|Return to Sender|
by Ann Harrington, E-mail: NGMA607@aol.com
About Return to Sender
Another award winning fic from Ann (aka Annigmatic), winning her Best Author in the Farscape Fanfic Awards 2001
From the author --
Copyright Notice: Farscape is owned by The Jim Henson company, Hallmark Entertainment, Nine Network Australia and the Sci-Fi Channel. They own all rights to characters mentioned within this story. I have merely borrowed these characters to play with, and promise to return them in good working order.
Spoilers: All of Season 2, up through "A Clockwork Nebari"
Summary: Scorpius makes John an offer he can't refuse.
Searing heat blistered his fingertips and John Crichton dropped the plasma-welder with a startled curse. It clanged off the floor of the shuttle bay, as John shook his hand trying to ease the stinging pain.
"John, you aren't paying attention. You need to focus," a soft voice said.
John Crichton did not turn around. He knew that there was no one to see. The voice was his torment, his alone.
He fixed his gaze on the left wing of the Farscape module. How long had he been here? He didn't even remember coming down to the shuttle bay, or deciding that it was time to repair the micro-meteor punctures that the craft had received during his last trip. And yet he must have done so, for the holes were neatly welded, and running his hand along the wing he could find no flaws.
Not that he would trust to his own eyesight and sense of touch. He would let the DRDs do a proper scan in a moment.
"You need to be careful, John," the voice reminded him.
Crichton said nothing. Sometimes, if he ignored it, the voice went away. Other times it did not. At least it was only a voice this time, easier to deny than the visual hallucinations.
Why did it have to be Scorpius that he heard and saw in these visions? Why couldn't he be one of the people who saw Elvis, or a six-foot rabbit?
"Because you're not afraid of a six-foot rabbit," he said aloud. And he was afraid of Scorpius. Or more specifically of what Scorpius would do to him, if he was ever recaptured. John had survived a few days in Scorpius's care. Barely. Even now, memories of the time he had spent in the Aurora chair were enough to make his stomach knot, and a cold sweat run down his back. John could not face that. Not again. He would take his own life before it came to that.
And yet his fear of Scorpius was an old one, still present but now it shared space with a new fear. Slowly but inexorably, John was losing his grip on reality.
It was not just the hallucinations, the conversations he had with someone that no one else could see or hear. Gaps were appearing in his memory, times when he had no idea where he had been, or what he had been doing. Like today. He remembered morning and breakfast, Rygel droning on about his favorite Hynerian delicacies. It seemed like moments ago that he had stood up, leaving his uneaten rations for Rygel to finish. But his chronometer showed that it was now deep into the night, or the sleep cycle as the others called it. Where had those missing hours gone? Where had he been? And what had he been doing?
Since his precipitous arrival on Moya, Crichton had worked hard to prove his worth, and to gain the acceptance of the crew. They had learned to trust him, and he had learned to value their friendship. Now all that was coming apart.
It was becoming harder to hide his growing weakness from his friends. He knew Aeryn suspected something. He had even told her some of it, when he had to explain why he had nearly killed her with a shot meant for someone who was only a hallucination. And Zhaan was quiet, but her eyes saw far more than she said. Many times he thought about asking her for help, remembering the unity they had once shared. Yet each time something inside him stopped him, before he could frame the words.
Perhaps it was that he already knew there was nothing she could do to help him. No one could. Confessing his fears would only hasten the day when his condition would be discovered, and the crew would be forced to act.
And so he had learned not to start when he heard a voice that could not be there, or saw visions that no one else did, and a dozen other ways to cover up the fact that John Crichton was no longer in control of himself. What choice did he have? Should he summon the crew and confess to them?
He could see it now, everyone gathered in the common room as he said "Guess what? Turns out Aeryn was right after all. Humans don't do well in space. I'm cracking up. Sorry for the inconvenience."
And if he confessed, what would they do? They were his friends, but they could not save him from himself. Sooner or later, his friends would have to act, as much for their own protection as his.
Would they banish him from Moya, leaving him to make his way alone? Or would they lock him in a cell, watching helplessly as he slipped deeper into madness? Would someone have the compassion to end his life, when there was nothing of John Crichton left?
He knew his time was running out. He had days, perhaps a week at most, but no more than that before someone, probably Zhaan or Aeryn, summoned the nerve to confront him. He could no longer hide the signs of what was happening to him, for the mental stress was taking its toll on his body. He had to force himself to eat, but still he was losing weight. And his face was drawn from lack of sleep, though that, too, was a mystery. Most nights he spent a full sleep cycle in his bed, and yet he woke each morning nearly as tired as he had been the night before.
Two days ago Zhaan had offered him a concoction to help him sleep, mentioning that she had heard him cry out the night before in his sleep. And yet he had no memory of that dream, or of any dreams in these past days, and this troubled him. Somehow not being able to recall his dreams was more frightening than any nightmare could be. It was as if there was another piece of him that was slipping out of his grasp, a part of him lost forever.
"Commander Crichton?" Pilot's voice came over the comm.
"Yeah Pilot? What's up?"
"I am receiving a very odd communication signal," Pilot said. There was a pause. "At least I *think* it may be a signal."
"From a ship?" Crichton hazarded a guess. It could not be from a planet or a base. They were deep in the Uncharted Territories, far from any solar system. Or at least they had been, last time he had noticed. And a ship meant the potential for danger.
"No, Moya does not sense a ship anywhere. And yet there is this signal," Pilot said. "It is really most odd."
The tension that had gripped him began to fade. It was an anomaly. A mystery, nothing more.
"Can you play it for me?" he asked.
"Certainly," Pilot said.
There was a series of tones, pulses of uneven length. Like the old Morse code, except these were of different pitches, almost musical. The signal ran for about ten seconds, paused and then repeated.
"Is that it?"
"Yes," Pilot said. "The signal just repeats over and over again, on very low frequency communication waves. Similar to those of your module."
"You mean radio," John corrected him. "Then there's no need to worry. That signal could have been sent yesterday or a thousand years ago. Radio waves can travel forever in space."
"Are you certain?" Radio waves were far outside of Pilot's experience, almost as much as a telegraph would have been. A primitive form of communication, when compared with Sebacean technology.
"No," John said. He was no longer certain of anything. "But if I'm wrong, you'll be the first to know. No need to wake the others, but to be on the safe side, why don't you ask Moya to run the deep range scans every arn for the next day."
"Very well," Pilot said.
There was a brief click, and John knew that the communication channel had been closed. There had been something strangely familiar about that musical signal. It repeated over and over again in his head, as if it were one of those annoying radio jingles. He shook his head to clear it, but the odd tune persisted.
A moment later he moved back to the Farscape module. At his touch the canopy opened, and he climbed inside. As if in a dream he saw his right hand move to the communications board, tuning to the emergency frequency, and then flipping the communications toggle on. He donned the headset, carefully preserved although not used since he had left Earth and IASA behind.
The module had its own communications system, one that was not monitored by Pilot. This was somehow important, and yet the thought disappeared almost as soon as it had formed.
"This is Commander John Crichton of Farscape One," he said, his voice flat and calm as if this was just another routine transmission.
"John, I am pleased you received my message. We need to talk," Scorpius's voice crackled through the headset.
He should have felt surprise, but somehow he did not. And unlike the soft voiced hallucination which tormented him, John had the feeling that this imperfect, scratchy communication was the real thing.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"Close. Very close indeed. In a few microts the Leviathan will have fallen into my trap. You will be surrounded by ships from my command carrier."
His heart sped up. They were in danger. He needed to warn Pilot and the others. A small part of him screamed that he needed to summon help, but it was drowned out by whatever was controlling him.
"So why are you telling me this?" It was foolish for Scorpius to tip his hand like this. There was still time for Moya to starburst and escape. That is if this was really Scorpius and not just the newest variety of his hallucinations.
"I am telling you this because you have a choice, John. Stay where you are, and the Leviathan will be captured, and you and all your friends will become my prisoners. Whether you surrender peacefully or risk your lives in some foolish attack, in the end it will be the same."
He felt sick as he realized his long nightmare might finally be coming true. Prisoner of Scorpius. It did not bear thinking about. "You said I had a choice," Crichton said, struggling to keep his voice calm.
"I have no interest in the others, only in you. You can choose to surrender yourself, and I will promise to let the Leviathan leave unhindered. Your sacrifice for their safety."
It was a trap. It had to be. And yet---
"How can I trust you? And why would I be so crazy as to give myself up, so you can put me through the hell of that damn chair again?" His voice cracked.
His right hand shook and he clenched it into a fist, grateful that Scorpius could not see him. There was no need to let Scorpius know how much he frightened John.
"I have never lied to you, John," Scorpius said. "Surrender and keep your friends safe. Or try to preserve your own life, and you damn then all. Time is running out. In the end, you know there is only one choice to make."
There was a burst of static and then the radio went silent.
John stripped the headset off. It wasn't real. It was just another hallucination. It had to be, he told himself.
What if it wasn't? He had promised himself he would never be taken alive by Scorpius. To surrender himself willingly went against every instinct, every fiber of his damaged soul. And yet, could he bear the alternative? What would it mean if Aeryn or Chiana or the rest were Scorpius's prisoners as well? Did he have the right to subject any of them to the horrors that he had endured?
Scorpius was interested in one thing only. Wormhole technology. Crichton had this knowledge, his friends did not. To Scorpius, Moya's crew was useful only as bait or as hostages. It was possible indeed that Scorpius might keep his word and let them go free, once he had what he wanted. Even Crais had confirmed that Scorpius had no interest in Moya or any of her passengers. Only Crichton himself drew this relentless pursuit.
His life for theirs. It was almost the same bargain Crais had tried to make with him, when John had been Scorpius's captive. Strange to think that back then he had been afraid of dying at Crais's hands, not realizing that in a short time a quick death would seem preferable to the pain of having his mind ripped apart by Scorpius's infernal device.
But the bargain Crais offered had been a bluff, and Crichton had seen through Crais's lies, before was forced to make the impossible choice between protecting Gilina or saving his friends.
Scorpius would not make the same mistakes that Crais had. He would not have made his offer, unless he was certain that John would have no choice but to accept.
Moya lurched and the engines protested suddenly and then fell uncharacteristically silent.
"Commander Crichton! Moya's short-range sensors have detected a squadron of Peacekeepers. They just appeared, out of nowhere, and are moving to surround us."
"Can we starburst?" Crichton asked.
"No, we can not escape them," Pilot said. "I have summoned the others, they are on their way to the command center."
"John, where the frell are you?" Aeryn's voice came through the comm. "We need you up here. Now."
A sense of fatalistic calm descended over him, washing away the fear. He made no movement to leave the module.
"Pilot, keep looking," John said. "There ought to be a command carrier around there somewhere."
"A command carrier?" Aeryn asked.
John did not respond. He hit the button that lowered the canopy, and his hands began the familiar ritual of bringing the module to life. A small part of him noticed that his hands had stopped shaking, now that he had made his decision.
Scorpius knew him, almost as well as he knew himself. In the end, there had been only one choice he could make.
His hands continued to move, skipping most of the normal preflight checklist. There was no need for safety precautions. It would not be a long trip.
The engine sequencers ran through their cycle, and the module came to life.
"Commander Crichton, what are you doing?" Pilot asked.
"Pilot, tell Moya she has a dozen microts to open the shuttle bay door, or I am going to open it for her," John said. He had made his decision, now he needed to implement it. Swiftly. Before he lost his nerve, or his friends tried to stop him.
"John, what are you thinking? This is no time for foolish games," Ka D'Argo said.
Aeryn said nothing. If he was right, even now she was making her way to the shuttle bay at a dead run, preferring direct confrontation. But she would not get her wish. Not today.
John aimed the Farscape module at the closed doors, and placed his hand on the control throttle, letting power begin to trickle through the craft. Slowly it began to move. "This is going to leave a big hole," he warned.
At the last possible instant, the doors slid apart, and the Farscape module slipped out into the blackness of space.
A prowler swept by, close enough so he could see the face of the Peacekeeper pilot, and then the craft continued on. His eyes followed its path, and he saw it was one of many that were circling Moya, holding her hostage like an atom surrounded by particles. Every direction was closed off. There was nowhere for her to go, no escape for the ship or its crew.
