off, this wasn’t my fault." John glanced quickly over his shoulder toward the Nebari, only partially appeased by the teasing smirk on her face.

Chiana reached up to run her fingers along John’s arm, putting just enough pressure behind the touch so it could be felt through his leather jacket. "Of course not. It’s that trelk, Jool, who got us into this mess."

"I see no reason why we should resort to name calling," D’Argo growled. It was uncertain if he felt a need to defend Jool or was just trying to relieve stress by bickering with Chiana. Everyone was edgy. After so many cycles on the run, they should be accustomed to dealing with intense situations. But their experiences only made them more cautious and wary. John was not sure if that was a bad thing.

"I don’t see why you need to take her side-"

"Secondly," John interrupted, speaking loud enough to draw the attention of both his shipmates and silence the potential argument. He tilted his head from one side to the other until the vertebrae in his neck popped. His gaze remained riveted on the forward screens. "There isn’t a secondly. All we need to do is meet up with this Bonyon person, deliver the goods, get Jool, then put as much distance between us and this frelling planet as we can. Nothing to it."

D’Argo shared a look with Chiana before directing his own eyes forward. "Right. Simple."

"I’m not worried at all." Chiana shifted her slight weight from one foot to the other in a show of indifference. The effect would have been perfect had she been around strangers that did not know her. She tugged on the front of her bodice. "Besides. I need some new clothes to wear."

"We will not have the time to shop, Chiana."

The Nebari glanced at D’Argo with a tightlipped grin. "Of course we will."

John nodded, disturbed by the lilt in Chiana’s voice. He didn’t want to ask if this was one of her premonitions. He was not sure she would answer him honestly anyway. "Just a walk in the park," he muttered under his breath.

~ Smuggler’s Blues ~

The atmosphere on the moon was thin but breathable and, John suspected, artificial. It was also thick with dust and pollutants. In order to preserve the soil of the planet, Kinfea Prime’s inhabitants had moved all of their industrial facilities to Gital Deep. Raw material mined on the main world was also shipped off world for processing here. The result was a settlement that reminded John of Detroit on a still day. The landscape was suspended in night and the residents traversing the streets did so with an air of blue-collar revelry. Laborers and industrial workers mingled with travel weary space traders, spending the day’s wage or bounty on intoxicants and entertainment. The spirits were strong and the diversions were typically lewd and violent. What little order there was, came at the end of a pulse pistol. Or by the threat of one.

Docking at Gital Deep’s spaceport was easy. Legal Authority had no jurisdiction on the moon station. Cabmauri had warned them that a Council of criminal Houses regulated trade here, exerting complete control. No one would ask questions. It was hardly reassuring.

Their destination was deep within the sprawl of structures that crowded around the spaceport. Bonyon Daul operated a Leu Den, providing a narcotic drug to anyone with the currency and time to spend under the influence of induced bliss. They had no trouble finding the building. It seemed anyone they asked knew how to get there.

John was first through the door. His features were schooled to the emotional indifference common on Peacekeepers. A military stance forced his chin up, shoulders back, the pulse pistol at his side in clear sight. He had practiced this display of intimidation before and did it well, but it hung on him like a sweater two sizes two big. His appearance seemed to garner little attention from the inebriated clients of the den but he made a show of scrutinizing the place anyway.

Heavy purple smoke clung to the low ceiling, making it difficult to see the details of the room. Mellowed light filtered through glass wall sconces, briefly illuminating ornate carved beams that supported the roof. Most of the patrons lounged on couches placed conveniently in clusters around the bowl shaped Leu pipes. Transparent curtains of multicolored gauze enclosed alcoves along the walls, providing somewhat secluded areas for shy guests. Attendants moved with languid care among the sofa clusters, refilling the pipes with a powdered mineral from the small pots they carried.

John was beginning to suspect he was the most hostile creature in the place until he spotted the security guards watching discreetly from corners. They eyed him with a professional curiosity but had apparently concluded what John had hoped they would. The black leather clad Sebacean was merely a bodyguard for whoever was coming through the door next. Around here, it was not uncommon or unexpected.

John reached back to push open the door. On cue, Chiana sauntered in with her typical smug grin and velvet purrs. "Now this is what I call a party." D’Argo followed just behind her, taking a position by the door opposite John.

An attendant moved toward the Nebari, bowing low as he approached. "How may I be of service?"

Chiana tilted her head to one side, running her tongue along her lips. "You can start by telling your boss he has a visitor. Tell him Chiana is here, with regards from Cabmauri."

The attendant bowed again and turned, moving toward one of the room’s other doors. As he passed, he gestured at the house security. Two of the guards stepped out from their places, making their presence and purpose more apparent as weapons were revealed.

John’s hand went immediately to his pulse pistol and D’Argo began to reach over his shoulder toward his Qualta Blade. Chiana made a clicking noise with her tongue, preventing the show of force from turning into anything more than a declaration of intent. "Relax, boys. We’re here on business. Not pleasure."

"Just a precaution," said a silken voice from across the room. "When mercenaries ask for me. They are most anxious to demonstrate their loyalty."

Bonyon was tall for a Kinfea and lanky, with limbs that seemed stretched beyond normal proportions. His face was also narrow with a high brow and the flesh visible beneath his priest like robes was streaked with subtle gray. He clasped his hands together and inclined his head in greeting.

Chiana turned the full force of her charm on the individual. "At least they enjoy their work." She gave a terse glance over her shoulder. "Stand down, boys. Try to display a few manners. After all, we’re guests."

She was good at this John had to admit. Not that he ever doubted her ability to convincingly con their way through a successful transaction. It is why they had all agreed that Chiana should take the lead, delegating John and D’Argo as her personal security. It was not so different from the plan used at the Shadow Depository. Except then it was Zhaan as the ringleader and Aeryn beside him. He quickly pushed the memory from his mind. There was very little about it that was worth remembering anyway.

"And a lovely one at that." Bonyon nodded toward his own guards, indicating that they could retreat into their corners. "Shall we?" The man gestured toward one of the screened alcoves in the back of the den.

"Works for me."

The smoke was starting to get to John as he followed Chiana and Bonyon toward the alcove. It made his eyes sting and irritated his nose. Worse than that, his senses dulled like he was on the receiving end of a Thorazine drip. The longer he stayed here, the more John was sure he wouldn’t care if Scorpius walked through the door, dragging the Aurora Chair behind him. As Chiana and Bonyon ducked into the alcove, he was glad his part required nothing more than to stand outside the curtain and keep watch.

John looked over toward D’Argo to see if the narcotic smoke was affecting him as well, but the Luxan appeared fine. It was good that someone would be able to keep their wits about them. Truth be told, there was no one in this arm of the galaxy he would rather have at his back than D’Argo.

Well, that was not entirely accurate. He would prefer Aeryn. There was symmetry to the way they worked together. Each one balanced out the other’s faults to the point they existed as one flawless entity. The smile these thoughts brought to his face was bitter and he was quick to quell it. There was no telling where Aeryn was right now or what she was doing.

Besides, he needed to focus on the here and now if they wanted to get Jool back. He had been uncomfortable leaving her on the planet. In many ways, the two of them were alike. Forgetting the biological similarities that Grunchlk insisted upon at the Diagnosan’s facility, they shared circumstances. Both of them had been propelled from their safe, cozy lives and dropped into an environment they were unprepared to deal with. John had had longer to adapt, but he still felt like a babe in the woods most of the time. He could relate to the anxiety Jool must be feeling right now.

Although from what he had learned about her, John almost felt more sorry for Cabmauri.

"What is funny?"

John blinked toward D’Argo, unaware that he had laughed aloud. "Nothing," he said with a shake of his head. "Contact buzz. I’m cool. No worries."

D’Argo responded with a suspicious frown, unsure if he could believe the Human’s claim. But he said nothing, returning his stare out toward the room.

He and D’Argo were friends as a matter of survival. They had gone to bat for each other so many times over the last few cycles John did not want to try to count them. They had failed each other too. If a time ever came where they did not need each other to survive, would they remain friends or go their separate ways? It was not a question John wanted to dwell on. He might not like the answer.

Eventually, the curtain parted and Chiana stepped out, looking rather pleased with herself.

"We good?" John asked, hoping his voice was not as loud in reality as it sounded in his own ears. He could not wait to get out of here and clear his head.

"Better than good," Chiana tilted her head and grinned.

***

"What, you think Rygel is the only one who can negotiate?" She did not understand what the problem was or why D’Argo was getting so upset over this. They should be happy she had been able to work out such a profitable deal. After all, Chiana thought, they deserved to get something extra for all the work they were doing.

"You took an unnecessary chance. What if Bonyon had said no?"

"He didn’t." Chiana almost skipped along the walkway, forcing the Luxan to make long strides in order to keep up with her. "And he would have gotten suspicious if we didn’t try to haggle a little extra for ourselves. Real smugglers would have done the same."

"That’s not the point."

"Then what is the point, D’Argo?" Chiana came to an abrupt halt, spinning around to face the man following her. "Are you that worried something is going to happen to Jool? Because I know you don’t care what talents I might have used in my negotiation."

D’Argo’s mouth hung open a fraction longer than necessary before speaking. "You’ve made it very clear you will do what you want regardless of how I feel. My only concern is that all of us get back to Moya without further incident as soon as possible."

She felt a moment of disappointment as the Luxan brushed past her and continued walking toward the spaceport. Chiana was still staring after him when John paused at her side.

"He still cares, you know."

Chiana darted her eyes toward the Human, but could not bring herself to look at him fully. She did not want to risk him seeing the regret etched on her face. "Yeah, well. He has a funny way of showing it." Drawing a deep breath, she plastered a smile on her lips. "What about you, old man? The Leu wearing off yet?"

"Little fuzzy around the edges but okay. We better catch up to D’Argo." John took Chiana’s arm and started moving.

She nodded her agreement, but something caused her to hang back, someone in the crowd that looked familiar. She freed her arm from John’s grasp. "You go on ahead. I uh, need to check on something."

John turned, reluctant to go on without her. "We’re kinda in a hurry here, Pip."

"I’ll just be a microt. Girl stuff." Chiana took a step backwards, hoping the growing distance would urge John to leave. "And you’re in no condition to be walking the streets by yourself. You can still catch D’Argo if you’re quick."

It was clear he did not want to leave her, but John relented anyway. "Okay. But keep your comm open."

Chiana watched the Human amble through the crowd of pedestrians, trying to look steadier on his feet than he was. She was not worried though, D’Argo was not too far ahead that he would not hear the commotion if John got in trouble. And the larger threat in his current condition was that his pockets would get picked.

The person Chiana had recognized waited until she stood alone before coming forward.

"I know you," she said in a low voice. "You’re the guy from the planet. The ambush at the docking station."

"You saved my life," the Kinfea replied. "How did you know?"

Chiana chuckled, shrugging rather self-consciously. "I have experience when it comes to traps. Why was that person trying to kill you anyway?"

"Retaliation. That is why I am here now. To return the favor."

"What do you mean?"