John picked a direction at random, and accelerated. The module was modified, but it was not nearly as fast as a prowler, or for that matter, a command carrier. It was useless to think of escape, merely of ending this quickly. He would find the carrier, or the carrier would find him. Either way, the end would be the same.
"John, what do you hope to accomplish?" Zhaan asked, in cool tones of reason.
"A trade," he said. "Scorpius gets what he wants, and you and Moya get to go free."
"John, don't be stupid. You can't bargain with such a creature. Return at once," Aeryn said, her voice sharp edged with concern. "We will find a way out of this, but only if we all stick together."
An hour ago he would have given anything to hear such reassurances, but now they were too late. Aeryn, once so pragmatic, was indulging in foolish optimism if she thought there was indeed any chance of avoiding this fate. Once John had possessed such an optimism himself, but it had fallen away, another casualty of his experiences in these past months.
The Farscape module passed between two prowlers and slipped through the outer shell of the blockade. No one tried to stop him, or to follow him. So Scorpius was that confident of John's compliance. And why not? They had not seen the trap coming until it had sprung. No doubt he had planned John's capture with equal efficiency.
"I would have left the ship anyway," John said, trying to explain. "Aeryn, you know that. The hallucinations are getting worse. I no longer know what is real and what is not. My being there was a danger.... to all of you."
"John, we trust you," Aeryn said.
"How can you, when I can not trust myself?" Even now, he did not know if his sacrifice was an act of courage or just another sign that he had descended into madness.
John could hear the sounds of the crew arguing, and someone was shouting his name, but he refused to listen. His throat was tight and his eyes wet with unshed tears, as he left behind his friends, and the ship that he had started to think of as his home. Leaving them hurt, with a pain that was almost physical. Would they ever understand why he had done this? Would they ever forgive him?
"Do one thing for me. Starburst, the moment the fighter screen breaks," John said. He closed his eyes for a moment and prayed to the Goddess that Zhaan served that Scorpius would honor his bargain, and let his friends go free. John's sacrifice had to mean something.
The module vibrated slightly and then changed direction. So the carrier's crew had found him, and was now using its capture field to haul in their prize. He took a deep breath, as he realized that in a few moments he would be face to face with the one person he feared most.
The alien module settled gently onto the hangar floor, and as the docking bay doors slid closed, Scorpius felt satisfaction, mingled with a tinge of relief.
He had planned this operation carefully, considering every possible variation, until nothing was left to chance. And yet in the past Crichton had shown himself a wild card, who found the one contingency that no one had considered. But this time he had met his match. Scorpius had offered the bait, and Crichton had fallen into his trap.
He had known from the start that there was no way to take the Leviathan by force and still guarantee Crichton's safety. For while the neuro-chip should be able to prevent Crichton from suicide, it would not be able to stop him and his companions from an act of desperation that would lead to all of their deaths.
Nor could the chip prevent one of Crichton's companions from killing him, taking his life in a misguided attempt at mercy. No, trying to take Crichton by force was too risky. Instead, he had offered Crichton the one thing he could not refuse, the chance to save the lives of his friends.
Still he was puzzled. Three days ago, Crichton, acting under the chip's control, had sent a signal, indicating the experiment was to be terminated. But it had not given the code that would indicate that Crichton had succeeded in discovering the secrets of wormhole technology, leaving him to wonder at the reason for the summons.
Why now? What threat had the neuro-chip perceived, that required putting an end to the charade of freedom that Crichton had enjoyed for these past months?
There was no movement or sign of life from inside the module, and yet the scans had confirmed that Crichton was alive and inside. A hundred microts passed, and just as he was about to order his guards to open the module, the clear canopy raised, and Crichton's face appeared.
His eyes searched the room, until his gaze fell on Scorpius. Then Crichton pushed himself out of the seat, and climbed out of the capsule.
Scorpius signaled the guards to stay in their positions at the door, and as Crichton descended, he crossed the few meters that separated them. He was intrigued by the craft that until now he had seen only through Crichton's memories. Unique, the only vessel known to have traveled through a wormhole. And yet the craft was a minor treasure, compared to the creature that piloted it.
As Crichton's feet touched the floor, he paused for a moment, laying both hands flat on the sides of the craft, and pressing his forehead against it, as if somehow he drew strength from the vessel. Then he pushed away, and turned around.
"You've got what you wanted. Now let Moya go free," he said, fixing Scorpius's gaze with his own.
Few Sebaceans dared return his gaze, for they were afraid of him, and what he could do to them. Crichton had more reason than any to be afraid, and yet he caught and held Scorpius' stare, unyielding.
Such courage had to be respected.
"I have already recalled my ships," Scorpius said. "And yet the Leviathan lingers. Perhaps your friends harbor some foolish thoughts of rescue."
Crichton shook his head. "They know better than that."
"See for yourself," Scorpius replied, waving his hand towards the communications console on the nearby wall.
Crichton, after one look at Scorpius, crossed over to the wall, where the console screen displayed the image of the Leviathan, and the retreating ships.
"I have kept my word," Scorpius said, coming to stand behind the human.
At the sound of his voice, Crichton flinched. An unusual reaction, or perhaps not, given the fear that Crichton was trying so hard to hide. Still he was beginning to suspect that there was something wrong, some subtle clue or sign that he had overlooked.
Crichton touched his comm badge, apparently not even considering that Scorpius could block any transmission. But he was curious to hear what Crichton had to say, and waited.
"Pilot, what the frell are you doing? Why haven't you starburst?" Crichton demanded.
"John, we--" a female began.
"No," Crichton interrupted. "This is not the time to be stupid. Think of Jothee. Think of Talyn. Think of yourselves, damn it, but get the frell out of here. Now!"
Crichton turned the communicator off. An instant later, the screen image began to brighten, until the Leviathan turned incandescent, and then vanished.
It was as Scorpius had planned. He had no need for the Leviathan or any of its crew, save as a means of gaining Crichton's trust.
Crichton stared at the screen for a long moment, and swallowed hard. His shoulders sagged, and as he turned back to face his captor, the strength seemed to drain out of his body, as if it, too, had vanished with his friends. He leaned back against the wall, suddenly needing its support.
The eyes that met his were dull. He realized that Crichton had used all of his courage and strength to carry him to this moment. Now that his friends were safe, Crichton could no longer ignore his own vulnerability.
Scorpius did not like what he saw. His mind registered the changes in Crichton's appearance, since he had last seen the human on the Royal Planet. Crichton had lost mass since then, the borrowed Peacekeeper's uniform hanging loosely on his frame. And his face was drawn with fatigue, and with something that hid behind his restless eyes, that now would not keep still.
"What did you mean when you told your friends the hallucinations were getting worse?" Scorpius asked.
Crichton laughed, a harsh sound without true mirth. "You made a bad bargain. Damaged goods. Humans don't take well to having their minds frelled with. Ever since Gammak base I've been hearing voices, seeing things that weren't there. Won't be long now before Mama Crichton's boy becomes a permanent resident of the loony bin."
The reference was obscure, but the meaning came through. And the Scarran heritage that gave him the ability to detect lies, told him that John Crichton indeed believed that he was going mad.
Many Scarrans could read and control minds, but Scorpius could only perceive thought patterns. This was enough to worry him. Crichton's thought patterns were jumbled, chaotic, a mind under great stress, on the verge of tearing itself apart. He probed deeper, sensing confusion, despair, and overwhelming fear that was not quite panic.
"What is it you see in your visions?"
Crichton pressed his lips together, and shook his head, this time careful to avoid Scorpius's gaze.
A mystery then. So be it. He would let Crichton have the illusion of his secrets. Once Scorpius accessed the neuro-chip, it would tell him what he wanted to know.
Crichton straightened up, pushing himself away from the wall. "Let's get this over with," he said. "You might as well save your questions for the chair."
Scorpius shook his head. "There is no need to fear the Aurora chair," he said. "It has already proven itself ineffective. We both know it will not give us the knowledge we seek."
He had looked forward to matching wits with his adversary, but that would have to wait. Crichton could barely stand, and he needed to know what had happened that had driven the human to this state. Now.
"You are exhausted. You need to rest," he said.
"Tell me something I don't know," Crichton replied, the sarcasm coming automatically to his lips. And yet his expression revealed his confusion, as his fears warred with the desperate hope that he might indeed be spared the torments of the Aurora chair.
It had never been his intention to make Crichton suffer. The Aurora Chair had simply been the most efficient means of extracting information. And indeed it had proven effective, for it had uncovered knowledge that Crichton himself did not know he possessed. It was Crichton's own stubborn refusal to yield that had turned what could have been simply an unpleasant experience into unbearable agony.
Once he realized that the knowledge Crichton held could not be extracted by the chair, Scorpius had released him, placing his faith in the neuro-chip, and in Crichton's own intelligence and determination to discover the wormhole technology that would lead him back to his home world.
And now that chip had summoned Scorpius, to protect Crichton when it was clear that Crichton could no longer protect himself. It was ironic that the enemy Crichton most feared was also the one person who could save him, and preserve his sanity.
"John, you have nothing to fear," Scorpius promised, slowly reaching his right hand into his belt case, and withdrawing the medi-injector.
Crichton was too valuable to risk harming. Wormhole technology would tip the balance of power in favor of whomever held the secret. Such a man could rule the universe, if he chose.
Scorpius would keep Crichton safe... and in time would control him.
As the injector crossed into Crichton's line of sight, he stepped sideways, but Scorpius had expected this, and grabbed Crichton with his left arm, pinning him the wall. Crichton struggled, but he was no match for Scorpius's strength. With his right hand he pressed the medi-injector against the human's neck, and injected the drug.
His face was only inches from Crichton's, and he could almost taste the human's overwhelming despair. "A sedative, nothing more. When you are rested, we will talk."
"Talk." Crichton repeated. "Yeah, right."
"Talk," Scorpius affirmed. He held Crichton in place, watching as the consciousness faded from his eyes, and his muscles turned limp, until Crichton's head lolled to one side and fell forward. Only then did he signal for the guards to come, and to carry Crichton to the quarters that had long awaited his arrival.
The task of taming Crichton would not be easy. But Scorpius had the advantage of the neuro-chip, and of years of experience in interrogating prisoners. Crichton was obviously anticipating torture, whether mental or physical. It would be interesting to see how he reacted when he realized that Scorpius had something quite different planned for him.
There was a moment of disorientation, and then the Leviathan emerged from starburst. Aeryn Sun shook her head to clear the lingering dizziness, as Moya's engines hummed back to life.
Her eyes sought out the others. They looked stunned, disbelieving, as was she herself. It did not seem real, somehow. One moment she had been sleeping in her quarters, and then next awakened by Pilot's urgent alarm. Almost before she knew what was happening, it was over. John was gone, having surrendered himself to his greatest enemy.
Less than a quarter arn from the first alarm, till the moment when Pilot had initiated the starburst.
Aeryn's fists clenched by her side. Pilot had done what he had to do, and yet at the moment she hated him for it, nearly as much as she hated herself for being so helpless.
"Were we followed?" Rygel asked.
"No. And Moya's sensors indicate no trace of any other ships in this area," Pilot said.
Ka D'Argo growled. "That is no guarantee of safety. Moya didn't spot these Peacekeepers until they had already surrounded us."
"I do not understand why Moya was unable to detect the Peacekeeper ships," Pilot fretted. "Her sensors were off-line earlier, but Commander Crichton had finished his recalibrations several arns ago."
"Typical," Rygel said. "The human doesn't fix things, instead he takes apart things that are working fine and breaks them."
It was true that when Crichton first arrived on Moya, he had been as likely to break things as he was to fix them. But those days were long past, and it was not like him to be careless. Not when he knew their lives were at stake.
And if it was not carelessness, what could it be?
"Scorpius must have found a new way to hide his ships," Aeryn said, though she had never heard of such a technology. Still she was a warrior, not a tech.
"Perhaps," D'Argo said.
"And where were you when this started?" Aeryn said, turning to pin Rygel with her stare. "You had the watch tonight. So why were you the last to arrive in command?"
Rygel drew his robe tightly around him, and his throne-sled rose in the air, retreating from her. "I was in my quarters, sleeping if you must know. Crichton offered to take the watch. Said he wanted to work on his module. I saw no reason why both of us should lose sleep."
Trust Rygel to think of himself first. She had seen John only in passing yesterday, but even then he had looked exhausted. Any idiot could have seen that he was in no condition to take on the responsibilities of the night watch.
But if Crichton had already been in the module bay, it explained why he had been able to leave so quickly, before she could reach him. And yet why was he working on his module at that hour? There were no urgent repairs that needed doing. Surely whatever needed doing could have waited until tomorrow.
Unless there was another reason he was there.
"Pilot, was there anything else unusual that happened? Any sign that the command carrier was near?" Aeryn asked.
"Moya picked up a low frequency communications signal. I asked Commander Crichton about it, and he said it was something called radio, and that there was no need for concern." There was a long pause. "Then a few moments later, the Peacekeeper ships appeared."
Aeryn swallowed hard.
"Crichton knew they were coming," D'Argo said. "He said so himself, when he told Pilot to look for the command carrier."
"No," she insisted automatically. And yet a part of her had already begun to doubt. There were too many coincidences.
"Of course he did," Rygel said. "No doubt you'll find he reset the scanners as well, so we would have no warning."
Chiana drew closer to D'Argo, placing one hand on his shoulder. "But why would he do that? He hates this Scorpius. You know that."
Crichton hated Scorpius, but even more he feared him. Whatever Scorpius had done to John, it had scarred his soul permanently. John would give his life for his friends, yes. But he would not conspire with his enemy. Nor was it like him to give up so easily, without a fight. And yet he had done exactly that. Handed himself over to Scorpius, without giving any of them the chance to reason with him or to come up with a better plan.
Zhaan had silently watched the interplay, but now she spoke. "Aeryn, what did John mean when he said his hallucinations were getting stronger?"
With one hand Aeryn pushed away the hair that had fallen into her face. "After the Royal Planet, John told me he was having visions. Seeing Scorpius, even talking with him. He told me not to worry, that if the visions continued he would go to you for help. I thought it might be transit sickness."
Zhaan shook her head gravely. "I knew there was something troubling him, but he never spoke to me, nor did he mention these visions."
Aeryn realized she had been a fool. It was John's nature to talk about what troubled him, and to try and solve the troubles of those around him. It was one of his most endearing and annoying qualities, depending on whether he was sharing his own feelings, or trying to probe hers. She had counted on John behaving as he always had, and assumed that he had gone to Zhaan for the help that she could not give him. When the weeks had gone by with no further mention of the visions, she had thought him cured.
She had not realized that John might have changed, so much that he would not, or could not ask for help. For he had said nothing to Zhaan, and apparently the visions had grown worse instead of going away. There had been desperation in his voice in his last message, a tone that reminded her of the tortured creature she had rescued from the Gammak base.
How long had he carried this burden? And why hadn't he trusted her enough to share it with her? What had happened, that had made him believe his only choice was to surrender to his worst enemy?
"Pilot, D'Argo and I will check the sensors," Aeryn said. She already knew what she would find.
Chiana took her hand off D'Argo and glared at him angrily. "You can't believe this. Crichton would never betray us."
She turned and began to walk away.
Aeryn's words made her stop in her tracks. "Crichton didn't betray us. He betrayed himself."
Scorpius waited patiently for Crichton to awaken, his mind turning over the knowledge he had gained when he accessed the memories stored on the neuro-chip. Not that there had been time to digest all of the information, indeed it would take many weeks, for the neuro-chip had had months to access Crichton's conscious thoughts and sensory input.
Still there were advantages in having designed the neuro-chip as an analog of his own personality. The chip had prioritized the information presented in precisely the same order that Scorpius would have chosen, had he done the job himself. There would be time later to go through all of Crichton's memories, but for now he knew what he needed to know, to understand Crichton's mental state, and to make his plans accordingly.
Just as Crichton's physical composition was similar to a Sebacean's but not quite identical, so too, his neural patterns were subtly different. His mind had proven surprisingly resilient, in the face of stresses that would have overwhelmed a lesser creature.
Too resilient, in fact. For each time the chip had been forced to override Crichton's conscious mind, it had left behind a thread of neural pathway. The pathway should have been erased, but instead traces had remained. Crichton's subconscious mind had seized upon these traces, forging its own links to the functions of the neuro-chip.
Within a few weeks of the implant, the links were strong enough that under stress Crichton's mind became aware of the chip. Unable to comprehend its function, his mind had translated the chip's input into aural and visual inputs, which Crichton perceived as hallucinations in which he heard and saw Scorpius.
The neuro-chip had performed as designed, preserving Crichton's life and sanity through its actions. But each time the chip acted, the links grew stronger, and as what he perceived as hallucinations became more common, Crichton grew more afraid for his sanity.
And then Crichton had fallen into the hands of a Scarran interrogator, who had twisted his mind to the breaking point. With the neuro-chip's help Crichton had escaped, but the mental wounds he had received could not be undone. The wounds remained, festering, the chip's need to hide its existence ensuring that Crichton would not seek the help he so desperately needed.
As Crichton's mental condition continued to deteriorate, the neuro-chip had recognized the threat, and had sent the signal for recall.
Crichton stirred, and his thought patterns began to brighten. He made an inarticulate noise, and then raised one hand to his face.
"Crichton," Scorpius said, letting him know that he was not alone.
Crichton's eyes flew open, and he half-rolled, half-fell off the sleeping platform, landing on the floor and then rising awkwardly to his feet. As his eyes locked on the chair where Scorpius sat, he turned slowly to face him.
There was fear in his posture, and in the expression on his face.
Physically Crichton was stronger than he had been the day before. The full day of drugged induced sleep had alleviated the worst of his exhaustion, and time would do the rest.
But mentally he was balanced on a knife-edge. It would be a simple matter to break him, to push him over the edge of madness. It would be far harder to heal his mind. Especially when Crichton was unlikely to cooperate.
Scorpius had deactivated the neuro-chip, which should break the destructive cycle of apparent hallucinations. Time would tell whether the resulting damage could be reversed.
"Sit, and we will talk," Scorpius said.
He expected Crichton would retreat to the sleeping platform, or perhaps the wall, to put the maximum distance between them. But again Crichton surprised him.
"Is it live or is it Memorex?" Crichton asked, as if to himself. He advanced across the room, coming to stand before Scorpius. Then he reached out with his right hand a hand that trembled only slightly as he touched Scorpius on the shoulder.
As his fingers brushed Scorpius's thermal suit, Crichton nodded, then dropped his hand.
It took a moment for the meaning of the gesture to sink in. Crichton was testing his reality, using tactile sensation to confirm that this was indeed Scorpius, and not simply another hallucination.
It really was Scorpius. In the flesh, so to speak. John backed up slowly across the room, until he reached the bed, and then sat down heavily.
Scorpius said nothing, but there was a strange expression on his face. For a moment it looked like pity, but he had to be mistaken. The Scorpius he knew was a ruthless interrogator. John did not want to know what it would take to inspire his pity.
"What do you want?" he asked.
"The same thing you do," Scorpius replied. "Knowledge. The secret to unlocking the creation of wormholes, for a start."
"I can't give you what I don't know," he said, spreading his hands wide. It was no use trying to pretend to a courage he did not own. Any information he had was Scorpius's for the taking. It was simply a question of whether John gave the information willingly, or surrendered it under torture.
For all he knew, the Aurora Chair was the least of Scorpius's toys. Who knew what refinements Scorpius might have invented in the months since John's escape? He could feel his heart begin to race, and he tried very hard not to think about what else Scorpius could do to him.
"You do not have the information. Yet. But I believe that given time you will discover the answers we seek," Scorpius answered.
"So this is it? You torture me until I agree to work for you?"
"John, I said you had nothing to fear. You will not be harmed. But you will remain here, as my guest. In time you will see the wisdom of cooperation. I can afford to be patient."
He had expected anything but this. It had to be a trick. "Sorry, Scorpy, the game doesn't work that way. Once you've been bad cop, you can't expect me to believe that you're the good cop now. Next you'll tell me you only want to help me."
"John, do you enjoy being obscure? Or are you simply testing the limitations of the translator microbes?"
John shrugged. There was a distant planet where millions of people shared his culture and spoke his language without the help of alien bugs in their brains. He knew his Earth references sometimes confused his friends, and even his enemies, but he could not give them up. Indeed he clung all the more firmly to them, as a way of reminding himself that there was indeed a place where he was not alone, a stranger among aliens who could never quite understand who or what he was.
"I know you do not believe me, but you need my help," Scorpius said. "In fact I am the only one who can help you."
For a moment the living Scorpius sounded exactly like the creature he had seen in his visions these past months. It was an eerie feeling, like deja vu. He reminded himself that this was just the newest of Scorpius's mind games. Soon he would tire of this pose, and then the real Scorpius would emerge.
"For now, there is nothing you need to do, except to rest and regain your strength. These quarters are yours. When you are hungry, use the ship's interface and food will be brought. If you are bored, the technical station contains research data that will be of interest. One warning though, the device around your neck is keyed to this room. Should you try to leave, it will administer a sedative and you will be unconscious within microts."
John raised his hand, and discovered that there was a plastic collar encircling his neck, a thin band about two fingers wide. It made him angry, as he wondered what else had been done to him while he lay unconscious.
"Scorpy has a new pet, is that it?"
"A reasonable precaution, nothing more. If you recall, last time you were on one of my ships you managed to destroy it with remarkable efficiency. And then, of course, there was the Gammak base. I find this command carrier useful, and would prefer that both you and it remained undamaged."
Scorpius smiled, as if he found humor in the situation.
John tugged at the collar, but it would not budge. It was not tight enough to hurt, and yet he could not insert even a fingernail between the warm plastic and his own skin.
"So this is your answer, a dog collar?"
"Would you prefer that I chain you to the wall? Or station a guard in here, to keep an eye on you at all times?"
His words were being twisted. Everything Scorpius said sounded reasonable, until you realized that it was just a trap. Scorpius's true goals were unchanged. This was just a new mask. John felt his frustration rising. There had to be something he could do, some way to argue with this creature. But his thoughts just chased themselves in circles.
He clenched his fist, digging his fingernails into the palm of his hand, grateful for the distraction of the pain. He had come prepared to endure torture, and to hope for his own death. He did not think he was strong enough, or sane enough, to play this new game of Scorpius's.
"That is enough for today," Scorpius said.
John looked up. His body tensed as Scorpius rose to his feet, but his captor did not come any closer. Instead his eyes regarded John critically, and then he nodded as if he had reached some decision. "We will speak again tomorrow," he promised.
And then he left, leaving John far more confused than he had been before. Surely Scorpius could see how close John was to breaking. And yet why had he chosen to leave, rather than pursuing his obvious advantage?
"This can't be good," he said to himself, and to those who were surely monitoring.
John Crichton had spent the past months dreading what might happen if he was recaptured by Scorpius. Never had he imagined this. After five days, he was ready to climb the walls with boredom. He scowled as he shoved his hands in the pockets of his pants, and began to pace around his quarters.
Scorpius had kept his promises. John had not been tortured or threatened. Instead he was treated as a valued prisoner. Food was delivered whenever he wanted, from a selection that seemed luxurious to someone accustomed to the hit or miss provisions on Moya. With nothing better to do, he caught up on his sleep, and in his waking hours tried very hard not to think about his friends.
He saw no one, except Scorpius. Sometimes he appeared briefly, as if merely checking on his prisoner. Other times he stayed, and tried to engage John in conversation. Depending on his mood, John would allow himself to be drawn into a dialogue, but steadfastly refused to discuss anything related to wormhole research. All the while he kept wondering how long it would take for Scorpius's patience to wear out, and for the gentle questions to be replaced by harsh interrogation.
This should have caused him to panic, but it did not. In face he realized that he was far calmer than he had any right to be. At first he suspected Scorpius might be drugging him, administering some form of tranquilizer in his food or injecting it through the damn dog collar. But as the days passed, he found a simpler explanation. The hallucinations which had tormented him for so long had finally vanished.
Maybe the visions had been linked to his fear of recapture. Maybe they had simply been the product of accumulated stresses. Whatever the reason, all he knew was that they had ceased the moment he had stepped on board the command carrier.
It was strange, but he felt stronger now, more himself than he had in months. It was not that he was healed, it was too soon for that. But he felt as if he had taken a step back from the edge of the abyss. Perhaps there was still time to reclaim his sanity and purpose.
He had even begun having dreams again. Last night he had dreamed that he was on his first shuttle mission, remembering the excitement and the overwhelming need to prove that he had earned the assignment on his own merits, not simply because he was Jack Crichton's son. When the shuttle returned, his father had been standing with the reception committee on the pad. Mindful of the watching reporters, all he had said was "Good job, son," but the look in his eyes had meant more to John than any IASA mission summary ever could.