The Kinfea scanned the street, appearing uncomfortable at being out in the open so long. He started to edge away, threatening to disappear into the crowds. "Gital Deep is not a safe place for mercenaries. I recommend you get on your transport and leave as soon as possible."

"We plan to, as soon as our business here is finished."

"It is that business which will kill you."

"What do you mean?" Chiana staggered as someone bumped into her, almost spilling her onto the ground. When she looked up, the Kinfea was gone. "Great," she muttered.

***

When John reached D’Argo, the Luxan was standing stock still on the ramp of the docking station. "Wassup, Big D?" The effects of the Leu smoke were finally fading, leaving him with a lingering giddiness. "You look like someone just ran over your puppy."

D’Argo turned a scathing glare on the Human. "Our transport pod is gone."

"Impossible."

"Why would I lie?"

"What? No." John started walking up and down the ramp, checking the other ships on the docking pad. "It’s still here. You just forgot where we parked."

"I did not forget," D’Argo growled, folding his arms over his chest. He watched his friend search. "This is the right place."

"No, it can’t be the right place because that would mean the pod was stolen. And if the pod was stolen, so were the boxes Cabmauri sent us to deliver. Which means we have nothing to give to Bonyon." John’s voice began to boom, getting louder as he grew angry. "And if we have nothing to sell to Bonyon, we have nothing to get Jool back with. So no, this is not. The right. Place!"

"Are you finished?" D’Argo cast a terse smile at a group of individuals passing nearby.

"No." John kicked at nothing, almost overbalancing himself as his leg swung through the air. "Now, I’m finished."

"This is the right place."

"Frell!" John walked in a tight circle, hands on his hips and watching the ground. The giddiness was turning into a dull headache, accentuated by growing stress. "Okay. Maybe someone saw something. We’ll just ask around-"

"Ask around about what?" Both men looked over as Chiana joined them. "Where’s the transport?"

"Temporarily missing," John grumbled. He rubbed his eyebrows, glancing back toward the spot the transport pod had been docked at, almost hoping it would magically reappear.

He missed the expression of distress that flickered over Chiana’s pale features. "Oh."

"Oh what?" John asked.

"Well, he was too late then."

"He?"

"Too late for what?"

John and D’Argo spoke over each other as they moved closer to the Nebari.

"This guy I met on the planet. He just tried to warn me that something bad was going to happen." She gestured over her shoulder. "Just back there on the street. But he was too late."

"I think we need to go find your friend and see what he knows. He might have some clue as to who jacked our ride." John grabbed Chiana as he walked by, bringing her with him back into the street.


~ Been There. Done That . ~

Jool walked an impatient circuit of the room. She stopped before the small window and looked down onto the street. There was absolutely nothing of interest to be seen. Since most of the inhabitants of this planet were farmers, they went to bed early and woke up early. Night was designated for sleep. The settlement appeared deserted. However, it would not last for long. Dawn was approaching, and when it did, the Market would spring to life.

She entertained the thought of climbing out the window, dropping down the single story, and making an escape. But the idea was short lived. Even if she managed to get away unnoticed, there was still the issue of getting off the planet. So far, she had been treated well enough. Her biggest threat was boredom.

The door squeaked on its hinges as it opened. Jool turned around as Cabmauri entered the room, carrying a covered tray. He smiled politely as he set it down on a table. "I thought you might be hungry."

It had been arns since she ate last. The thought of food made her stomach twist around empty space. "I am. Thank you," Jool said. She didn’t move however, only watched as the Kinfea pulled the cover from the tray.

When it did not appear that Cabmauri intended to leave, Jool crossed to the table and looked at what he had brought. A large plate was filled with bright fruit, sturdy vegetables, and leafy sprouts. Definitely all local grown. Thoughts of parasites and unsanitary conditions flooded Jool’s mind as she looked at the food, but she suppressed the criticism before it could find voice. After all, she was essentially this man’s prisoner. It wouldn’t do to make him angry. "This looks, uh. Interesting."

Cabmauri chuckled, taking a seat at the table. "You are a very good Bacria player." He laced his fingers together on the table, watching the Interon carefully. "Better than anyone I’ve seen."

"Is that why your dealer found it necessary to cheat?" Jool reached for a hopefully harmless piece of fruit and popped it into her mouth. It had a sweet taste that tingled along her tongue.

"No. That’s not why he cheated."

"Ah ha! So you admit it." She was pleased at being vindicated, but the ease of which Cabmauri had relinquished the information troubled her almost immediately.

Cabmauri shrugged, seeing her distress. "There is no need to deceive you any longer."

"Because you’ve already sent my friends on this task." Jool searched for another piece of fruit. "This shipment must be worth a great deal."

"If value is measured by illegality, then it is priceless."

The Interon leaned forward. "What is it? You owe me that much at least."

Cabmauri smiled, giving it some thought. "Mabry Crystals." He reached into his shirt and pulled out a small bag made of slick gray material. Loosening the strings that kept it closed, he poured out the contents. In the palm of his dark hand was a cylindrical rock of transparent orange with slivers of deep blue. It was about the length and width of Jool’s index finger. He handed it to her.

She had never seen anything like it and said as much.

"From what I have been told, Mabry Crystals grow in caves found only in the drylands beyond the settlement. They are very rare and very difficult to find." He took the crystal back from Jool and twirled it in his fingers. When the light hit it directly, the orange turned clear making the blue streaks appear suspended in midair, dancing above Cabmauri’s fingers. "A representative from the mining community sells them to me.

"Then you sell them to the moon station. For a profit."

"Yes." Cabmauri returned the crystal to the pouch and put it away. "Sometimes more of a profit than others."

"I hope it’s worth the risk you put my friends at." Jool regretted the derisive tone almost immediately, but the man across from her did not seem to notice it. Or was not offended by it. "Why send them to the station? Is there no market for them on the planet?"

Cabmauri shook his head. "As far as I am aware, there is no market for the crystals anywhere but Gital Deep."

Jool’s brilliant green eyes focused on the area of Cabmauri’s shirt where he had stowed the crystal. "What does it do? What is its purpose?" She glanced back up to see him shrug.

"That I do not know."

"How can you not know what the crystals are used for?"

"That is not exactly what I meant." The Kinfea reached toward the tray, plucking a round vegetable from it. "I am only assuming it has a purpose. Just no one seems to know what it is."

Jool watched him eat, her expression nothing less than a petulant demand he explain. "Not even the piece of dren you sell the crystals too?"

"No. He himself is only a way station in the journey. Once he takes possession of the crystals, they are further sold to another buyer." Cabmauri reached forward again, but this time Jool grabbed his wrist.

"Just how many times do these crystals change hands?"

"You ask many questions." Cabmauri gently pulled his arm away, leaning back in his chair.

"You give few answers. I’m trying to determine if it is because you are stupid or evasive." Jool crossed her arms over her chest.

The pleasant indulgence the Kinfea had been treating Jool with faded. "Are you always this insulting to those who can determine whether you continue to draw breath?"

"Only when they are of a lesser life form." Jool did not feel as brave as she sounded. The short conversation with Cabmauri had given her some strong opinions about the man’s personality, however. "I do not believe you are barbaric enough to kill me."

Five microts passed before Cabmauri smiled again. He lifted his hands in submission. "That is true. I have never purposefully ended another’s life and do not intend to."

Jool exhaled her relief. "I still find it hard to believe you aren’t even curious as to what the crystals are used for."

"I never said I was not curious. Only that I was unsure."

She tilted her head quizzically as Cabmauri reached for the bag again. He withdrew the crystal and held it out in front of her.

"Do you see this mark along the side?"

A pair of scratches neatly formed an X on the crystal’s surface. "Yes."

"This particular crystal came in on a fresh delivery I received several days ago. Around a cycle ago, I marked a similar crystal destined for Gital Deep."

It took less than a microt for Jool to conclude what Cabmauri hinted at. "You think this is the same crystal?"

"I am certain of it. As I am certain the shipment I have just sent off world, is the same batch of crystals I have sent many times before."

***

"I don’t know his name. I’ve only seen him twice and both of those times have been for less than 20 microts. How do you frelling expect me to know where to find him?"

"Because it’s the best chance we have of getting off this damn rock." John drained the last of the liquid in his cup and leaned on his elbows. He turned his head toward Chiana. She was standing with her back to the bar, looking out into the crowded tavern "You’re sure he’s not here."

"Yeah," Chiana snapped back to him. "He’s not here."

"And no one is talking to me." D’Argo stood well above most of the tavern’s patrons as he waded through them to rejoin his companions.

John nodded his head weakly. "Okay. There’s a few more places down this street. We’ll hit them and see if we can get lucky." He reached into his pocket for some currency tiles. "How much," he asked the bartender.

"Your drinks have been paid for." The bartender pointed to the opening of a service corridor. A bipedal silhouette could just be made out in the gloom. The three companions were instantly on their guard.

"It’d be rude of us not to go over there and thank him," John said, shoving his money back in his pocket. "Any chance that might be your buddy, Pip?"

Chiana shook her head, edging her weight from one foot to the other. "No. Too tall."

"This could be a trap," D’Argo said, narrowing his eyes as if it could help him see into the low light.

John craned his neck to look at the Luxan. "You think?" he spat sarcastically. "I’d bet Jool’s other hand this was a trap. We’ve been hip deep in a trap since we landed here. But since this is the first time anyone’s been nice enough to buy drinks before screwing us, I’m intrigued."

They threaded their way through the crowd toward the service corridor. But as they got closer, the creature inside the hallway backed further away. Leading them deeper. John was already having second thoughts, and he could sense the same from his companions. However, they couldn’t turn back now. They were getting nowhere with trying to find the man who had warned Chiana. This was the closest thing to a lead they had come up with.

This time, if everything turned to dren, it would solely be John’s fault. D’Argo and Chiana had both wanted to take Jool from the planet by force. From everything they had seen of Kinfea Prime, only the police carried real weapons. Just about everyone else was a farmer. Even the guns Cabmauri’s men carried were paltry when compared to John’s pulse pistol and D’Argo’s Qualta blade. They would have been able to cut a swath through the resistance and gotten away before the blood had time to dry. It wouldn’t have been the first time. It wasn’t even that long ago they had done something similar on LoMo.

Exactly the reason John had insisted they bargain instead of fight. Because after everything they had done, he was still trying to find the least violent way out. Even though it put him and those around him in jeopardy.

The director for the mysterious game of follow the leader pushed open a door at the end of the hallway. He beckoned them to keep going but gave no indication that he was to follow. Just beyond the doorway, the far wall of the outside alley could be seen, but nothing more.

John reached for the pulse pistol on his thigh, but didn’t pull it. It was enough just to let his fingers brush against the butt end. He looked dead on into the face of their tour guide, hoping to glimpse some sign of what was to come next. "I’m gonna be really disappointed if this was just some clever way to get us to leave."

Their escort said nothing, only gesturing for them to continue through the door.

"This way to the egress," John muttered, glancing back at his visibly anxious friends. With what he hoped was a reassuring grin he stepped out the door and into the alley.