In his dream he had seen his father, and reached for him, only to wake up and remember where he was. It did not take a genius to understand why his subconscious had dredged up this memory. There would be no return for John, no reunion with his father and his friends, unless John managed to unlock the secret of the equations hidden within his brain.
Not that he hadn't tried. But life onboard Moya had given him little time to spend on research. Instead most days were filled with the simple necessities of survival, and of evading their enemies. Even when he had free time, Moya was hardly an ideal research base. Her star charts were woefully inadequate, and full of errors. Her information banks had been designed by Peacekeepers. They contained limited technical knowledge, and virtually no science data. Indeed even the theoretical principles behind the Leviathan's ability to starburst seemed to have been considered classified military information, and thus omitted. It had taken him months and the help of Pilot, to figure out the basics of biomechanoid technology, and to learn which pieces could be adapted to work with his module.
On his own he might never find the answers he sought. John paused as his steps brought him over to the technical station, the Peacekeeper equivalent of a computer and information retrieval unit. A part of him wanted to investigate the unit, to find out what was stored within. Scorpius had been researching wormholes for years, and would have access to the best technical information and theoretical knowledge that the Peacekeepers owned. If he permitted John to view only a fraction of that knowledge, it would still be more information than he could hope to find anywhere else. It was a priceless treasure.
Yet even as he yearned to explore, he held back, knowing that this was exactly what Scorpius wanted. Scorpius was counting on John's natural curiosity, and his hunger to learn more about wormholes. He would not give anything away for free. Any information he let John have was given with the expectation that he would be able to reclaim full value later, by taking from John whatever he could discover about wormhole technology.
It was a precarious position. Sooner or later, John would have to make a choice. He could choose to cooperate, to play along for now, taking what information he could, and hoping that he could find a way to escape before he gave Scorpius the knowledge that would make the Peacekeepers an unstoppable force. Or he could wait until Scorpius decided to change the rules of the game, and found a way to coerce him.
Was refusing to look at the data his only way to resist? Or was John throwing away his one chance to get the information he needed to go home? Which choice was the right one? If only he could talk to someone he trusted. Aeryn. D'Argo. Dad. Someone who could help him negotiate this minefield, and to steer clear of Scorpius's traps.
Was there any way to turn the tables on Scorpius? If John pretended to cooperate, was it possible that Scorpius would lower his guard and provide the opportunity that John needed to escape?
As long as he stayed in these quarters, there was no chance of escape. John had found that out for himself, on the second day. He had opened the door, and had taken barely one step into the corridor, before he felt a cold jab in his neck. He remembered the startled face of the Peacekeeper sentry, and the sensation of falling, and then nothing else until he woke up, to find himself lying in bed, back in his quarters.
He needed to get out of these quarters. Five days of searching had convinced him that there was nothing here that he could use as a weapon, or a means of escape. Outside these walls was the resources of a command carrier. It was too much to hope for that he would have allies, but there would be weapons, ships, and perhaps a chance to escape.
It would be a dangerous game. He would have to convince Scorpius he was cooperating, and to do that he would have to give him at least some knowledge, for Scorpius was too intelligent to be deceived by lies or the techno-babble that Crichton had used on others. It would be a delicate balance, enough information to be convincing, but not enough to ensure that Scorpius could unravel the secrets of wormhole technology. And the game could only be played for so long. Sooner or later, he would have to find a way off the ship, or he would have to end his own life, rather than yield what he knew to his enemy.
"You can do this, John," he said. He had to. There were no other choices.
John sat down in the chair in front of the technical station. His passed his right hand over the clear surface, and a glowing list of symbols appeared. The first entry caught his eye. Star charts. He pressed the symbol and a three dimensional holographic map sprang to life.
Scorpius smiled. Crichton had taken the bait, as he had expected. He had known that the human would be unable to resist the lure of the knowledge that he had long sought. It had taken five days for Crichton to give in to his curiosity, but once he had accessed the technical station, he had proven insatiable. He had been searching the star charts for over four arns now, apparently matching the information within to his memories of his travels through the Uncharted Territories. Each command, every notation he entered was echoed on a station on Scorpius's command deck, and recorded for later analysis.
Slowly his search widened, until he was viewing models of this galaxy, and of those nearby. Crichton appeared to be searching for a particular type of galaxy, for he discarded one image after another. He lingered for a few moments on the sketchy image of a flattened spiral galaxy, and then continued his search. But the momentary pause was a clue, and when he twice came back to that image, Scorpius knew that it had special significance to the human. In all probability this was his home galaxy.
From his station, Scorpius called up the information on that galaxy. There was scant information, merely references taken from a race that had inherited data from the beings known as the Ancients. Far too distant for the Peacekeepers, or any of their allies or enemies to explore, the galaxy had been simply a scientific curiosity. Until now.
If Crichton really was from that distant part of the universe, it meant that the wormhole had carried him farther than even Scorpius had believed possible. It was a testament to the power of wormholes, and a confirmation that Scorpius had been right to place such a high value on his captive scientist.
It was time to reward Crichton, and to give him a new reason for cooperation.
John heard the familiar click, and looked up from the console as the door opened, and Scorpius appeared.
Scorpius was smiling. No doubt his watchers had informed him the moment John had become accessing the data within the technical station. He must be pleased that John was finally beginning to cooperate.
John had tried to disguise the true goal of his queries, but he did not know how successful he had been. He had not been able to resist going back to look at that spiral galaxy a second and then a third time, wondering if it was indeed the Milky Way.
As Scorpius came nearer, John felt himself tense, and the familiar undercurrent of fear that the sight of Scorpius always brought with it. No matter how gentle his treatment had been in these last days, a part of him still remembered the horrors of the Gammak base, and that Scorpius had been the author of that suffering.
"I have an item you lost," Scorpius said. "Something you may find of value."
Scorpius pulled a small object out of his belt pouch and tossed it to him.
John reached up and caught it automatically. Lowering his hand, he opened his fist, and saw a microcassette tape.
One of his microcassette tapes, with the IASA logo and his own handwriting on the label.
"Where did you get this?" His chest felt tight. All of his tapes were on Moya. Had Scorpius gone back on his word? Had Moya and his friends been captured after all?
"The tape has the experimental data from the Dam-Ba-Da depot. Once I knew it was there, I took steps to retrieve it."
John turned the tape over in his hands. He had never thought to see this data again. Dam-Ba-Da had the unique distinction of having a predictable solar flare cycle. During the solar flares, John had used the Farscape module to try and recreate the conditions that had led to the wormhole formation on Earth. He had come close. Very close, but the proto-wormhole was unstable, and John had been forced to land on the planet and seek repairs for the Farscape module. In return for the repairs he had been forced to bargain away the information he had gained during his test.
It was another reminder that Scorpius knew all too much about him, and about his experiences. John did not remember Scorpius questioning him about his time at the Dam-Ba-Da depot, but clearly this must have been part of the memories captured by the Aurora Chair. Indeed much of his sessions in the chair were hazy, simply blurred impressions of pain, confusion, and the desperate struggle to keep his mind focused on not betraying his friends.
"I have already done my own analysis on that data, and placed the results within the technical station. I would be interested to know if you concur with my conclusions," Scorpius added.
The test readings were valuable. In less than four cycles the solar flare cycle would repeat itself, and the mechanic Furlow would have the opportunity to use the data contained on the tape to try and create her own wormhole. She had not struck John as the type of person who would bargain away such a valuable asset.
"What happened to Furlow?" John asked.
"She is no concern of yours."
"You killed her, right?" It was the obvious answer, but he wanted to force Scorpius to admit it.
"Although she recognized the value of the data you had collected, she lacked the ability to provide new insights into the research. Once it was determined she had no further use, she was terminated as a security risk."
The casual words struck a chill within him. It was another reminder that Scorpius could be utterly ruthless in pursuing his goals. Indeed John himself was kept alive only because it served Scorpius's plans. Like Furlow, the moment Scorpius had no further use for him, John would be killed.
Gilina had been killed because she had tried to help him. Furlow had been killed simply because she had known him, and had bargained for the solar flare data. How many other deaths was he responsible for, either directly or indirectly?
John bowed his head. Death had followed him since the moment of his arrival. True Tauvo Crais's death had been an accident. But it had not taken long before John had learned what it was to kill, to deliberately take another intelligent being's life. At times he had done so almost casually, without thought. It was no wonder that these days when he looked inside himself, he did not recognize the man he had become.
"Will you answer a question for me?" he asked, slowly raising his head.
"How many Peacekeepers did I kill when I destroyed the Gammak base?"
Scorpius's face was carefully bland, and John knew his question had surprised him.
"Dozens? Hundreds?" John asked.
"I had anticipated that you might find a way to attack the base, and so I ordered an evacuation," Scorpius said slowly. "Over half the base's complement escaped, and brought with them vital memory cores. Still your attack did great damage. Months of valuable research data was lost, along with several hundred of the staff."
The dead personnel were mentioned almost as an afterthought. It was clear that Scorpius's concerns were for the missing data.
John closed his eyes, and swallowed hard. Several hundred. That made him a mass murderer. There was no comfort in knowing that others had helped create the plan, and to carry it out. In the end, it had been John's choice to set off the chain reaction explosion. The responsibility for what happened was his, and he could not escape his guilt.
"I didn't think. I hated the place, and what had been done to me. I needed to strike back, and to destroy it," he said, wondering why he felt compelled to explain. "It wasn't till later...."
His voice trailed off. It wasn't until much later that the full horror of what he had done sank home. Perhaps he could have rationalized killing Scorpius, and Niem, and the guards who had mistreated him and Stark. But there had been others on the base. People not so different from Gilina Renaez and Aeryn Sun. Good people, trapped by the Peacekeeper culture and a system that required them to be so much less than they could be. People who did not deserve to die at his hands.
His distress must have been visible on his face.
"John, these were not your friends. They were your enemies. It was an act of--"
"Stop," John said sharply, opening his eyes and shaking his head. "I don't want to hear it. It is over. Done with. Nothing you say can make what I did right."
His goal had been worthy, attacking the base to provide a diversion, which would allow Moya and his friends to escape. And yet in the name of that goal he had committed murder on a grand scale, an act that would have once been unthinkable. How much had he changed in these two cycles? How long could he keep telling himself that the end justified the means?
How different was he now, truly, from Scorpius? Would there come a time when he, too, would see murder as simply a logical solution to a difficult problem? Were there still acts that he would not commit? Was there anything he would not do, in order to return home?
He had left Earth as a scientist. An explorer. Now he feared he would return as a cold-blooded killer.
It had been a mistake to tell Crichton about the destruction of the Gammak base. Scorpius should have refused to answer the question, or simply revealed that there had been an evacuation. But he had misread the human, thinking that Crichton's question was an attempt to confirm that his efforts had been successful. So he had given Crichton the truth, only to realize his mistake from the human's reaction.
He had known Crichton grieved over the deaths of his friends. He had not realized that Crichton would also grieve over the deaths of those who had been his enemies.
Crichton's mood had turned dark, and for the rest of that day he had not spoken a single word. Nor had he even glanced at the test results from Dam-Ba-Da. Instead he had retreated back into the depression that had gripped him when he first came aboard.
The next day Crichton's mental condition was no better. When he saw Scorpius he was all too willing to talk, a steady stream of verbal insults and threats meant to provoke Scorpius into taking action against him. Consciously or not, Crichton was courting his own destruction.
The human was fortunate that Scorpius was too intelligent to let himself be provoked. Instead he relied on his patience, and increased the dosage of the tranquilizers.
It was tempting to think of reactivating the neuro-chip, to get a glimpse inside Crichton's mind. And to use the chip to erase those memories which were proving harmful. But Scorpius could not take that risk. The neuro-chip had already done enough damage. And while the chip had been successful at erasing short term memory, it was far more difficult to erase long term memories that had already been assimilated. Tampering with that part of Crichton's mind might inadvertently destroy the wormhole knowledge that the aliens had implanted.
For several days the situation continued as a stalemate, until Crichton himself broke the impasse by sending a message that he wanted to speak with Scorpius.
As he made his way to the human's quarters, he wondered at the meaning of the summons. Was this simply Crichton's latest attempt to provoke him?.
Crichton had clearly been expecting him, for he sat facing the door, and he rose to his feet as Scorpius entered the room.
"You've gotta stop this," Crichton said.
Crichton raised his hand and rubbed his skull vigorously. "This. The drugs or whatever you're doing to me. Makes my brain feel all... fuzzy."
It was true that the tranquilizers tended to depress neural functions. Fuzzy was hardly a scientific term, but accurate enough.
"John, the drugs are meant to help you. You yourself said that your mind was confused and unstable," Scorpius said.
Crichton nodded. "I know. But it's not going to get better. Not like this. Not when I can't think straight."
He hesitated. He had planned to cut back on the tranquilizers gradually, as Crichton's mental condition stabilized. But perhaps there was a point to Crichton's argument. His mind might be able to heal itself, given time.
"Do this, and I'll look at the damn test data for you," Crichton offered.
"And why would you do that?" Why now, after carefully avoiding the data for the past weeken? What had inspired this offer of cooperation?
"You've already seen it. I won't be telling you anything new," Crichton said. "I was the one who got it. I might as well see it for myself."
A logical enough answer, and proof that however fuzzy he claimed his thoughts were, Crichton was still capable of reasoning.
"Very well. We will try things your way. For now," Scorpius said. If Crichton upheld his end of the bargain, then he would uphold his.
"Thanks," Crichton said, then bit his lip as if he wished he could take back what he had said.
Two days later, Crichton surprised him by announcing that he had finished his analysis of the data from the Dam-Ba-Da experiment. He was not surprised by the speed, after all the analysis had not been particularly complex. But he had expected that the human would try to delay as long as possible before fulfilling his end of their bargain.
Instead Crichton appeared eager, almost anxious to talk.
"Tell me something first," Crichton said. "Why wormholes? Why not try something you already have, like duplicating the starburst drive?"
"John, if this is an attempt to delay---"
"There's no rush. We both know the analysis you put in that tech station was a bucket of dren. So there's no reason not to answer my question."
Scorpius took a seat opposite Crichton, noticing with interest that despite his closeness, for once Crichton showed no sign of the fear that he had shown before in his presence. Even the human's thought patterns were clearer than they had been, more focused. It was as if he had found a way to anchor himself.
And perhaps he had.
"It takes living energy to generate a starburst field, something the race known as the Builders must have known when they designed the biomechanoid Leviathans," Scorpius explained.
"Weird. So you took their word for that? No attempts to figure out your own starburst drive?"
Since the discovery of the Leviathans, Peacekeeper scientists had searched for a way to replicate the starburst drive artificially, so far with no success. The research was at a dead end.
"There have been attempts to integrate the starburst capabilities into a Peacekeeper vessel, something you yourself have seen."
"Talyn. Right. Well that's one experiment with a mind of his own," Crichton said. "Still, why wormholes? Have you seen them before? Other visitors like me popping up all over Peacekeeper space?"
"No, you are the only wormhole traveler that we have encountered. But we have known of the possibility for some time. The fragmented data that we have from the Ancients tells us that they used wormhole technology, although little is known about how they created them."
It had taken Scorpius nearly five cycles of research to create a miniature proto-wormhole in the Gammak base laboratory. Crichton had managed to create wormholes twice within a mere cycle. The first had been by accident, but the proto-wormhole at Dam-Ba-Da had been a deliberate creation. And all done without any of the resources which Scorpius had at his disposal, and without the knowledge that the Ancients would later implant in his mind.
"So all your scientists are off chasing something they think exists, but they don't know how to get there. Ain't it a bitch when that happens? It's kind of like Fermat's enigma."
"Fermat's enigma. It's a famous logic problem, back home." Crichton leaned forward, and began gesturing with his hands. "There was this mathematician named Fermat. He wrote that he had found an elegant proof to a theorem that no one had been able to prove before. Only he didn't have enough paper to record it. The guy's been dead over three hundred years, and still mathematicians are knocking themselves out, trying to find the proof that Fermat supposedly had. One bright guy managed to prove the theorem, but his answer was extremely complicated and relied on esoteric set theories. It couldn't be the same proof that Fermat found, so the rest of them keep on trying."
Crichton leaned back and smiled, his eyes focused on a distant memory. "Even DK got sucked into that for a while, until I convinced him to come back to the fold and work on the Farscape thesis."
"You never felt tempted to solve this yourself?"
"Why? The theorem was Fermat's. I had my own dreams, and my own theories to prove."
Scorpius tried to imagine this world of Crichton's, a place where scientists pursued research simply because it intrigued them. It was a concept unthinkable in the Peacekeepers' domains, where technology was valued solely for its military applications. Perhaps this was the key to Crichton's unique approach. A system that valued discovery for its own sake would produce a very different type of scientist.
"And the data from Dam-Ba-Da?" he prompted.
"You'll have to do better than that if you want to test me," Crichton replied. "The analysis was dren. A different entry vector or faster approach would have changed nothing. The readings confirmed what I'd suspected, that the proto-wormhole was inherently unstable. It broke up before it was truly formed."
That agreed with his own conclusions. Like the miniature wormholes he had created in his lab, the proto-wormhole on Dam-Ba-Da had been an incomplete formation. A sign that the research was on the right track, but that they still lacked some crucial understanding of the phenomenon.
"And the solution to making it stable?"
"Don't know yet," Crichton said. "But give me time, and I'll figure it out."
It was not quite a promise.
On Moya the celebration had been going on for several arns when Pa'u Zhaan rose from her seat. "I will leave you now," she said.
D'Argo nodded, sparing her merely a glance before returning his attention to Jothee, his newly rediscovered son. At the far end of the table, Rygel and Chiana paid her no heed as they continued an elaborate drinking game.
Aeryn had left some time before, claiming that there was maintenance that needed to be done on Moya. It had been an obvious lie, but with uncommon tact the others had pretended to accept her excuse at face value.
Like Aeryn, Zhaan's own feelings were mixed, her joy at Jothee's rescue tempered by regrets over the two friends who should have been here to share in the celebration. Stark, who had given his life to save them, and whose information had led D'Argo to his son. And Crichton, whose mysterious defection still puzzled and haunted the crew.
As time had passed, they had come to accept the fact that Crichton was no longer with them. It had been awkward the first time someone had impatiently commed Crichton to fix a technical problem, only to remember that he was gone. Quietly the watch schedule was rearranged to fill the gaps caused by his absence, and she no longer looked at his empty place in the common room wondering what was delaying him.
Rygel had made a halfhearted attempt to take control of Crichton's possessions, but he quickly backed down when confronted by D'Argo.
It would be easier for the crew to accept, if they knew something of Crichton's fate. Was he still alive, a prisoner, being tortured by Scorpius? Or had he already been killed, his spirit set free from this plane?
Aeryn still carried deep anger, and refused to accept what had happened. She needed a reason, someone or something to blame. She had gone through Crichton's possessions, looking for any clues to his behavior. She had even listened to all of the sound recordings he had made in his time on Moya, though she had shared the contents of only the final tape with Zhaan.
That tape had been chilling. Crichton had begun by confiding his concern over his sanity, and then drifted into a strange one-sided argument, apparently with something he thought was Scorpius. Irritably he had ordered Scorpius to leave him alone, to get out of his head. There had been another pause, and then the phrase "I must remember to tell Zhaan..."
His voice had trailed off, leaving them with no idea as to what he had meant to tell her. The recording was silent for several hundred microts, and then Crichton was heard remarking "Wonder why this is on?" and then a click that signified he had turned off the device.
The tape was evidence of Crichton's confusion, and the strange visions he had mentioned to Aeryn. But it provided no explanations, just more questions. The real wonder was that he had been able to keep up the pretense of normalcy for so long.
Zhaan entered her quarters, and then pressed the wall plate that shut the door behind her, signifying her desire for privacy. From a small cabinet she took out her meditation mat and incense sticks. Laying the mat on the floor, she slipped off her robe and then lowered herself gracefully to sit cross-legged on the mat.
She lit the incense sticks, and began the ritual hand gestures as she invoked the powers of the Goddess. Holding her palms upward to signify her openness to spiritual guidance, she cleared her mind of everyday concerns, and began the meditation chant.
Deeper she sank into the trance, until she reached the plane where the physical realm and the spiritual realm coexisted in harmony. As she opened her mind for guidance, she saw a familiar being.
"Stark," she whispered.
It was Stark, not as he had appeared in the physical realm, but rather the glowing being of light and compassion that she had seen when she linked with him in Unity. A spirit memory, brought on by her earlier musings.
"Pa'u Zhaan. It is good to touch your spirit again," Stark said. His spirit voice was even stronger than it had been before, as if the darkness which had once been part of him had been banished forever.
"I have thought of you often," Zhaan said.
"And I of you. I would have come to you sooner, but it took me time to make the transition from my corporeal state to the energy form that I now inhabit."
"Yes, the Plokavians were only able to destroy my body. As I had hoped, my spirit form remained intact."
Joy lightened her heart as she realized that this was indeed Stark, and not merely an echo of his spirit drawn from her memories. "I can not tell you how happy this news makes me. For a long time I have grieved, thinking you lost forever."
"I know. That is one of the reasons why I came to you," Stark replied.
"And the other reason?"
Crichton and Stark had shared a bond born of their mutual imprisonment on the Gammak base. Stark had done his best to try and heal Crichton after his experiences, but he had confided to her that he was not certain that he had succeeded. They had agreed that they could do nothing else unless Crichton asked for their help. At the time it had seemed a wise decision. Only now, in hindsight, could she see how wrong they had been.
"Crichton is not here. Several weekens ago he left Moya and surrendered himself to Scorpius," Zhaan explained.
A whisper of sorrow drifted like gray mist across the spirit realm.
"That I know as well," Stark said. "I have seen him, although unlike you he can not sense my presence."
"Crichton is alive? Is he unharmed?"
"Physically he is unharmed, although even now Scorpius molds him to do his bidding. I watched and observed, and discovered that Crichton has unwittingly been under Scorpius's control since the time of his imprisonment. There is a device implanted deep within his mind, that allowed Scorpius to control his thoughts and actions."
"Goddess defend," Zhaan whispered. Such a thing was an abomination.
"An abomination indeed," Stark said, sharing her thoughts.
"Can you help him?"
"I will wait, and see. There is a possibility. If the time comes, I may need you to help me, at once and without question. Can you do that?"
"Of course," Zhaan said. "Just ask and it will be done."
"You are gracious and kind," Stark said. His spirit image raised his hands until the palms were extended towards hers. She reached out with her own hands, and pressed her palms against his, feeling the joyous glow of contentment that came from sharing unity with a kindred soul. Then the image faded, and he was gone.
As Zhaan returned to the present, she was faced with a new dilemma. Should she share what she had learned with the others? She could not reveal the truth of what had happened to Crichton unless she revealed her source. And that would mean also telling them that Crichton was still alive, and still very much in danger.
What kindness would there be in sharing such knowledge with those who already grieved for him? Instead she would keep her own counsel, until she knew if there was indeed anything that she or the rest of Moya's crew could do to help their lost shipmate.
"No, all this is new. See?" Crichton gestured towards the port wing of the Farscape module. "This is where the thruster rockets were. I took them out so I could install the cooling fins for the hetch drive."
Crichton ran his hand along the wing, and then raised himself up and peered into the cockpit. Everything looked exactly the way he had left it. Which meant that either Scorpius had left the module undisturbed, or his techs were very, very good at taking things apart and putting them back together again. If he had to bet, he would bet on the techs.
"The thruster rockets were chemical based?"
"Yup. And the engines, although they were more sophisticated, and used a different formula for the fuel mix."
Designing engines that could provide enough thrust for the Farscape experiment had been an incredible feat of engineering that had taken two years, and untold hours of his and DK's lives. Ripping those engines out had been like ripping out a piece of himself, but there had been no sense in keeping them. There was no fuel for the old engines, and the new hetch drive had made the module exponentially faster.
"The chemical fuel you described is inefficient and mass intensive. How could such a small craft carry enough fuel for the journey?" Scorpius asked.
Crichton ducked under the nose of the module, and then stood up on the other side. "You saw my memories. This girl didn't have to break orbit on her own. We hitched a lift on the shuttle, which was strapped to chemical booster rockets that brought us up out of the gravity well. Shuttle casts off the rockets, powers its own way up the final stage into orbit. Then they open the cargo bay and launch us on our way. Simple."