Part of him wished he were more surprised at coming face to face with four weapon toting Kinfea. The muzzles of their pistols urged him to walk slowly out into the middle of the alley. John glanced back to see similar expressions of blasť on Chiana and D’Argo as they joined him.

The alley itself was unremarkable. The high walls from the surrounding buildings made an imposing barrier to the outside world. A large cargo vehicle was parked near the mouth of the cul-de-sac, blocking the view of the street beyond.

A door opened up in the side of the vehicle and a fifth individual stepped out. He too was armed but also carrying three pair of black goggles in his free hand. "Vieo wants to see you. Put these on."

"I don’t think so," D’Argo said, the growl in his voice left little room for argument. His Qualta Blade was off his back and in his hands before the surrounding Kinfea had time to respond. The electric whine of weapons charging filled the weak air of the alley.

John moved, putting himself between D’Argo and the pulse weapons. "Whoa, whoa. Hold up. Everyone take five for a second here. No reason to get all excited just yet."

D’Argo bared his teeth, glaring over John’s head. "They put their weapons down and I’ll consider putting mine down."

"Yeah. Who is this Vieo anyway and why should we trust you?" Chiana slid closer to John, directing her question to the man near the transport truck.

"It is recommended you speak with Vieo unless you desire to return to Bonyon empty handed." The goggles were once again extended toward the trio.

"Your boss knows what happened to our transport pod?" John asked. He was answered by silence and further offerings of the vision impairing goggles. "I’ll take that as a yes."

"Do you think this is a good idea?" Chiana accepted a pair of the blinders hesitantly, watching as John and D’Argo did the same.

"No," John answered. "But that’s never stopped us before." He slipped the goggles over his eyes, plunging himself into complete darkness.

~ Friends in Low Places ~

The vehicle rumbled through the streets of Gital Deep for almost half an arn before it came to a stop. John, D’Argo, and Chiana were helped out of the transport and led into a building. Still wearing the goggles, they were guided up stairways, one stumbling step at a time, and through several turns of passageways. Finally, they were steered into a room and ordered to stand.

"You may remove the goggles," a feminine voice instructed.

The room was simple and utilitarian. Every wall was white, causing the few pieces of brown furniture to stand out in contrast. A long table with six chairs, a mammoth desk, and a cabinet that reached from white floor to white ceiling were all that took up space in the expansive room. It made the new occupants feel insignificant.

The speaker was a solitary Kinfea female seated behind the desk. "Do you work for Cabmauri?"

"Work is a pretty broad term," John answered cautiously. He and his companions were alone with this woman. There were no visible bodyguards and so far, the only precautions she had taken involved the goggles. They had not even been disarmed. Regardless, John felt sure she held an advantage somewhere.

"Then you are hired mercenaries."

Chiana stepped forward, tilting her head at an odd angle as she slid into the gang leader role. "Who wants to know?"

"I am Vieo, Matriarch of House Alendar," she said. "Ally to the House of Cabmauri Mudest, and potentially your ally as well."

"Potentially." Chiana asked. "Depending on what?"

"You are not members of any House. No one will afford you protection or aid. Not for free. My price for assisting you may be easier compared to what anyone else would ask, since our interests coincide. I recommend you agree, considering you are currently at odds with Bonyon Daul."

Chiana ran her tongue along the inside of her teeth before flashing a confident smile at the woman. "What makes you think we are at odds with anyone?"

"You entered into an agreement with House Daul but have failed to deliver. He will take that as an affront to his reputation. It would be within his right to seek retribution." Vieo made an indifferent gesture with one dark hand. "It could result in a very uncomfortable and short existence for you and yours."

"And why do you care?" John asked.

It was clear Vieo felt it beneath her to answer the question of a minion. Her tone dipped toward sarcasm. "As I’ve stated before, I am an ally of Cabmauri."

"Yeah." John moved closer to Chiana, standing even with the Nebari. "And I’m guessin’ that if Bonyon gets bent out of shape at us for stiffin’ him, he’s also gonna be a little steamed at Cabmauri."

A quizzical expression marked Vieo’s face. "That would be correct," she said.

"And if Cabmauri is on Bonyon’s short list, then I’m guessin’ all of Cabmauri’s allies are in the hot seat as well. Including," John smiled. "You."

Vieo’s head moved from John, to Chiana, and back again. "Yes."

"So. It would be in everyone’s best interest if we worked together. As equals."

The Kinfea did not wish to give up the position of power. It was obvious by her hesitation. "Very well." She reluctantly responded. She looked again at Chiana questioningly, trying to determine whom to acknowledge now as leader.

Chiana grinned as John stepped back beside D’Argo. "Not just another pretty face, is he? So, let’s talk business."

***

Food and drink were brought in. None of it seemed particularly appetizing to John but he had learned long ago not to think too hard about what he ate. Especially considering how easily he could find himself with nothing at all. Whatever filled his cup was good however and made up for the food’s lack of taste.

They sat at the table like old comrades while Vieo talked. "The trade of Mabry Crystals has grown significantly over the last few cycles. House Mudest has seen great wealth because of it, but I fear he will not be able to hold onto that dynasty for long."

D’Argo pushed away his plate of uneaten food. "Cabmauri does not appear to be a wealthy or influential man."

Vieo inclined one shoulder. "Several of his shipments have been stolen, just as the one you were transporting. It has been a long time since he has made a profit. His name is beginning to suffer for it. If he loses his reputation, someone else will be able to step into Cabmauri’s position and none of the Houses will object. Or stop it."

"Not even his allies?" Chiana asked.

"Without his reputation, Cabmauri will have no allies. The Houses that back him now will suffer by association."

"Sounds to me like his friends should be trying to find out who’s ripping him off." John reached for a metallic pitcher and refilled his glass.

"That is where I hope you will be able to assist us."

"The other leg hits the floor," D’Argo muttered, glancing across the table to John.

"Shoe. The other shoe," John corrected before turning his attention to Vieo. "What do you think we can do that you and all your resources can’t?"

"As long as a House is successful and reputable, none can interfere with their trade or hinder their profit. Moving in on another’s trade is only allowable upon failure. The Houses cannot act openly against each other. To do so would start an open war between one set of allies and another." Vieo rose from her chair. "Already, we are divided by accusations and rumors. Houses are choosing sides and taking up weapons against each other. We have suffered deaths."

"You think it’s another House stealing from Cabmauri?" Chiana shifted in her chair as she reached to pick a few bits of food from her plate. D’Argo grimaced in repulsion as the Nebari popped the morsels in her mouth.

"We suspect, but are unable to prove. Without proof, we cannot accuse. Cabmauri’s allies would rather fight than be shamed."

"Who is it you suspect?" John asked.

"The only source of Mabry Crystals in all of Kinfea Prime is House Mudest. Bonyon Daul," Vieo added with a knowing grin," is Cabmauri’s only customer."

"So you think our pal Bon-Bon is trying to cut out the middle man. Maybe take over as sole distributor."

"That is what we believe, yes. We are hoping you will be able to get us proof of this. As mercenaries, you will be able to move and operate without incriminating us."

"And just what makes you think we are going to help you or Cabmauri?" D’Argo demanded.

"House Daul may already consider you a liability. One which would serve him well to dispose of."

Chiana grinned, rolling her head to the side as she peered down the table. "Sounds like a good reason to me."

"And there’s still the small problem of getting Jool back," John muttered under his breath. Speaking louder, he looked at Vieo. "Alright. We’ll check it out. But there’s no guarantee we’re gonna find anything."

"That is all I ask." She walked to her desk and pushed a button. Within microts, the door opened and a pair of guards stepped in. "They will show you outside."

John rose from his chair and joined D’Argo and Chiana. He eyed the guards. "What, no goggles this time?"

Vieo smiled benevolently. "We are allies now. I have no reason to fear your knowing the location of my House."

"Trusting sort, aren’t they?" Chiana mumbled loud enough so only her companions would hear her.

"Honor among thieves and all," John replied as they followed the guards through a maze of corridors and stairwells.

Chiana laughed, shaking her head. "There is no such thing."

More guards watched the entrance, protecting the families who worked and dwelt inside the compound. The crew of Moya waited as locks were disengaged so they would be allowed to leave. John could not help but feel relief when they finally emerged. He had spent enough time on the wrong side of locked doors to appreciate the chance to walk away freely at the end of an encounter with strangers.

D’Argo took the opportunity to glare resentfully at John. "You promised this was going to be a simple task."

"See, I told you we should have just forgotten about the Princess all along."

John did not get an opportunity to defend himself or his actions. The compound of House Alendar erupted in a maelstrom of fire, brick, and glass. He was thrown off his feet by the concussion of the explosion, tossed down the street like a newspaper on a windy day. For a moment, he caught a glimpse of D’Argo buffeted by falling stone and thought he heard Chiana scream.

Then everything went black.

***

"After everything that you have experienced, I am still astonished by your naivetť."

John was reasonably sure he wasn’t dead. He rolled over onto his side, bracing a hand against the ground. His fingers touched something soft, like the cushion of a sleeping bag. Opening his eyes, he forced them to focus on his surroundings. It was too dark to see much outside the shape of a rough chamber the size of his mother’s linen closet. Dim light filtered through a curtain hung over the doorway. The room was empty except him and the blankets he lay on.

And the Scorpius clone.

"Can’t tell you how happy it makes me to know I can still surprise you, Harv. Means you haven’t completely picked my brains clean yet." John started to prop himself up, but pain shot through his head. Grimacing, he decided to wait just a little longer before moving. It would give him time to see if anything else hurt.

"Astonished, John. But not entirely surprised. I wonder if it is a Human fallacy or a personal trait that insists deep down all creatures are inherently good."

All his fingers and toes were still attached. Nothing broken. No pools of blood or strange mucus. In fact, he had felt worse after a game of backyard football on Thanksgiving. Well, except for the concussion. "Maybe I am dead," he reasoned.

"No," Harvey responded dryly. "You are not dead. This time, you were the lucky one."

Carefully, John picked himself up off the floor and reached out a steadying hand to the wall. It felt cold against his palm. Sturdy and reassuring, but it made him miss the warm hum of Moya’s bulkheads. "Human fallacy. No one wants to believe the Devil is real." He lifted his gaze toward the clone and almost smiled.

"You are limited by your definitions of good and evil."

"Dunno about that. Had you pegged right off." He lowered his hand and tested his balance, wobbling slightly. The headache retreated to a throbbing, but tolerable, ache. "Hold up a sec. What do you mean I was the lucky one?"

Harvey turned his head toward the doorway but said nothing. It was enough to make John’s heart plummet to his feet. He brushed past the hallucinatory Scorpius and into the next room.

It was of similar design to the chamber John had woken in, but larger. There was not a single window in the course stone walls. A door made of unidentifiable material created a barrier between this place and the world outside. Light was provided by fuel burning lamps suspended from the low ceiling. There was no furniture and no sign that anyone lived here on a regular basis.

He was immediately confronted by D’Argo’s back as the Luxan bent over a pale and still figure on a floor mat. A second individual, a Kinfea male John had never seen before, knelt nearby holding a bowl of blue stained water. Neither of them appeared aware of the Human’s entrance.