"And the experiment?"
"All I needed the engines for was a few minutes of high-velocity acceleration. After that, they would automatically shut down. If all goes as expected, I report the results, burn engines to align me for reentry, and then let gravity bring me home."
If something unexpected happened, the plan had been that he would try to achieve a stable Earth orbit and wait for the shuttle to rescue him.
"A gravity drive?"
Crichton laughed. "No, you're over-thinking this. Just gravity, plain and simple. Farscape falls like a rock, until we reach the upper atmosphere. Then she becomes a glider, and I try to land her in one piece."
Scorpius eyes widened in disbelief. "An appallingly low-tech solution," he said.
"Hey, it's state of the art where I come from. Or it was when I designed her. Maybe they've thought of something new since then."
Crichton had often wondered what had happened to the Farscape project, after his disappearance. Had his loss killed the project? Or had DK and the team been able to convince IASA to try again, with the prototype Farscape II that had been in development?
"It still amazes me that you managed to come so far in such a craft," Scorpius said.
"Some days I amaze myself," Crichton replied. "It takes real guts to be an IASA astronaut. Not like your Peacekeeper pilots. Every IASA craft is an experiment, where a million things can go wrong, and you don't get second chances."
Farscape had been just such an experiment. Dangerous, but no more so than a moon landing, or the first orbital mission for that matter. They had planned for every contingency the IASA team could think of, and then had gone back and thought of some more. The list was endless. Engine failures. Control systems failures. The unlikely chance of impact with space debris or micro-meteorites. The very real possibility that the Farscape effect might send him into an uncontrolled atmospheric entry, or propel him away from Earth at such high velocity that his braking systems would be unable to slow the craft in time, while he still had enough fuel to return back to the Earth.
There had been no contingency plans for a wormhole.
"I should say a deficient sense of self-preservation was a more important requirement for your astronauts, as you call them," Scorpius countered.
"Maybe. But I've made it this far, haven't I? Guess humans are just stubborn that way."
"Stubbornness does seem to be a species characteristic," Scorpius agreed.
Crichton bent down, and checked the external monitor on the hetch drive, confirming that there was indeed no fuel and only marginal battery power in the module. A prudent safety precaution, not that there was any real risk that he could try and steal the module and use it to make an escape.
He continued to inspect the module, planning in his head the modifications he would make if he ever had the chance. Better radiation shielding for a start, and the efficiency of the hetch drive could be improved by a factor of at least twenty percent, if he replaced the jury-rigged drive controller with a standard unit. And the control systems could use some tuning....
He could have stayed there for hours, but that wasn't the bargain he had made.
"It is time," Scorpius said, at last.
Crichton nodded. "Okay. Tell your techs not to mess with her. I'll be back," he promised the module.
He gave one backward glance, and then followed Scorpius from the maintenance bay.
The chance to see the Farscape module had been a reward from Scorpius. A gift, because the human was finally behaving as he was expected to.
With nothing to bargain with except himself, Crichton had slowly been forced to see the value of cooperation.
Cooperation meant an end to the mind-numbing drugs. A chance to leave the tedium of his quarters. First he had been permitted to visit the officer's physical conditioning area, where each day he tried to work off some of his frustrations through exercise.
Today, in return for agreeing to explain everything about the Farscape module, Crichton had been allowed to see his craft, for an arn.
He did not know if Scorpius was genuinely interested in the craft, as he claimed, thinking that there was something unique in its design that might explain its interaction with wormholes. Or if Scorpius was simply using this as another way to pry as much information out of him as possible.
Not that he put up much resistance. Indeed the Farscape module was still a source of pride to him. He could talk about it for hours, and unlike his friends on Moya, Scorpius's eyes did not glaze over with bored incomprehension as Crichton explained the engineering design choices that he had made.
In a way it had been easier when he had been a prisoner on the Gammak base. Simpler. There Scorpius had been the enemy, and he the victim. Now he didn't know what to think. As the days passed, he found it hard to maintain the white-hot edge of his anger that had sustained him before. For this time, Scorpius did not threaten him, nor harm him. Instead he offered Crichton the knowledge that he craved, and a chance to develop the theories that would lead him back home.
It was an almost unbearable temptation.
If only he wasn't alone. At Gammak base there had been Stark to share his imprisonment, and his friends to help him escape. Here there was no one to help him, no one to talk to. No one, except Scorpius.
From the beginning, Scorpius had kept him carefully isolated. Except for the sentry that he had glimpsed for a few seconds during his first escape attempt, Crichton had seen no one except Scorpius. Even as they walked the corridors of the command carrier, there was no one to be seen. It was as if he and Scorpius were the only two beings that existed.
He knew that Scorpius was playing mind games with him, but the mere knowledge was not enough to help him avoid them.
His first escape attempt had gotten him all of two meters. His next attempt had been over before it had begun. Crichton had wracked his brain, trying to think of a way out, with no success. Scorpius had all the advantages. Resources to monitor Crichton around the clock, and the damn collar which let his captors knock him unconscious the moment he showed signs of deviating from their rules.
The surroundings were vastly improved, but it was the high security Gammak base all over again. Only this time there was no friendly tech to provide a diversion, or former Peacekeeper commando to stage a raid and save him.
This time he was all alone.
As Scorpius strode into the command center, the technicians and duty officers straightened to rigid attention. A well-disciplined crew under Captain Crais, they had learned even greater discipline and efficiency under their new commander. Each person aboard this vessel understood that there was no room for failure or error.
Lieutenant Braca approached. "Sir, everything is proceeding as you ordered. We will reach the supply base in seven point four arn, and they have confirmed that they have the materials you requested."
After retrieving Crichton, Scorpius had ordered that the command carrier leave the Uncharted Territories, and return to Peacekeeper controlled space. There was no reason to risk his prize. Now, after weekens of travel, they were approaching the supply base that marked the edge of the Peacekeepers' domains.
"And the prisoner?"
"The techs have completed their analysis of his research in the last day. The report is in the system, sealed under your personal code."
"Good," Scorpius said. "Dismissed."
Scorpius sat in the command chair, and as his fingers brushed the console plate, the technicians' analysis was displayed. There were no dramatic revelations, but overall he was pleased with what he saw. The delicate task of molding Crichton without breaking him was proceeded as he had planned.
Under his care, Crichton was slowly rebuilding himself. Not yet healed, but no longer in immediate danger of slipping into madness. After his initial resistance, Crichton had immersed himself in the technical data provided as if it were a lifeline, and indeed perhaps it was. Once started, he was unstoppable. Reference databases, test results, theoretical models, he devoured them all with insatiable curiosity. At times he forgot to eat, or sleep.
As he began assimilating the knowledge, he had endless questions. Crichton was quite good at spotting the gaps in the information that had been provided, and in arguing for more.
Crichton's training had given him a conceptual model of the universe that was subtly different from the way that Sebacean science explained quantum phenomena. Ideas that were mere speculation on Crichton's homeworld were proven facts here. That was not to say Crichton's training was a liability. On the contrary, the Farscape effect he had theorized was something that Peacekeeper scientists had never known, or had long since forgotten.
And although Crichton was not yet willing to discuss his theories, careful analysis of his research queries indicated he was approaching the wormhole problem from a very different angle, starting with the magnetic shear effect caused by solar flares. How much of his focus was Crichton's own inspiration, and how much was due to the guidance the Ancients had implanted within him was an interesting question to ponder.
A low-pitched chime sounded, and Scorpius toggled on the comm link.
"Sir, the prisoner's behavior is becoming increasingly erratic," reported Ensign Kelvar, one of those assigned to monitor Crichton. "Do you wish us to sedate him?"
Scorpius touched another button, and the surveillance images of Crichton sprang to life on the screen before him. For once Crichton was not at the technical station, instead he was pacing around the room. As he reached the far wall, he paused to slam his fist against it.
Scorpius frowned. It had been weekens since something had last triggered one of these fits of self-destructive anger. He had hoped that Crichton had moved beyond this stage, but clearly he had been wrong.
"Do nothing," he ordered the ensign. "I will see to this myself."
When he reached Crichton's quarters, he found the human had stopped the pacing, but was now continuing to slam his right fist into the wall with monotonous regularity. His knuckles were bleeding. Flecks of red blood decorated the wall, the tech station, the door, and other objects that had been the recipients of Crichton's wrath. Fortunately there was nothing in these quarters that was breakable... except Crichton himself.
Crichton saw him enter, but did not acknowledge him.
"You will cease this behavior," Scorpius said.
Crichton ignored him.
As he drew back his fist for another strike, Scorpius seized his arm. "John, control yourself, or I will do it for you."
Crichton's gaze met his, daring him to carry out his threat. Then, after a long moment, he nodded almost imperceptibly, and shook off Scorpius's hold. He let his arm fall down by his side, seemingly oblivious to the blood that began to drip slowly onto the floor.
"You have injured yourself," Scorpius said.
Crichton backed away. He lifted his hand, and wriggled the fingers. "I'm fine," he said. "See? Nothing broken."
The injuries were superficial. It was the reason for them that he needed to understand. "You should be more careful," Scorpius said.
"Why? I thought you would like this. Seeing someone in pain. Isn't that your style?" Crichton challenged.
Now Crichton was trying to provoke him, another reversion to his earlier behavior. It made no sense. The surveillance report had indicated nothing at all unusual in the last day. So what had caused this?
Scorpius sat down by the tech station, careful to keep his body language non-threatening. "John, what is wrong?"
Crichton shook his head.
"You need to tell someone. And there is no one else," Scorpius said.
Crichton's need to form emotional bonds with others was his greatest weakness. When it came to making a choice, he almost always chose emotional values over logic. Consider the Peacekeeper Technician Gilina Renaez. Crichton had known her for only a few days, yet when in the Aurora Chair on the Gammak base, he had endured agonies to protect her.
It was a weakness that would never have been tolerated in the Peacekeepers' ranks. Indeed, they would never have entrusted a sensitive project such as Farscape to one who displayed such a character flaw. And yet this failing was the key to understanding what drove Crichton, and how to control him.
Scorpius intended to exploit this weakness. It was why he had been so careful to isolate Crichton, ensuring that he had no one else with whom to form a connection.
Crichton sat down on the edge of the sleeping platform, cradling his injured right hand in his left. "Today it has been one point nine six cycles since my arrival," he said.
"I do not understand."
"One point nine six cycles. That's two Earth years," Crichton said. "Two years ago today, that I disappeared."
Scorpius waited patiently, letting the silence draw out between them, until Crichton spoke again.
"They've probably got the flags at IASA at half-mast. There'll be a minute of silence at the moment of the test. The tourists will wonder what's going on, and the tour guides will remind them of the mission." Crichton took a deep breath. "And some human interest reporter will hunt down my Dad, and ask him if he's reconciled himself to what happened. Ask him if he still supports the space program, and whether it was worth the life of his only son."
Crichton's voice cracked as he mentioned his father, and there were unshed tears in his eyes.
"You miss your homeworld," Scorpius said, trying to draw him out.
"I miss it all. Dad. DK. My sisters. Gods, I can't imagine what they went through. Are going through. And I want to see them. To know what's happening. To know that they are okay, and to let them know that I am alright."
Even when he spoke of his homeworld, it was interesting that he thought of it in terms of the people he had left behind.
"John, you know what you need to do. I can help you, but ultimately it is up to you."
Crichton rubbed his eyes with the heel of his left hand, scrubbing away the tears that he refused to shed.
"Right," he said, with a bitter laugh. "All I have to do is give you the answer to wormhole technology. And coincidentally, give the Peacekeepers a map to my homeworld, and the means to reach there."
"You overestimate the importance of a backwater low-tech planet," Scorpius countered. "True power lies here, in the civilizations of this galaxy."
Indeed, even with the advantages of wormhole technology, it would take time for the Peacekeepers to consolidate their grip on this galaxy, and bring first the Scarrans and Nebari, and then the Uncharted Territories under their rule. It would be many cycles before the Peacekeepers were free to turn their attentions elsewhere.
"So you are saying I should trust you?"
"Whether you trust me or not is irrelevant. You will never return to your home unless you find a way to create another wormhole," Scorpius said. "The question is, how badly do you want to go home?"
When had unwilling cooperation become active collaboration? Crichton did not know. He could not remember making a conscious decision, yet at some point he had crossed the line.