"I can not stop the bleeding," he heard D’Argo say and his stomach twisted in cold knots. As John drew closer, his gaze fixated on the sight of Nebari blood. A shard of glass, easily the size of D’Argo’s hand, lay discarded on the ground. Liquid blue, irrationally reminding him of mouthwash, dripped off the opaque fragment and oozed in rivulets from a hole in Chiana’s bodice.

John dropped to his knees beside the Luxan. There was no way the girl could bleed this much and still live. "Oh, god," he whispered.


~ Dave’s Not Here ~

D’Argo’s head snapped around the moment the Human spoke, and rage flashed through him like wistwyn fire. With a growl, he fisted the front of John’s jacket in both hands and rose to his feet, lifting the smaller man with him. Long strides carried them across the floor. He stopped only when John’s back crashed into the wall.

"If she dies-" D’Argo choked back his words with effort. He should not blame John. Even if this frelling plan was the Human’s ridiculous idea, no one had forced him or Chiana to go along with it. And as Chiana had told them all many times before, she did what she wanted. She had wanted to help free Jool just as strongly as any of them. As much as she complained about the woman, as much as all of them complained, they would not leave one of their own behind. Even if it meant someone might die in the process.

D’Argo swore it would not be Chiana. The Nebari meant too much to him. After everything, he still loved her. He would always love her.

Forgive her? That he could not do. Not yet. Not even as she lay dying.

No, he should not blame John. But he did anyway.

There was fear in John’s eyes and it fueled a primal impulse inside D’Argo. He bared his teeth, hands tightening around leather. But he saw something else in his companion’s face. Something that kept him from slamming the Human’s head against stone.

Guilt.

John would take responsibility for Chiana the same way he did the death of Zhaan. Or Gilina. Or Aeryn. Or countless others. He would take the blame and let it eat him alive.

For now, that was punishment enough as far as D’Argo was concerned.

A scratch at the door turned his head.

"The healer," said the Kinfea from where he had been kneeling, watching the confrontation between Luxan and Human. He rose and moved toward the door, cautiously checking to confirm the visitor was who they expected.

D’Argo opened his fingers, letting John slide to the floor. He walked away, returning to Chiana’s side as the healer passed quickly through the door and into the room.

"You have done well to hide, Tionar." The healer pulled the hood of his cloak away from his head, revealing parched and wrinkled flesh. His voice was heavy with age, mirroring the stooped nature of which he walked. But his eyes were not the same colorless orbs as the other Kinfea. Instead, they were brilliant yellow. "Although I question your continued safety among these mercenaries."

D’Argo scowled at the accusation, but managed to keep himself in check around the one individual who might be able to help Chiana.

"No, healer. They are allies. The girl saved my life. I must repay the debt." Tionar took the elder Kinfea’s arm and led him toward the Nebari. "Can you help her?"

The healer did not appear convinced the strangers were harmless, but he followed Tionar to where Chiana lay. Kneeling, he revealed a satchel bag and began to pull out bottles and small medical tools. "I will do what I can. But I have never seen a creature such as her before. There is a chance I will do more harm than good."

D’Argo watched every move the healer made, from removing the ruined garments to cleaning the wound itself. Every moan the unconscious Nebari made at the healer’s ministrations pained him. "This is taking too long."

"Patience," Tionar murmured. "He is the best at his craft. Give him time."

After applying a final dressing to the wound, the healer rested his hands on his thighs. "I am finished." He took a blanket from Tionar and covered Chiana. "She will need rest and should not be moved."

D’Argo looked down into Chiana’s face, not comforted by the shallow breath that passed through her dark lips. "Will she recover?"

Tionar helped the kneeling healer to his feet. "If she wakes," the elder man said, "she will live." He gathered his bag and replaced it inside his robe before addressing the younger Kinfea. "Vieo’s allies are crying for retribution. House Daul is still denying responsibility. Violence is escalating. The heads of every House have gone to ground until the guilty are brought forward for judgment and execution. It is good that you are hidden here. It would not be safe for you on the street. "

Tionar nodded. "I must ask one more favor, my friend. As dangerous as it is for me, it is more so for my allies. I must arrange passage for them off Gital Deep."

The healer looked toward D’Argo, still kneeling beside Chiana. "The Council has closed the spaceports. I cannot help you without risking their anger."

"Thank you," Tionar said. He escorted the healer to the door and let him out.

"If Bonyon is to blame, I will personally tear him apart, limb from limb."

Tionar glanced at D’Argo, appearing to choose his words carefully. "Vieo stopped short of openly accusing Bonyon of creating the rift between the Houses. But it was known how she felt. Now she is dead."

"Don’t look good for our boy, Bonyon."

D’Argo looked over his shoulder where John sat against the wall. He suspected it had been an exercise in willpower for the Human to stay still and silent as Chiana was treated. Now they both had little to do except wait and see if the Nebari would wake. Bringing his gaze back around to Chiana, he brushed his fingers through her pale hair. "Then Bonyon will have much to answer for."

Tionar walked toward the Luxan. "I know where you can find him."

***

Bonyon Daul kept a mistress. Actually, he kept three. And neither of his wives objected, which only occasionally caused him any concern. As long as they made no demands of him, he was happy to indulge them with currency and whatever luxury Gital Deep could offer. Everyone was happy and that is all that really mattered. Bonyon was in the business of making people happy. Or at least thinking they were for a period of time.

Dull purple smoke drifted from the vents of the Leu pipe and hung along the ceiling of Belava’s quarters. The girl leaned across Bonyon’s lap so she could inhale deeper from the smoldering dust.

"Careful, my pretty one," Bonyon murmured, resting his hands on her slender shoulders. "You breathe too deep and I will lose you to the bliss."

Belava giggled, pulling away from the twirling column of smoke. The scent of the intoxicant lingered in the air, invading the minds of anything it touched. She rolled onto her back and lifted a hand to her lover’s face. "And you should not be here. I have heard rumors. It is dangerous for you."

His answering shrug was foolishly confident and it made him grin. "My guards are close. But no one would dare act against me directly."

"Someone acted against Vieo Alendar directly." The serious nature of her tone was short-lived and caused both of them to erupt in hysterical laughter. They did not hear the noise outside.

As the door burst open, Bonyon leapt to his feet, spilling Belava onto the floor. She continued to laugh but he ignored her. Expecting his guards or even representatives from one of the Houses, Bonyon was not prepared for a pair of hostile aliens. "Who are you?"

"I’m Starsky," said the shorter of the two. "This is Hutch. We’ve got a bone to pick with you."

He waved his hand through the column of smoke, trying to disperse it so he could better see his adversaries. Starsky was a strange creature of too many colors. His skin could not make up its mind between yellow, pink, and red and his hair was a different shade altogether. The eyes were similarly disturbing. White, blue, black. An ultimately absurd species. Hutch was a Luxan. Bonyon had dealt with the ugly things before and found them wholly disagreeable. Fortunately, he had only interacted with them on rare occasions.

"Ah yes. I recognize you. Associates of Chiana. Is she with you?" Fascinating creature, she was. He entertained a brief thought of his dark hand against her pale skin. A study of monochrome he would surely enjoy. He was reminded suddenly of Belava, still crouching at his feet but no longer laughing. The girl was watching the men at the door with a rather sober expression.

Hutch crossed the floor in a rush, catching Bonyon around the throat in one big hand. The Kinfea felt his feet leave the ground.

"Yo, chill. He’s gotta be able to talk." Starsky used his foot to close the door, and then stood in front of it. His hands were crossed casually in front of him, but a pistol was grasped firmly in his fingers.

Bonyon coughed as the Luxan’s grip loosened. "Is there something wrong?"

"We are in no mood to play games," Hutch growled. "You stole our transport."

"Me? Steal?" It was enough to send Bonyon into a fit of laughter. The quizzical expression on the Luxan’s face made him giggle all the more. "I would never steal," he said when he finally managed to compose himself. "Is that not right, Belava?"

"Totally disagreeable work," the girl said. She eased up off the floor by Bonyon’s feet and scooted onto the cluster of seating cushions.

Bonyon favored the Kinfea with a proud smile. She was smart when she wanted to be, and vapid when it was necessary. He appreciated that quality. "Why would I steal your cargo after I had already agreed to its sale?"

"Discredit Cabmauri," said Starsky from his position at the door. "Take over the monopoly. Buy up all the hotels and drive around in the little sports car."

The conversation was starting to steer toward the insulting. If he understood the implications of Starsky’s words, that is. The creature had a peculiar way of talking. "House Mudest and I have had an honest and profitable cooperation for many cycles. I feel I have been more than fair by overlooking his current troubles."

"Very understanding since you are the cause of his trouble," the Luxan said. "And the destruction of Vieo’s residential compound."

"You dare accuse me of that treachery? I will have you executed for such defamation."

"Not gonna happen, pal." Starsky rubbed his eyes before glaring at the smoking Leu pipe. "You’re boys are taking a nap. And my friend here ain’t known for his patience or subtlety. So why don’t you just ‘fess up, pay us what you owe us, and give us our transport pod back. No hard feelings."

"There will be one hard feeling," Hutch rumbled under his breath.

Bonyon wavered between concern for his own safety and outrage at the accusations. He was at a clear disadvantage. By the looks, the individual at the door was starting to feel the effects of the purple haze saturating the room. If he could stall them, Bonyon was sure Starsky would surrender to the bliss given time. The Luxan was a different matter. The Leu was wasted on them, poor creatures. "I will pay you what I agreed to, but I can not return your ship."

"Well, that’s just not gonna work. We kinda like the pod. It’s part of a set."

"Then you are just going to have to kill me." Bonyon flopped down onto the cushions. "Because I do not have your ship." Belava curled into his lap, making it difficult for him to remain serious. He smiled and looked upward toward his adversaries. "Perhaps you only misplaced it and this has been a very large misunderstanding."

Belava rolled onto her side with muffled laughter and Bonyon was rather pleased to see a smirk flicker briefly over Starsky’s face.

"It was not misplaced." Hutch kicked the Leu pipe violently, scattering burning embers across the carpeted floor. He reached down and pulled Bonyon back to his feet, rolling Belava onto the ground once more. "And your greed has cost many their lives."

Bonyon was relieved to see Starsky move forward, placing a halting hand on Hutch’s elbow. He was even more pleased to see Belava rush to put out the burning Leu. The stench of charred carpet was distracting from the narcotic smoke.

"Why would you pay us if you didn’t have the crystals?"

He redirected his attention to Starsky. "I can afford the currency if it saves the trouble. The Leu trade is extremely profitable for me. And it requires a bare minimum of effort. Unlike this entire hassle with the Mabry Crystals lately. I will have to think of something to tell my buyer since the shipment is gone again. Fortunately, he is just as understanding as I am."

"Who’s your buyer?"

"That is confidential information. I have a duty not to reveal his name to anyone. Especially not for free."

Hutch barred his teeth in a scowl that melted the grin off Bonyon’s face. "How about I pay you with your life."

He knew he should be afraid, but the effects of the Leu still coursed through him. It took much of Bonyon’s willpower not to smile.

"Spill it, Bonny boy. This is the only bargaining chip you’ve got." Starsky gave Hutch free reign, removing his hand from the Luxan’s arm.

"I believe his name is Dartoi."

"I’ll be damned." Starsky turned immediately for the door. The Luxan hung back reluctantly, glaring at Bonyon.

"If I learn you are responsible-" Hutch left the threat uncompleted, but it was not necessary for Bonyon to understand what was implied. He was glad to watch the creature turn to follow his companion.

***

"He’s the fuzz, D’Argo." John gestured widely with his arms as he walked. "Five-oh. Barney Fife. The Man."

"You are making even less sense than usual."

John stopped moving, scrubbing at his eyes and trying to clear his head. "Damn. Didn’t that stuff get to you? I feel like an extra in a Cheech and Chong movie."

"Crichton! Why did we leave him? We should have given him to Tionar to be turned over to the Council." D’Argo rounded impatiently on John.

"They would have killed him." He realized his voice was a little too loud and glanced nervously at the other pedestrians before stepping closer to D’Argo. "We don’t let innocent people die."

"I can assure you that Bonyon Daul had no such conflict of conscience when he planned the assault on Vieo."

John laughed. "That boy’s so strung out on happy dust, he couldn’t spell bomb let alone detonate one."

"He could have ordered someone else to do it."

"Yeah. But I don’t think so. He’s got no ambition. The motivation just isn’t there."

"You do not think Bonyon is behind this."

John tapped the side of his nose and smiled. "I’m thinking the cops are more corrupt than the criminals."

"Then what is our next move?"

He drew in a breath of air and looked around the street. Exhaling slowly, he shook his head. "I’m still working on that part."


~ Burden of Proof ~

Jool discarded, drew from the deck, and smiled. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect of playing Bacria with the Kinfea was his eyes. She could not tell if he was looking at her, or looking at the disks in his hand. With nothing to distinguish between pupil and iris, the solid orbs of white appeared blind to her. Jool sensed Cabmauri’s gaze more than anything else.

"You are indeed an expert player."

"A high compliment coming from a Master. Even a dishonest one." She placed a red disk on top of a green one.

Cabmauri answered her play with one of his own, but it was not enough to win the hand. "I do regret my deception."

"Really?" Jool’s expression displayed total disbelief. "As long as you get what you wanted from all this, I imagine you will find a way to live with the shame of it all."

Cabmauri chuckled, shaking his head. "Another game to break our tie?"

"It has been two solar days." Jool was not bored of the game. She was wildly worried at having heard nothing from Crichton and D’Argo. She could care less about the Nebari bitch, she told herself.

"Yes," agreed Cabmauri. He gathered the Bacria disks and began to shuffle them.

"You said it would take less than twelve arns."

"Yes," Cabmauri said again. Keeping his gaze toward the table, he began to distribute the cards for another game.

Breath caught in Jool’s throat. "Is there something wrong? Do you-." It was an effort to force words past her lips. "Do you think something has happened to them?"

His head lifted, leveling a blank white stare in her direction. He appeared to debate how, or even if, to answer. Finally, Cabmauri nodded. "I would forget about your companions."

Jool wanted to get out of her chair, but was not sure if her legs would support her weight. What she felt went beyond a somber realization she would be stuck here if her shipmates did not come back. She had developed feelings for them, as much as she had tried not to. Losing her hand was secondary to losing the people she cared about.

"Would it be so terrible," Cabmauri said, standing slowly. "To stay here with me?"

Her mouth hung open in surprise. "You never expected them to come back. Why would you give them such a valuable cargo if you expected to lose it?"

Cabmauri directed his gaze toward the table. "There is no crime on Kinfea Prime. As long as the appropriate taxes are paid, everything is legal. Including the smuggling of Mabry Crystals. But if you cannot afford the bribes Legal Authority demands, then you are subject to the strongest penalty the law will allow. It has become too expensive to pay the fees and hire the crews needed to fly the shipments to Gital Deep. I was able to save a great deal of currency by using off-worlders."

"But if they don’t return with the payment for their delivery, you have gained nothing."

"I have gained nothing for a long time. Every shipment has been stolen. Every crew has been lost." He smiled, shaking his head before turning around to the window. "At first, I suspected pirates. Then betrayal by allies. When I sent your friends, I included something more with the shipment. A tracking beacon. Now I know the truth."

"And Crichton and the others? You know what happened to them?"

Cabmauri returned to where Jool was sitting and knelt beside her. "From what I’ve learned, there is no possible way your friends are alive. And even if they are, they will not remain so for long. There is nothing you can do. I am sorry."

Fierce determination straightened Jool’s spine. "Yes, there is. If you return my comm to me, I can at least try to contact them. Perhaps with Pilot’s help we can-"

"I can not allow it. The risk to you would be great. To both of us."

She had to do something. Jool could not sit idly by and she refused to entertain the thought of spending her life on this pile of dirt. Her gaze fell upon the Bacria cards spread out on the table. "Then a wager."

Cabmauri tilted his head. "What sort?"

"One game. If I win, I get my comm back and you will help me find my friends."

"And if you lose?"

She lifted her chin in defiance. But as the words formed on her lips, uncertainty put a waver in her voice. "Then I will stay here with you."

***

D’Argo was finally asleep, back to the wall, arms crossed over his chest, chin down. John envied him. He was exhausted but there was no way he was going to get to sleep. Something about sitting on the floor in a nearly empty room made him think about Gammak bases and Aurora Chairs. Made his nerves sing like crickets on a calm summer night. That sort of thing kept the Sandman away.

John gazed down at the still Nebari, watching every breath that made her chest rise and fall. Wishing he knew just one thing that would make it all right again. He couldn’t watch another friend die. Leaning his head back against the wall, he closed his eyes.

"You think I make it harder on myself, Harv?"

"Undoubtedly." Harvey stood on a miniature golf green, lining up his shot with a child sized plastic putter.

"You’re not helping."

"You so rarely take my advice, John. I wonder why I give it at all. Or better yet," he said as he swung the club. "Why you ask."

John clicked his teeth together, watching the ball disappear between the twirling blades of a small-scale windmill. He walked around as the bright blue sphere come out the other side and drop into the hole. "Nice shot."

"Thank you." Harvey made a mark on his scorecard.

John bent to retrieve the ball. "I ask for your advice ‘cause it usually gives me a good idea of what not to do."

"I am not the malicious creature you so often mistake me for."

"Right." John dropped the ball into Harvey’s leather glove. "And Stephen King writes nursery rhymes."

"Your insistence that life is precious is honorable. Yet ultimately foolish. You exist in a universe that does not listen to reason or care. And frankly, your pacifist morals are hypocritical considering the amount of blood on your hands."

John’s jaw tensed. "What’s your point?"

"While you go out of your way to preserve the lives of everyone you encounter, whether deserving or not, you fail to see what it does to those closest to you. Or even to yourself. When did strangers become more important than your friends?"

"Advice?"

Harvey set the ball on the green and extended the putter to John. "Shoot first. Live long enough to question it later."

"You’re a regular Dear Abby."

"I’m also ahead by two strokes."

There was a noise at the door and John’s eyes snapped open. At some point during his conversation with the neural clone, he must have dozed off. Or dreamed the whole thing. It was getting harder to tell. Just a little bout with schizophrenia. Call him Son of Scorpius. As he rose, he pulled the pistol from his thigh holster and edged toward the door.

D’Argo had also woken at the sound, standing with Qualta Blade drawn. His fingers flexed around the sword’s hilt as he gave John a nod to show he was ready.

John reached forward and unsecured the latch that locked the only door to this room. Tionar stepped through quickly, carrying a metal canister in one hand. He smiled, unfazed by the less than warm reception from his anxious guests. "I have brought food."

John and D’Argo relaxed, putting their weapons away. "Hey, Tio. You really need to think about gettin' a couple La-Z-Boys in this place."

The Kinfea smiled as he crouched in the middle of the room. He began to pry the lid from the canister. "How is your ally?" he said with a nod toward Chiana.

"No change." John knelt beside Tionar and looked at the contents of the metal cylinder. "What is that?"

Tionar held up several reddish stalks that reminded John of the rhubarb his grandmother used to grow. "Dedlak Root."

"So what’s the word?" John held one of the Dedlak to his nose and took a hesitant sniff. He jerked his head away at the sulfur smell. "Aw, man. You gotta be kiddin’."

Tionar grinned at John’s reaction and reached into his shirt. He pulled out a slim flask. "Drink this first. The roots will taste sweet."

"Were you able to stall the Houses from acting against Bonyon?" D’Argo paced behind the Kinfea, watching John sample the liquid in the flask. Every movement of his warrior’s body displayed his impatience. Each glance toward Chiana betrayed his worry.

"I spoke to them and they are willing to wait for a short time. No one wants war. But the evidence points to House Daul. His betrayal of Vieo calls for swift retribution."

"The evidence points too perfectly to Bonyon."

Tionar nodded in John’s direction. "He is the only one with anything to gain."

"Yeah, and I’d feel better about it if I thought the boy wanted to gain anything."

D’Argo frowned at John, turning his gaze toward the Kinfea. "What about Dartoi?"

"Legal Authority has no jurisdiction here. His involvement is questionable. The Council sees no reason why he would be a factor."

John put the Dedlak root back into the canister, deciding not to risk his stomach. His head tilted to the side as he considered the situation. "What if he’s trying to get a bigger piece of the pie? Pad his pension."

Both Luxan and Kinfea stared at him blankly. Finally, Tionar ventured a guess. "You believe Dartoi took your transport?"

"Yeah. He knew Cabmauri was smuggling these Mabry Crystals. Maybe getting the occasional bribe wasn’t enough anymore. He wanted in on the business. Be where the profits were."

"Except there is no way he could have known which transport to steal," said D’Argo. "Unless someone gave him specific information. The theft occurred too swiftly."

Tionar nodded agreement with the Luxan. "Which would indicate House Mudest was in league with Dartoi."

"But why?" John wasn’t comfortable shifting the blame from one unknown to another.

"To discredit Bonyon." Tionar appeared to sense the Human’s hesitation. "The original motive is the same as before. With House Daul dishonored, there would be one less hand asking for payment."

"Maybe." John pinched the bridge of his nose before letting his fingers run across the ridge of his eyebrow. "We’re missing something here."

"Yes. Our transport pod and the money to exchange for Jool."

He raised his eyes at the accusation in D’Argo’s voice. His words took on that hard tone he didn’t remember having until just recently. Since Aeryn and that other guy left. "And we’re not likely to get any of it back until we figure this all out."

"It’s obvious that we have been Cabmauri’s pawns since the beginning. We need to go down to the planet and retake Jool by force. Like we should have in the first place."

"You’re not turning this back around on me, D’Argo."

"What are you two arguing about now?"

Both men turned toward the weak voice. "Chiana." D’Argo was the first to her side. He took her hand, swallowing it whole inside his own.

"Hey, little girl. You had us worried. How ya feel?" John knelt beside her, opposite D’Argo. The argument could wait. Now that Chiana was awake, he could blame someone else for what happened to her. He just needed time to figure out who that was.