Had it been the first time he had answered Scorpius's questions about his research? The moment when he had agreed to look at the technical data? Or had it been even before, from the first instant he had accepted Scorpius's ultimatum, and surrendered himself?
It did not really matter. He had chosen this path, and he would continue to follow it. He had thrown himself into the research, finding in the unwavering pursuit of knowledge the focus he needed to preserve his sanity, and his sense of self.
Scorpius had been right about one thing. Until Crichton unlocked the riddle of wormhole travel, he had no hope of returning home. He had to have faith in himself, and in his own abilities. He could solve this riddle, if he persevered. And then somehow he would find an opportunity to free himself, and to make his way home.
Scorpius had promised that he would release him, once he had no further use for him. But Crichton knew better than to trust such a promise. His value would only increase once he had solved the wormhole equations. Scorpius would not let his prisoner go free, lest he choose to share his knowledge with others.
And he had gained more knowledge than perhaps even Scorpius had expected. It had taken him days, but he had crafted a program that searched the records of the distant spiral galaxy. Over a thousand stars had met the parameters he had specified, and he had forced himself to dispassionately examine each record in turn, as the program showed approximate distance, directional vectors, and the locations and classes of the nearest neighboring stars.
Record six hundred and thirty-five had been the solar system. His solar system. Earth. He finally knew where home was. Now all he had to do was figure out how to get there.
"The command carrier has arrived in the Hecbal system," Scorpius announced, as he entered Crichton's quarters. "Is the test plan finished?"
"Almost," Crichton said absentmindedly, his attention focused on the screen before him.
"Why the delay?" They had already agreed to the basics of the experiment days ago, when they had selected this system for the trials. All that was missing was for Crichton to supply the final equations that would determine the vectors used for the test flight.
Equations that held the key to the experiment.
Crichton swiveled around in his chair, affecting a deliberately casual pose. "Because I won't finish it until you agree to let me fly the test."
"That is out of the question," Scorpius answered automatically.
"I should think the answer would be obvious." Was Crichton being purposefully obtuse?
"What is the problem? The module isn't fast enough to outrun your ships, and anyway, where could I run to?"
"And if you are successful in creating a wormhole?"
"Isn't that the point? Say I manage to create a wormhole. Even if the module does go through it, you'll still have what you want. You'll know exactly how I did it, and how to recreate the phenomenon. If not, test is over, you bring me back on board, and nothing has changed."
"Do you think the test will be successful?" Was this the reason that Crichton had withheld the final equations? A last chance to bargain, before he gave Scorpius the answers they both sought?
"No," Crichton said, shaking his head. "The simulation models look good, but I think we're still missing something. That's why I want to be there firsthand, to see for myself what we've got."
He had thought this a ploy, the latest attempt by Crichton to win his freedom, but his truth sense told him Crichton did not expect the test to succeed. And yet still the human bargained for this opportunity.
He realized that a part of Crichton still needed to believe that he was a pilot and explorer. He was not yet ready to accept that his life, indeed everything that made him who he was, was now under Scorpius's control. It was the same part of Crichton that cherished the illusion that he might someday break free and return to his homeworld.
Scorpius could afford to indulge his illusions, for they played right into his hands. Crichton's foolish hopes fueled his passionate drive to unlock the secret of wormhole technology, for this was his only way home.
He would allow Crichton to fly the test in the module. Let him think that he had gained a small victory, never realizing that Scorpius had already defeated him in every way that mattered.
"Okay, I'm in position," Crichton's voice announced over the communicator. "Ready to initiate test sequence on your mark."
Scorpius turned his gaze to the woman who stood by his side at the main console.
The technician nodded. "Sir, all stations report readiness," Chief Technician Finivar said. "Sensor platforms are in place, and the observation craft have taken up their positions."
"We have full tracking telemetry on the module?" Scorpius asked.
"Yes, sir. And the command overrides have been tested and verified," Chief Technician Finivar said, anticipating his next question.
Scorpius looked at the view-screen which was displaying the image of the Hecbal binary system. On the upper right of the screen was the primary sun, an epsilon class yellow-orange star. On the lower left was the second star, an ancient white dwarf.
In between them, a blinking red dot indicated the position of Crichton's module near the barycenter, the point around which the two stars orbited. The plan was to test the wormhole theory by having Crichton fly a carefully calculated flight path towards this gravitationally unique point, so he intersected the point at the same time as the electromagnetic radiation wave.
If wormholes were indeed an electromagnetic phenomenon, as Crichton theorized, the test should yield some interesting results. Perhaps not an actual wormhole, but it would certainly increase their understanding of the magnetic shear effects associated with solar flares.
When Crichton had offered up this plan to test his theory, he had pointed out that uninhabited binary star systems were common, but solar flares were impossible to predict. Still he reasoned that given enough time, probability dictated the likelihood of a solar flare event.
Scorpius had surprised the human by suggesting that there was no need to wait. A solar flare could be artificially induced, using a nova-class bomb. Weapons that he had, in fact, already obtained from the Peacekeeper supply base, anticipating their need.
From there it had taken but a few days to select a suitable system and design the test protocols.
Yesterday had been spent testing the nova-class bombs, calculating the precise speed and impact vector needed to induce a flare in the primary sun. After studying yesterday's test results, this morning Crichton had suggested one minor modification to the trajectory, which Scorpius had reviewed and approved.
An unfortunate side-effect of this experiment was that Crichton now knew enough about the design and capabilities of the nova-class bombs to get them both executed. There was only one penalty for sharing state secrets, and that was death. But it was an acceptable risk, considering the end goal which he pursued.
"You may begin," Scorpius said.
The chief technician began the countdown. "The test begins at the mark, in five, four, three, two, one, execute."
Precisely on signal, the weapons drone launched the nova bomb towards the primary sun.
"Impact in thirty microts," a technician announced.
Scorpius kept his eyes on the screen. As the bomb struck, there was a bright flash, and then the sun began ejecting a stream of bright yellow matter from the corona, just as it had in the previous tests.
Only this time the ejection did not end in mere microts, instead it continued, growing in size, as the faint ribbon of matter became a stream.
"Oh dren," Crichton said, with remarkable calm. "Houston, we've got a problem."
On the command carrier, alarms were beginning to sound.
"Sir, this appears to be an uncontrolled eruption," Chief Technician Finivar said.
"I can see that," Scorpius snapped. The technical displays confirmed what his eyes were telling him. This eruption was already two orders of magnitude larger than in the earlier tests, and it was continuing to grow.
"Crichton, abort and return now," Scorpius instructed, feeling rising concern. How could this have happened?
"Way ahead of you, boss man," came Crichton's flippant reply. "Time to get the hell out of here before we all get fried."
And indeed, Scorpius could see that the module was already changing course, turning on a tight parabolic arc that would bring the module back to the carrier at maximum velocity.
In the distance, the sun continued to erupt.
Scorpius rose from his seat, unable to stay still any longer.
"Prepare for maximum acceleration out of this system, once the module is aboard," Scorpius instructed Lieutenant Braca. A solar flare of this magnitude would destroy the sensor platforms, and might well damage the scientific instruments on the command carrier. Prudence dictated retreat.
"Hold on. Something is happening," Crichton said.
Scorpius looked back at the viewscreen. There, at the barycenter, was a faint shimmer of light. Even as he gazed, it coalesced into a ring shape, and then began to solidify.
"I don't believe it. He's done it. He's actually done it," Lieutenant Braca exclaimed.
They were witnessing the formation of a wormhole.
"Yes," Scorpius said. "But apparently it has missed your attention that our prisoner has changed course and is using this opportunity to try to escape."
Lieutenant Braca swallowed nervously.
"Crichton, return at once," Scorpius commanded.
Crichton made no move to comply. Instead he continued on his new course, turning towards the phenomenon.
"There's something strange---" Crichton began.
Scorpius pressed the switch which controlled Crichton's collar.
"No!" Crichton protested, as the sedative was injected into his bloodstream.
"Retrieve our errant scientist," Scorpius said. "Now."
"Yes, sir," Lieutenant Braca said.
Scorpius crossed back to the monitoring station. One screen displayed telemetry from the module, showing that Crichton was even now slipping into unconsciousness. The other screen displayed the module's course and speed, which remained constant.
"Stark?" Crichton whispered.
Scorpius's unease deepened. Crichton should not have been able to speak. And why would he utter the name of his former cellmate, someone Crichton's own memories told him was dead?
"The module is not responding to our overrides," the navigation officer reported. "Radiation from the solar flare must be interfering with our signal."
"Then try again. Find a way to boost the signal, and get that module back," Scorpius ordered. His voice was cool, but there was no mistaking the threat.
Around him, the technicians and officers worked frantically.
Only Chief Technician Finivar remained calm. "We've lost all telemetry from the module, and are unable to contact the prowlers. Sir."
Behind him, on the screen, the flare continued to grow.
Crichton's fingers danced on the navigation keypad as he entered the course change. With his left hand he pushed forward on the throttle, increasing acceleration. His right hand reached for the toggles that would turn on the auxiliary boosters. But his hand froze, as his eyes swept over the instrument panel. The readings were crazy, in some cases off the charts, and in other cases cycling wildly.
"Hold on. Something is happening," Crichton said.
He raised his head and looked out the viewscreen toward the barycenter. There he saw a faint glowing shimmer where reason told him no light should be.
He eased back on the throttle and began to turn towards the strange phenomenon.
"There's something strange---"
"Crichton, return at once," Scorpius commanded.
Crichton ignored him, intent on the phenomenon. Was that a ring shape? Indeed it was, and even before his eyes it shifted in hue from white to yellow to the dazzling blue that marked the portion of a wormhole that could be perceived by the human eye.
He felt a sharp prick in his neck.
"No!" he objected, but it was already too late, as the drug took control of him. He felt himself falling, falling endlessly into the blackness that was softer than the star-filled skies.
As he tumbled down towards oblivion, he heard someone call his name.
"Stark?" he whispered.
He could not see Stark, but he could feel his presence, in the same way that you know the unseen hand on your shoulder belongs to an old friend, even before you turn to look.
"John Crichton," came Stark's reply.
It was Stark. Strange. So this was what it was to be dead. Somehow he had expected something else. He had always thought that even if his death seemed instantaneous to observers, that there would be a moment when he realized he was about to die. An instant for him to accept the inevitable, before it occurred.
But he had made the transition without warning. Without realizing the extent of his danger, until it was too late. He did not even know how he had died. Or why he felt so strange, so disconnected from everything. There was no grief, no anger, not even sorrow. Just a passing thought on how odd it was that his life had come to an end now, after everything else that he had survived.
And the knowledge that Scorpius was going to be furious that Crichton had finally found a way to escape him.
His mind began to drift.
"Crichton, you are not dead," Stark said. "You are still alive."
"Then why are you here?"
"I did not die. The Plokavians destroyed my body, but they could not destroy my energy form."
"In this form I can speak only the truth," Stark said, and his words carried the all the kindness that he had shown so long ago when he tried to ease Crichton's pain during their imprisonment.
"I'm glad for you," Crichton said. "I never meant---"
When they were interrogated by the Plokavians he had tried to protect Talyn with his testimony. Despite his weapons Talyn was still very much a child, in need of protection and guidance. But he had never meant for Stark to sacrifice himself to save them.
"I know," Stark said. "Be at peace with what happened, for I am at peace now. Far more so than I was in my physical form, when I still carried the hatred for the Peacekeepers within me."
"But where are we? And how can I be talking to you?"
"This is a moment outside of time," Stark said. "Without a physical connection I could not reach your conscious mind, so I had to wait until that moment when your mind was in transition between the physical world and the dream world."
"I'm in a real jam. Scorpy's got me, and this time I don't think I can break free," Crichton confessed.
"This, too, I know," Stark said. "And I know you feel helpless, but I have come, with the help of the Ancients, to offer you a choice."
"As with my race, the Ancients also share a dual nature, able to travel between the physical and the energy planes. I encountered them soon after I made my transition."
"Did they play their games with you, too?" Crichton asked, remembering his own encounter with the Ancients. The Ancients had used him, making him believe he had returned to Earth, just so they could use his mind to test the reactions of humans to alien visitors. It had been a gut-wrenching experience, made all the worse when he realized that none of it had been real. Not Earth. Not his Dad. Nothing except himself and his friends from Moya.