"Like I was kicked in the chest by a Martag." She tried to grin but managed only a shadow of her typically mischievous smile. "Where are we? What happened?"

"There was an explosion at Vieo’s compound. Your friend pulled us from the rubble and brought us here." D’Argo’s voice could be incredibly gentle. It amazed John sometimes.

Chiana looked toward the Kinfea standing nearby. "You again."

Tionar grinned and bowed his head. "We are even now. A life saved for a life saved."

"So when do we get outta here?" Chiana struggled to sit up, grimacing as the motion pulled at her wound. When the blanket that covered her naked torso slipped to her waist, D’Argo reached for it and drew it close around her shoulders.

"You need to rest," John said.

"I’ll rest better on Moya." She leaned into D’Argo for only a moment, still determined to move under her own power.

"Well. Things have gone pear shaped around here. Spaceport’s been closed and there is no way off the moon. So you’ve got time to heal a little more."

"Fine." Chiana lay back down on the blankets. She looked at John and winked. "Told ya I needed new clothes."

***

Tionar slipped out under the pretext of retrieving medicine and clothing for Chiana. He had not necessarily deceived the others more than omitted the truth of his excursion. It would have been pointless for them to learn it now.

The streets and walkways were crowded, which suited Tionar perfectly. The more people around him, the harder a target he became. Although a truce had been called between one set of Houses and the other, it was a tenuous armistice. Since Vieo’s death, there had been spurts of retaliation. Both sides claimed the right to settle the score with no one claiming responsibility.

He found the building claimed by the Council and waited impatiently while guards searched him. "I am expected."

The security detail ignored his protests until they were sure he carried no weapons and posed no threat. "Proceed."

Tionar hurried down the hall to the meeting chambers and paused just outside the door. If he failed to convince the Council, he would not get another chance. And might possibly lose his life.

The room beyond the door was capacious, swathed in light that cast irregular shadows over the high ceiling. A long table straddled the center of the chamber, filled on one edge by stern faced chieftains of Gital Deep’s Houses.

Tionar bowed his head, keeping his hands respectfully crossed before him as he waited to be acknowledged.

A female at the center of the table finally addressed him. "Have you brought the mercenaries?"

"No," Tionar said. "I do not intend to place them within your custody."

A low murmur rippled among the Council, but the voices were too indistinct for individual words to be heard. "But it has been agreed," said a male at one end of the table. "The mercenaries will be charged with the attack upon House Alendar."

"They are not responsible. This I am sure of."

"Do you know who is at fault?"

"I suspect," Tionar said. "But I do not have proof."

"Without proof, the Houses will not allow an accusation."

"But the mercenaries are innocent.

"It is irrelevant. There will be war among us unless restitution can be made. It is far better to sacrifice these strangers than risk further confrontation."

"But-"

"It is agreed," reminded a harsh voice from the table.

Tionar drew a breath and raised his chin. "This is the will of the Council?"

"It is."

"Then I request a boon, as is my right."

"Ask," the female said.

"Their execution will be swift. And painless." It was all he could do for them.

"Granted."

~ Ain’t Nuthin’ But A Thang ~

It was a beautiful Florida morning. The sky was a clear, flawless blue that only came about when the weather turned cold. However, the excitement around Cape Canaveral produced a warmth that permeated the spectators lining the highways and beaches. The Shuttle program was no longer a novelty. Each new launch had drifted into the arena of routine, yet the eyes of America were glued to this particular mission with special interest.

John stood with his father in the VIP viewing area, hands shoved deep in his pockets to ward off a chill uncommon even for January. He should be in class. His course load was a heavy one and the semester had just started. However, the opportunity to watch a live launch was one he would not miss for anything. Not even the ire of Professor Dubinsky.

As the countdown commenced, he felt each tick of the clock in his throat, keeping time with his pulse. Liquid fire rushed through his veins when the massive rockets ignited, sucking the breath out of his lungs. Everyone around him knew exactly how he felt and shared in the experience. Former and future astronauts, families, press, government officials. A collective gasp bound them all together.

That’ll be me someday.

A boom reverberated over the launch pad, sending out a shockwave that made those standing even a mile away take a step back. The space shuttle lifted from the ground in a flurry of rolling smoke and brilliant flame. 20. 40. 60 seconds passed. John’s eyes followed the craft as it labored to break free of Earth’s gravity, gliding upwards with heavy grace. For that minute, he forgot he wasn’t alone.

70. 72 seconds. The booster rockets broke away with a flash of light and a cloud of spent fuel. His gaze focused on the sky above him, but he could not see the shuttle. It seemed to have disappeared.

"Is that normal?" he heard someone say nearby.

Twin columns of smoke branched away from a perfect cloud. The two white streams became three. The three became more. But instead of rising, they were falling. A horrible blossom of descending debris. "Dad? What just happened?"

Jack Crichton was horrified. Grief stricken. No one seemed sure what had happened. But one thing was painfully clear. "It’s gone, son. Challenger is gone."

The memory of his father’s face at that moment was burned into his brain. Stronger than the image of the shuttle explosion. He would never think of the disaster without remembering the pain in Jack's eyes. These were people he knew, worked with, and lived beside. Gone in an instant.

That’ll be me some day.

John did not have to see that expression on Jack’s face when his son disappeared from the screens at Mission Control. It haunted him just the same. It drove him relentlessly toward unlocking the secrets of wormholes. Demanded he find his way home.

This quest, John’s obsession, was what brought him and his shipmates close to Kinfea Prime’s system. Another detour on their way to the rendezvous with Talyn. A quick little side trip to further his goal of erasing the anguish from one man’s face.

Even now, with his thoughts centered on their present circumstances, John couldn’t help but think about wormholes. He just knew there was one nearby, twisting and winding its way through space. And he was going to miss it because of Jool and a damn card game.

And because he was still naive enough to try and reason his way out of a bad situation. Harvey was right. The universe didn’t play by his rules and the only people getting hurt were the ones John should be protecting.

Before she died, Zhaan had called him innocent. Stupid is what she should have said.

Stupid because he did not want to learn to shoot first. He was comfortable playing the defense. Reactionary. Let the universe take the first swing so his conscience would be appeased. Only problem was, the universe was not swinging just at him and his shipmates suffered as he imposed his special brand of humanity upon them.

Humanity in one hand, compassion in the other. The time was coming he would have to empty one of those hands to hold a gun.

D’Argo responded at the light rasp at the door, letting Tionar back in. The Kinfea had returned as promised with the items he had gone for. "Can your ally walk?"

"She’s resting," John said. "What’s going on?"

"It is no longer safe for you here. We must go." Tionar moved closer to Chiana, looking down at the sleeping Nebari. His lips stretched taunt, clamped together in a tense frown.

John thought the Kinfea almost looked regretful. He stood, sliding his back against the wall as he rose. The stone crunched under his jacket, sprinkling dust to the ground. "Where to?"

"To see the Council."

D’Argo’s eyes narrowed on Tionar. "The Council."

"Yes. They have offered to help you." Tionar’s demeanor changed as he lifted his head to gaze back at the two males in the room. It was subtle. His voice took on a waver, lacking the conviction of his words. He controlled his movements, as if afraid to allow his body language the opportunity to betray his thoughts.

It sent a sick, paranoid feeling to the pit of John’s stomach.

"Help us. And what do they want in return?" John forced himself not to reach for his gun. He should just keep his hand at his side and not give Tionar any reason to suspect. Not now while he had the man’s attention. Don’t give him any reason to notice the Luxan moving to his back.

Tionar cocked his head to one side. "They do not request anything."

It was barely movement, the tiniest signal John could give. But D’Argo had been watching for it. He leaned his head back slightly and his long, paralyzing tongue snapped forward.

Tionar staggered once before falling.

John stood over him. "No one does anything around here for free."

***

Jool cradled the comm in her hand, fingers curled around the melted edges. Now that she had won the prize, the Interon was afraid to use it. Her life had been so simple once. The hardest challenge had come from scholarly pursuits, not decisions that resulted in life or death. Fear was a new emotion. Loneliness went beyond her scope of reality.

"Crichton? D’Argo?" Her voice sounded weak, tiny and uncertain. She took a breath and tried again, holding the communication device closer to her mouth. "Chiana?"

Silence answered her. Jool would give it one more try before summoning Pilot. The giant creature that directed Moya would be able to do little more than triangulate her companion’s positions from their comm signals. But if they were not answering, what would be the point?

"John. Answer please." She looked over her shoulder toward Cabmauri sitting in a chair by the playing table. His head was downcast, fingers plucking at the cards nearby. Jool closed her eyes in defeat.

"Hey. Jool, baby. That you?" Static threatened to overpower the voice, but it came through perfectly as far as Jool was concerned.

"Crichton!" She clutched the comm tighter. "Where are you?"

"A not so safe-house somewhere on this rock of a moon station."

Jool tossed a glare toward her captor as she spoke into the palm of her hand. "You need to get out of there as soon as possible."

"No can do. The pod’s been-."

"Stolen. Yes, I know," Jool interrupted. She did not have the patience to listen to a nonsensical discourse by the Human. Of all the creatures on Moya, John was one of the more intelligent. She just wished he made more sense when he spoke. "John, listen to me. Cabmauri never expected you to come back. He sent you so he could learn who has been stealing his cargo over the last cycle."

"We’re bait?"

"Yes. He put a tracking device in the crates you were sent to deliver. Legal Authority has the transport pod and the Crystals. Cabmauri believes that one of their officers has been behind the thefts all along."

"Dartoi?"

Jool looked sharply at her comm. "Yes. How did you know that?"

"Lucky guess. Doesn’t help us though. We’re still trapped here unless the Council decides to open the spaceport back up."

"Cabmauri has an idea how you can get off Gital Deep and back to the planet."

"Right. And we’re supposed to trust him after he left us out to dry?"

"Do you have any other options?"

The only sound that came over the comm was static, creating a pause that lasted long enough to make Jool worry she had lost the connection. "John?"

"Yeah, I’m still here. No, no other options. And we’re just about to run out of friends. But since Calamari is being so generous, tell him I have one other favor to ask him. Tell him he needs to have a chat with Dartoi."

***

Tionar was sprawled on the floor with his shoulders propped up against the wall. D’Argo stood on one side of him, hefting his Qualta Blade in his hands. Chiana, ignoring the protests of her friends, stood across D’Argo on the Kinfea’s other side. A pistol dangled in one hand, the other wrapped around her waist.

John slowly lowered his weapon, pointing the muzzle at the ground instead of Tionar’s face. "I’ll let a lot of things slide. Ask my friends. They’ll tell you. But one thing I can’t stand is being lied to. So you sure you want to stick to your story?"

"I have not been deceitful."

"Everyone," John said, barely controlling the level of emotion in his voice. He wanted to shout. Scream. Take his fist and work out his frustration on the Kinfea. "Everyone has been deceitful since the beginning. You’re hiding something."

"You owe me your lives," Tionar retorted.

"That was pay back for Chiana saving your sorry ass."

"I am not obligated to worthless mercenaries."

The hilt of D’Argo’s Qualta Blade connected sharply with Tionar’s head. The Kinfea grunted, falling to his side with the force of the impact. Only Chiana saw John wince.

"Why does the Council suddenly want to help us?"

Tionar straightened, holding a hand to his temple. Blood, like milk sap, ran between his fingers. "As I’ve said. They want nothing."

John closed his eyes, as much to strengthen his resolve over the heavy- handed tactics as it was to block out the sight of Tionar’s face. He opened them again only to look at D’Argo. The Luxan pulled back his arm for another swing.

"Wait! Wait." The Kinfea held up his hand, cringing away from D’Argo and the sword. His words came slow. "The Council wishes to charge you for the attack on House Alendar."

"Frell," Chiana muttered. "Well, that’s just perfect."

"And you were just gonna hand us over."

D’Argo snarled at the man near his feet. "Will they be coming here if you do not bring us soon?"

Tionar looked up at the Luxan. "No. They do not know of this place." He turned his head toward John. "It was not by my choice that this was to be. I know you are innocent, but the Council demanded a sacrifice to prevent further war among the Houses. They cannot afford to lose their control of Gital Deep. Such an escalation in violence would negate their Charter."

"Charter." John snapped his pistol back into its holster. "What Charter?" He pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to organize his thoughts. Weariness was setting in and all that kept him going was surge after surge of adrenaline.

"The Charter of Rinald. It is what allows us to act independently of Kinfea Prime."

John’s hand dropped. "Say that again? The part about being independent?"

Uncertainty marked Tionar’s face. "The Council has full domain of Gital Deep as long as they are able to maintain order. If they should ever lose that control, we are once again subject to governance by the Ministry."

"This Ministry. Are they in charge of Legal Authority?"

"Yes," Tionar answered. "Minister Anto Rabisi. Legal Authority answers directly to him."

The tip of D’Argo’s sword touched the ground as he turned his gaze toward John. "The Houses go to war-."

"And the Ministry gets to declare martial law." John reached out a hand toward Tionar, offering to help him up off the floor. "Wanna hear my theory?" he asked.

The Kinfea looked at the hand skeptically, but took it and hauled himself to his feet. "Yes."

"Y’all were had."

***

"Renegotiate." Dartoi Zeph could almost laugh. The humor played around his mouth, welled up his throat and threatened to spill out into Cabmauri’s office. "You. Want to renegotiate?"

"Yes. The circumstances have changed and so must the terms of our agreement."

Dartoi raised his chin thoughtfully, turning slowly as he made his way toward a chair. As he sat, he pulled his pistol from its holster and rested it on his leg. He was pleased that Cabmauri’s gaze flickered briefly on the weapon. Dartoi wanted no misunderstandings here. "Please. Explain the change in circumstance."

"My recent shipment of Mabry Crystals. I hired mercenaries to transport them since my last crew was lost."

The other crew, Dartoi remembered them. They had returned to their ship before he had been able to bypass their security locks. It took them half an arn to die in the barren landscape beyond the atmosphere bubble of Gital Deep. Took him longer than that to finally decipher their ship codes.

"Mercenaries are very untrustworthy."

Cabmauri nodded his agreement. "But resourceful."

And dead. Dartoi saw them leave Vieo’s compound a microt before he pressed the detonation trigger. There was no way they could have survived the explosion. Not that he had stayed on the street corner long enough to be sure. Dartoi feigned curiosity but he was already bored with the conversation. His fingers splayed over the side of his pistol. "This banter may charm the fools at your Gaming tables, but I am growing impatient."

Cabmauri nodded quickly. "They say they have gained useful information concerning the recent thefts of my shipments. They will sell this knowledge to me, but at a very high price. One I can not afford unless we agree upon a lower tax."

"You spoke with them recently?"

"Yes."

Dartoi had spent six cycles implementing this plan. Almost a quarter of his life dedicated to Anto Rabisi’s goal of reclaiming Gital Deep. He was not about to let a band of upstarts ruin it all. The Council must believe without doubt that Bonyon Daul betrayed his partner. It was the only way to get the Houses to war with each other. If the mercenaries knew the truth and were able to prove it, all the work would be for nothing. "That does change things. But only temporarily. You are expecting them here soon?"

Cabmauri nodded. "Yes."

He started toward the door, making plans for how he wished to deal with these troublemakers. "Tell me. Is the female you’ve been hiding in your rooms a member of their crew?"

He was impressed by Cabmauri’s ability to hide his surprise. But then, it should have come as no shock to discover Legal Authority had been watching him. They would know of anything out of the usual. Including the presence of a bright colored female. "She was, but no more. I won her in Bacria."

"You are a cunning smuggler. A brilliant gambler. But a horrible liar."

"Believe me or not," Cabmauri protested. "But you have no use for her."

"For her, I have a use." He lifted his pistol, lining the muzzle perfectly with Cabmauri’s head. "But I no longer need you." His finger twitched on the trigger and the satisfying buck of recoil vibrated through his arm.


~ Devil To Pay ~

"This is not our problem."

"C’mon. D’Argo-"

"No!" he bellowed. A mechanical whine filled the cockpit of the small craft as D’Argo primed a control panel. He glared at defiant indicators that appeared unwilling to function properly. True to Cabmauri’s word, they had located the hidden smuggling vessel in a derelict hanger near the bulk of Gital Deep’s factory complex. It barely looked space worthy.

John’s jaw clamped tight, but only long enough to gather another argument. "We can’t just walk away from this."

He threw a few more switches, unfamiliar with the navigation system. It was not too different from the ships he had learned to pilot as a youth. "Yes, we can."

"When have we ever just walked away, D’Argo? They made this our problem the moment they shanghaied Jool. Maybe you don’t mind being used as a pawn, but I sure as hell do."

The Human was trying to manipulate him, call upon his warrior code to defend the innocent. To protect his own honor and pride. D’Argo knew exactly what John was trying to do. He also knew it was working to some small degree. "What’s your plan?"

"Check it. It’s simple-"

D’Argo lifted his hand from the control console and jabbed a finger in John’s face. "Don’t say that. Every time you say it will be simple, it’s anything but."

John raised his hands in surrender. "We get everyone in the same room. Hide Tionar in a closet. We spell out how we know that Dartoi is behind the thefts and promise not to spill the beans if we get paid. When he agrees, it’s enough proof for Tionar to take back to the Council."

"That’s your plan?"

"Yeah."

"Stark came up with better plans." D’Argo felt John’s stare but he refused to look over. He would agree to go along with this, but by Hezmana, he would not say so aloud. D’Argo pushed forward on the thrust and felt the entire ship shake and rattle. "With any luck," he growled. "We’ll die before we get there."

***

John tried again to elicit a response from Jool over the comm. He had been trying since they arrived at Kinfea Prime’s docking station. Now they were only a few short blocks from Cabmauri’s alehouse and John was getting worried. "She’s not answering."

"Maybe she shorted out her comm again," Chiana offered.

"Yeah, maybe." Or something was keeping her from answering. He was just about to give up on contacting the Interon when her voice streamed from the comm.

"Crichton. I hear you."

"Jool. We’re on our way to the tavern. Did Cabmauri pass on our message?" They had just entered the busy Market Square, immersing themselves in the throng of early morning shoppers.

"Cabmauri’s dead."

John stopped walking, mindless of the pedestrian traffic around him. "Where are you?"

A pause confirmed suspicion that Jool was with Dartoi. John was expecting the male voice that took over the comm. "I have an interest in your proposition to Cabmauri Mudest. We should discuss it further."

John looked toward his companions. All of their expressions were similar. Grim acceptance. Even Tionar appeared disturbed. It was an effort to keep emotion from his voice. "Sure. Sounds good to me. Where at?"

"There is an abandoned mining camp on the outskirts of the settlement. Can you find it?"

Tionar nodded as he listened. "I know of it," he murmured.

"Yeah," John said into his comm. "We’ll be there."

The communication ended, punctuated by D’Argo’s frustrated growl. "I am through talking."

"He does not wish to talk. Dartoi will kill you." Tionar moved to stand in front of John. "You will need my help."

John looked down at the Kinfea. He didn’t trust him and it showed on his expression. Tionar had almost betrayed them once. John was not about to let it happen again. "This is not your fight. Handing Dartoi over to the Council is no longer an option. You won’t get anything out of this."

"Yes, I will. Revenge."

Chiana’s gaze moved to the Kinfea. She stepped forward, standing at eye level with Tionar. "Revenge for who?"

"Cabmauri. My brother."

***

The mining community sat at the bottom of a rock quarry beyond the bulk of Kinfea Prime’s main farms. The transport vehicle Tionar had acquired carried John and D’Argo down the narrow road descending into the giant pit. When they reached the bottom, guards in the guise of laborers met them.

"Leave your weapons here," one of them instructed.

D’Argo reluctantly pulled his Qualta Blade from his back, laying it carefully inside the vehicle. He made no move to remove the knife from his belt sheath. A hard glare at the Kinfea giving orders was enough to state his refusal at ridding himself of that one weapon.

"We’re not here for any trouble," John cautioned, taking his pulse pistol from its holster and laying it alongside D’Argo’s sword. "Just talking business."

"Follow me." The guard in charge led them through the quarry to a cluster of crude buildings.

"They do not look like miners," D’Argo whispered as they walked. None of the dozen or so Kinfea that populated the community carried themselves like laborers; rather there was an air of military discipline permeating the camp.

John nodded his agreement. Neither did it appear as if any real mining had taken place within this quarry for some time. Excavation tools and machines looked unused, more like props than working implements.

As they drew closer to their destination, John slipped the comm badge from his belt and held it in the palm of his hand.

Dartoi stood with Jool in the area outside the main buildings. His hand wrapped around her arm and a gun aimed at her back. Three more of his men stood in a loose half circle formation around him.

"Hey, Jool," John said. "That a corrupt government official in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?"

***

The tiny space would not normally be a problem for Chiana. She had crammed her body into smaller places before. However, the wound along her torso pulled painfully the longer she sat inside the hidden compartment. The concealed hollow had been designed to smuggle contraband under the noses of Port Authority, not damaged Nebari over bumpy roads. She would definitely complain about John’s driving when this was all over.

Nimble fingers worked the latch that held the lid in place. It came free with a muted pop, allowing Chiana to slide the sheet of metal away and climb out of the transport vehicle. She moved across to a similar compartment to free Tionar. Together, they scanned the surrounding area, looking for something that would make a good distraction.

Something fun.

Small equipment shacks bunched against each other away from the main grouping of buildings. She hoped it was an indication that something was stored there no one wanted to be close to.

Chiana made a motion for Tionar to stay with the vehicle then dashed the distance to the storage huts. She tried each door until finding one unlocked. She ducked inside, listening a moment to make sure no one had seen her before turning around to see what she had found.

Several barrels crowded around a large metal cylinder. Pipes coiled from the central piece and emptied into the smaller containers. A liquid gurgle sounded from inside. Chiana drew closer until she came even with one of the small barrels. She pulled on the pipe in its lid, releasing a stream of amber fluid.

Fuel for the mining machines.

"This I can work with," she purred.

***

Dartoi pushed Jool toward her shipmates. She only avoided falling flat on her face by D’Argo’s quick grab. "That was unnecessary," she hissed back at the Kinfea.

"Where is the other one? There were four of you," Dartoi said.

"Dead," John said. Jool’s head whipped around, gaping open mouthed at him. He was a little surprised the news upset her, considering the intensity of her and Chiana’s arguments. She could be mad at him later. If they made it out so she could learn the truth.

Dartoi nodded, not questioning the validity of John’s lie. "You should have died with her. It would have saved me the trouble of killing you now."

"What?" Jool exclaimed. She moved closer to D’Argo, edging behind him.

"I thought we were here to talk," John said. He had to give Chiana more time, stall Dartoi a little while longer. If he and D’Argo had to make their move now, the Legal Authority officers would mow them down where they stood. "I’m sure you don’t want the Council to know what you’ve been up to."

"With you dead, the truth will never be known."

John laughed, planting his hands on his hips in a cocky stance. He grinned toward his companions, before turning back at Dartoi. "You really think we’re stupid enough not to have some kind of backup? Anything happens to us, and we have friends that will take everything we learned to the Council."

It was enough to make Dartoi pause. But only for a moment. Uncertainty turned into sly confidence. "They will not take the word of mercenaries. Especially after they learn you took the life of Cabmauri Mudest." He gestured toward the men on either side of him. They lifted rifles to their shoulders, taking aim at the three individuals standing anxiously before them.

"You don’t have to do this." John tapped his fingernail twice on the comm curled in his palm. "We can all just walk away."

"No," Dartoi said as he raised his own gun. "There is too much at stake."

***

Chiana ran hunched over across the quarry floor back to the transport vehicle. She pulled herself inside and leaned against the seat. When she pulled her hand away from her side, pale blue blood marked her hand. "Frell," she muttered. Not that it mattered. All of this would be over one way or the other before she had a chance to bleed to death. "Okay. I have an idea."

The Nebari looked around, but Tionar was nowhere to be seen. He was not inside the vehicle.

And neither was John’s pulse pistol.

"Double frell," she hissed, reaching for D’Argo’s Qualta Blade. Her fingers found the switch that transformed the sword into a rifle. The weapon was heavy and hard for her to handle, but she brought it around and aimed at the shack housing the fuel depot. "Just can’t count on anyone."

A distinct tap sounded over her comm. Closing one eye, Chiana fired.

***

A pulse blast streaked from the transport vehicle to a collection of outbuildings on the edge of the quarry floor. Rifles lowered fractionally and gazes moved slightly, but it was hardly the distraction John had hoped for. A look from D’Argo echoed his sentiments.

The explosion surprised everyone. A ball of flame shattered the air, echoing off the stone walls of the mining pit. Before anyone had time to register what happened, two of the adjoining structures erupted in a conflagration that made the first look like the striking of a match.

John moved quickly before the Kinfea had time to recover. He rushed toward the closest one, catching him in a football tackle and knocking him to the ground. John wrestled the rifle from his hands and drove the butt of it into his stunned face. He lifted the acquired weapon and fired at a second Kinfea charging toward him.

More shots struck the ground beside him, sending him into a roll to get out of the way. Somewhere behind him, he heard Jool scream out his name. He sensed movement at his back but he knew he would never turn around in time. John braced himself for the hit.

***

The explosion was better than she had hoped. Chiana whooped a triumphant battle cry and watched the Kinfea run. Her celebration was abruptly cut off as a pulse blast struck the side of the vehicle. The shower of sparks sent tiny pricks of hot pain over her exposed skin as she cringed away.

With a muttered curse at Tionar for leaving her alone, Chiana flicked the controls that started the transport vehicle. The engine rumbled to life just as she pushed the acceleration lever all the way. Back tires spun in the loose gravel of the quarry pit, spraying sand as the vehicle lurched forward.

***

D’Argo took a long stride to the side and brought his fist down onto a dark head. As the Kinfea fell, he snatched the rifle from his hands. He sought out Dartoi next. The captain of Legal Authority stood unprotected confounded by the chaos that had erupted around him.

It was a perfect opening. D’Argo took aim, easing his finger back against the trigger. Jool’s scream distracted him before he could fire, spinning him around.

"John!"

The Luxan’s gaze sought out the Human. A Kinfea soldier, white blood dripping from the ruins of a nose, was advancing quickly to John’s back. D’Argo redirected the aim of his rifle and pulled the trigger, but he was a microt too late. The short metal cylinder in the Kinfea’s hand made contact with John’s shoulder.

***

Lightening fast agony sent John sprawling face first into the dirt. His weapon fell from suddenly nerveless fingers. Get up, he ordered himself. Move. Do something. Don’t just lay here.

Something hit the ground beside him with a heavy thump. He blinked dust from his eyes and tried to focus on it. With a detached concern, he recognized the dead Kinfea. This is what you get for trying to knock someone out instead of blowing them away, he thought.

Hands grabbed his shoulders and he found himself rolled into Jool’s lap. "John. Are you all right? Can you speak?"

Sensation was slowly returning, but not fast enough to allow words to come from his lips. And certainly not with enough speed to get him up and moving. His eyes darted around, coming to rest on D’Argo.

D’Argo did not see Dartoi raise his gun.

"No!" The word was a mumbled mess. John tried to will his hand to grasp the rifle lying close by, but his limbs would not respond to the commands his mind was sending. He could do nothing but watch as his friend, perhaps his only real friend in the Uncharted Territories, was gunned down a microt after saving his life.

He heard the pulse blast and it provoked another wordless scream. John’s hand twitched, trying once more for his weapon. His fingers closed around it reluctantly. He would kill Dartoi. Blow a hole in him large enough to drive a truck through. Retaliation was something the Kinfea would surely understand. Fury driven adrenaline forced his muscle to respond, raising John up enough to bring his weapon to bear.

But D’Argo did not fall. It was Dartoi who dropped to the dirt on his knees. His startled expression was a perfect mimicry of the surprise on John’s face. The Kinfea tumbled forward and lay still.

"Is he dead?"

All eyes turned toward the voice. Tionar lowered his stolen pulse pistol and moved toward John, offering his hand. John looked at it a moment before taking it, allowing the Kinfea and Jool to help him to his feet.

D’Argo knelt by Dartoi’s side. "No," he said. "He is alive. Barely."

"Let us hope he lives long enough to be executed for his crimes."

"None of us are going to live that long if we don’t get out of here," Jool said.

"Here’s our ride now," John nodded toward the approaching transport vehicle. He grabbed his pulse pistol from Tionar’s hand, exchanging it for the rifle. "D’Argo. Pick that loser up off the ground and let’s get the hell outta here."

Chiana barely stopped the transport before leaning out the side. "You might want to hurry." The remaining Kinfea officers had regrouped from the explosion. They advanced quickly along the quarry floor, closing the distance with random pulse fire.

D’Argo tossed their captive into the vehicle, then helped Jool inside as John and Tionar laid down cover. John was barely in his seat before Chiana punched the accelerator. The vehicle sped toward the road leading out of the quarry, scattering the Kinfea who tried to stand in its way.

Once they emerged from the pit and were racing back toward the settlement, John closed his eyes and leaned his head back. He listened to the rapidly decreasing sound of pulse blasts chasing after them. D’Argo leaned out the back, exchanging fire with anyone foolish enough to follow. They were a full twenty microts away before John felt reasonably sure they were clear.

When he opened his eyes, he stared full on into the setting sun.


Epilogue

~ Needs of the Few ~

He paid off the security guard at the door and stepped into the office of Minister Anto Rabisi. The surprise on the dignified Kinfea’s face lasted less than a microt before dissolving into a mask of self-important indignation.

"Who are you? How dare you enter my chambers without a formal summons."

John tossed a small bag of shiny gray cloth onto Rabisi’s desk. "Here’s my invitation," he said. He leaned against the door, watching as Anto released the strings that held the bag closed. Dark fingers withdrew the crystal from inside and held it up to the light.

"Do not waste my time with nonsense." Anto’s voice was stern. "I am very busy."

"Yeah, busy man. Know what you’ve been busy doing too." John pushed away from the door and sat unbidden in a chair before Anto’s desk. He crossed his ankle over his opposite knee and laced his fingers on his stomach. "I know all about the plan to take Gital Deep away from the Council. How you ordered Dartoi to make it look like House Daul had betrayed House Mudest. And I know those Crystals are worthless."

Rabisi’s expression did not change, a consummate politician. "You know nothing."

John smiled, leaning forward in his chair to rest his elbows on his knees. "You wish." He reached out toward a molten lump of metal decorating a corner of Rabisi’s desk. John juggled it back and forth between his hands. "There is one thing I don’t know, however. Why? Is it money, power, chicks? Were all the people killed on Gital Deep worth it?"

"Criminals."

"People," John spat. "Families. Children."

The Minister sat silently, gazing across his desk. John could not help but feel as if he were being sized up, evaluated. If Rabisi expected him to back down under the weight of his stare, he was going to be disappointed. The only thing that really scared John was Scorpius. Rabisi didn’t stand a chance and he knew it.

"You are wrong, of course," Rabisi said finally.

He could not stop the smirk from turning up the corner of his mouth. "About what?"

"The crystals. They do have a purpose." Rabisi rose from his chair and circled his desk. "They are a catalyst."

"For?"

"Change. The Houses of Gital Deep have been allowed to flourish for cycles. Unchecked and unhindered. Thieves, smugglers, and murderers permitted to conduct whatever business they wish only a few short arns from here." Rabisi shook his head ruefully. "And we have been powerless to stop it. Our law cannot touch them, yet their very existence permeates our own society. Once the Charter is broken, we can eradicate the criminal element from the industrial moon."

"You’ve done all this," John said slowly. "In the name of justice?"

"I am a servant of the public. My only interest has been for the greater good. The methods may seem malignant, but they are necessary. And you can have faith the Houses of Gital Deep are responsible for greater atrocities."

John replaced the metal knick-knack on Rabisi’s desk as he stood. "I don’t think either one of you are less guilty than the other. You just have the law on your side." He turned away and moved toward the door. His friends were waiting anxiously outside the Ministry Building. Everyone wanted off this planet as quickly as possible.

"The law is always right."

He paused with his hand on the door latch and looked back over his shoulder. "They know, Rabisi. The Council. They know you are behind it. They have Dartoi and he’s singing like a bird." His voice dipped an octave, surprising him with how level and controlled it was. "If I were you, I’d hide."

John left for the outside corridor quickly, unable to watch the expression of growing horror on Rabisi’s face. It mirrored too closely the dread spreading through him. He had succeeded in stopping the Houses from fighting each other. But by turning Dartoi over to the Council, he had given them all the reason they could want to seek retribution against the Ministry. They had ended one war to start another.

"Not my problem," John said to himself. He had done what he came here for. Regardless who he thought was right or wrong, who was innocent or guilty, John could not stand by. Warning Rabisi the Council would come for him was the very least he could do.

John could learn to shoot first.

Living to question it later was the hard part.

The End


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