"The being I met was one who knew of you as well. He was intrigued that I had encountered you, but dismayed to discover that the knowledge they had gifted you with had made you a target for imprisonment and torture."
Many times he had cursed the Ancients for implanting the wormhole equations in his mind. And yet deep inside him, he knew it had been meant as a kindness.
"No one expects the Spanish Inquisition," Crichton said, after a long pause.
He felt Stark's puzzlement.
"Not their fault," Crichton elaborated. "If anyone is to blame, it is Scorpius."
"John, you have a choice," Stark said. "You can leave this place and return to your body. Your module will be picked up by the command carrier, and all will be as before."
"And what's behind door number two?"
"The phenomenon you saw was the beginning of a wormhole formation. An unstable wormhole, but one that may endure long enough to let you leave this place."
There was an instant of impossible hope. "Will it take me home? Back to Earth?"
"No. It is too unstable for that. It can only take you a short distance, but that should be enough to escape Scorpius," Stark answered.
Even as his hopes crashed, he told himself that he had known that such a thing was impossible. If Stark had known a way to send John home, he would have told him at once.
"The wormhole will take you away from here, to another part of this galaxy. With luck, it may take you to a place where you will find help," Stark said.
And if he was unlucky, it would land him into the vast emptiness of space, where he would die a slow death as his life-support systems failed.
"The decision is yours," Stark said. "I can make no promises. Even the Ancients were not certain if the wormhole would be stable enough for you to traverse it, or if it would break up prematurely, destroying you and your module."
"It's time to roll the dice. Let's do it," Crichton said.
There was no hesitation in his reply. He might never have another chance to escape Scorpius's control. It was worth any risk.
"The Ancients have given me the navigational vectors you must enter into your module's guidance system," Stark said.
"That's going to be a problem. When we leave here, my body is going to be unconscious, isn't it?" Crichton asked.
"Normally, yes. But not if you keep your mind focused on the link with me. Let me share your thoughts, and we can do this together."
"Will I see you again?" Crichton asked.
"Who can tell what the future holds?"
There was one thing more he had to say, while he still could. "Stark, whatever happens, thanks. You've been a good friend, and I'm grateful."
"Your friendship saved my life," Stark said. "I will not forget you, John Crichton."
His decision was made. It was time.
"I'm ready," Crichton said.
He looked deep within himself, emptying his mind of distractions, banishing doubts and worries, until he found the calm center as Zhaan had taught him to do. He held himself suspended in that center for a moment, until he was joined by the glowing luminescence that he remembered from his earlier sharing with Stark.
Stark's spirit touched his, and then they merged, filling Crichton with an energy that made him feel vibrantly alive, as if every good part of him now shone brighter and truer.
And then he was falling again, into the blackness, his spirit body replaced by leaden clay. His own will was insufficient, but as he drew on Stark's power slowly he opened his eyes, and he raised his right hand. It took both of their combined wills to force his hand to type in the navigational commands.
He pressed execute, and the navigational system blinked green, signifying it had accepted the course changes. There was a brief moment of exhausted satisfaction, and then once more he was alone, and falling into the darkness.
Into that darkness came a familiar voice.
"John, you can flee but you can not escape me. A part of you will always be mine. Always," Scorpius promised.
And then the darkness devoured him and he knew no more.
The crew of the command carrier continued their frantic efforts, but Scorpius knew with chilling certainty that it was already too late, as Crichton's module changed course, and accelerated towards the wormhole. Impossible. Crichton should have been unconscious. And yet somehow he had defeated the collar and the drugs. Somehow, he was still flying that craft, aiming it directly into the wormhole.
As the module approached, the proto-wormhole began to collapse in on itself, torn apart by the very gravitational forces that had created it.
"No," Scorpius said. The wormhole was unstable. Surely Crichton could see that. Entering the wormhole meant almost certain death.
Perhaps that was what Crichton intended, for he showed no hesitation in his flight path. Scorpius clenched his fists in impotent rage as the module entered the wormhole and disappeared.
Microts later, the first of the prowler escorts followed Crichton into the wormhole. There was a brilliant flash of light, and then the wormhole collapsed and disappeared.
There was a moment of absolute silence on the command carrier, as the crew held their collective breaths, waiting to see how Scorpius would react to the loss of his prize.
"The radiation wave will reach this ship in five hundred microts," Chief Technician Finivar announced.
"Take the carrier out of this system, to deka point five range," Scorpius ordered. The powerful electromagnetic radiation wave could well destroy the carrier's instruments, and all of the data that they had just recorded. And he could not take that risk.
Not now. Not when that data was all that he had left of the experiment.
As the Hecbal system vanished in the distance, Scorpius turned to Lieutenant Braca. "We will return to the system once the flare event has subsided, to conduct further analysis. In the meantime, you will send a message to all Peacekeeper bases and commands. Instruct them to scan for the module's tracking device, and to notify me at once if they receive the signal, or a communication from the prowler's pilot."
"But sir, you can not believe Crichton survived?" Lieutenant Braca asked. "We all saw the wormhole's implosion."
"I thought you would have learned by now not to underestimate Commander Crichton," Scorpius replied, his voice soft with menace. He had been merciful once before, when Braca had underestimated Crichton's will to survive, and had let the human escape from his grasp. The lieutenant should know better than to expect a second reprieve.
Lieutenant Braca nodded jerkily. "Of course, sir. I will send the message at once."
Scorpius returned to his seat, idly drumming his fingers on the arm rest.
The failure was not Lieutenant Braca's alone. Scorpius, too, had underestimated Crichton. Or, rather, he had not realized how true Crichton remained to his original character. A scientist, yes, but also an explorer. Crichton had said it himself. He was an astronaut, accustomed to taking incredible risks in the pursuit of knowledge. Even before the wormhole had appeared, Crichton had chosen to stay and observe the phenomenon, despite the evident danger.
He did not know how Crichton had managed to defeat the collar, and remain conscious so he could continue to fly the module. Nor did he know if this was a carefully planned scheme, or simply Crichton taking advantage of the opportunity that he had been presented with.
In the end, Crichton had chosen to trust in his luck. And he would need luck, for the module had life support for only a few days. Even if Crichton successfully traversed the wormhole and managed to escape the pursuing prowler, he would have to exit near a starship or planetary system, or he would not live to enjoy his escape.
Deep inside, with a certainty that went beyond logic, Scorpius knew that Crichton was alive, and that he would survive. Somehow. Scorpius had faith in his prisoner's ingenuity, and in the luck that had sustained him so far. Crichton may have escaped his control, but it was a temporary setback. The wormhole was too unstable to have carried the human far from this region. Eventually he would be recaptured.
Then Scorpius would show Crichton that he was indeed nothing more than Scorpius's possession, and that there would be no escape for the human. Ever.
"Zhaan, come to the command deck. At once."
Even through the comm, Zhaan could sense D'Argo's anger.
"Of course," she responded. Despite her training, she felt her pulse quicken with excitement as she realized that they must have reached the Raisha system. The moment she had waited for would soon be at hand.
As she reached command, she found D'Argo pacing back and forth. He whirled around to face her.
"We have reached the Raisha system," D'Argo said. "Pilot tells me there are no inhabitable planets here, no colonies of any kind."
Zhaan nodded. "I did not expect there to be."
"Then why did you tell us there were Delvians here? Why bring us to this place?" D'Argo demanded.
"A necessary deception," Zhaan answered coolly. "If I had given you my reasons, you would not have come."
"What are you talking about? What's going on? I can't get a straight answer out of Pilot," Chiana complained, slinking into command with her customary feline grace.
"Zhaan lied to us. There are no Delvians here."
"Pilot, tell Moya we must remain within this solar system," Zhaan said.
Pilot's face appeared on the projection screen.
"Pilot, do no such thing," D'Argo said. "Zhaan has no right to give orders."
"Not until you tell us what is going on," Chiana added. "Now start talking."
Pilot looked unhappily from one to the other.
Why was it that she and Pilot were the only ones on this ship who did not feel compelled to turn each simple request into a battle of wills? They had no time for this. She could feel a growing sense of urgency, a sense that was not wholly her own.
She strode across the deck until she stood toe to toe with D'Argo, challenging him. "You will do this because I ask. Because I insist. This is not my request, but Stark's."
D'Argo folded his arms across his chest. "Stark is dead."
"No. He continues to exist, although in a form that you can not see. Stark told me we must bring Moya here and wait."
"Wait for what?" Chiana asked.
"Does it matter?" Zhaan replied. There was no use in trying to explain. The others would not believe her. She could barely believe it herself. There was still so much that could go wrong. Yet even if there was only one chance in a thousand, they had to try.
Zhaan kept her attention on D'Argo. It was him that she needed to convince. Chiana would follow D'Argo's lead. "We will do this thing, for a friend. You, of all people, owe Stark that much," Zhaan said.
D'Argo's face hardened at the mention of his debt to Stark.
"We will bide here for a standard solar day. There is no danger, and it is a little enough to ask, in return for a life," Zhaan said.
D'Argo gave an inarticulate growl. "I do not know what game you are playing. But you are right. I owe Stark my life... and that of my son. If you wish to collect the debt in his name, then so be it. But in one solar day, we leave this system."
"Thank you," Zhaan said, inclining her head. She turned towards Pilot's image. "Pilot, please ask Moya to transmit the signal used to guide the return of her transport modules."
"But all her modules are here---" Pilot began.
"Pilot, please," Zhaan said, losing what little patience she had left. Every moment spent arguing was a moment they could not afford. Even now, Crichton might be trying to make his escape. And there was a chance that the biomechanoid components he had installed on his module would indeed resonate with Moya's signal, as Stark had suggested, guiding him on his journey.
Pilot nodded, and she could see his arms moving at the controls. "Moya has done as you asked," he said. "We have taken position in orbit around the outermost planet, and have begun to transmit the recall signal."
Zhaan felt a feather-light touch brush across her soul. "Now," Stark's voice whispered, and she could sense the enormous effort it took for him to reach her. He must be very far away indeed. Her preparations had been just in time.
Closing her eyes, she raised her palms upward and began to chant.
"What is she doing now?" Chiana demanded.
"Praying," D'Argo said, his earlier wrath now fading to puzzlement.
Zhaan focused inward, asking the Goddess to watch over Crichton and to bring him safely to them.
Immersed in her devotions, she had no sense of time passing. It might have been microts or arns later, when Pilot's voice broke into her concentration.
"Moya senses a disturbance in this system," Pilot announced. "The gravity fields are fluctuating."
Zhaan brought her palms together, and concluded her chant. "Show us," she said.
The main viewscreen cleared, to show the star field. In the center was a shimmering distortion, which widened into a vortex of cerulean blue.
"What is that?" D'Argo asked.
"A wormhole," Zhaan announced. "And, if the Goddess is kind, it may be Crichton."
"Crichton?" Chiana's voice squeaked. "Crichton's dead."
"No," Zhaan said firmly. "Crichton is still very much alive. Stark told me that he would try to break free, and that this was the place where he could be found."
"You are mad," D'Argo said.
Zhaan kept her eyes on the viewscreen, feeling her hopes fade as the wormhole began to shrink. Then a white craft emerged. A second craft, a Peacekeeper prowler by its shape, followed just as the wormhole collapsed on itself. The prowler exploded. Debris from the prowler struck the white module, sending it into a tumbling, erratic spin.
"That indeed appears to be Commander Crichton's module," Pilot said. "But it does not seem as if anyone is in control of it."
Indeed the module's erratic flight path was a troubling sign. Crichton must be unconscious or severely injured. Surely the Goddess would not be so cruel as to bring him this far, only to have him die within sight of his friends.
"Pilot, use the docking web, and prepare Moya to starburst. The instant he is on board we must leave this place. Scorpius may be able to reopen the wormhole, and we must be far from here when he does," Zhaan said. "D'Argo, I will be in the infirmary. Bring Crichton there to me, quickly."
D'Argo touched the internal comm system. "Aeryn, meet me in the maintenance bay. We have an emergency."
He turned to leave, but Zhaan placed a hand on his shoulder. "D'Argo, be careful. Crichton may have broken free, but he has been Scorpius's prisoner for many months now."
D'Argo nodded. There was no need for her to say anything else. Crichton had barely survived his first imprisonment, which had lasted only a few days. Now he had been under Scorpius's control for months. There was no telling how he had changed.
Zhaan hurried to the infirmary and began laying out her equipment as she waited for news. It seemed arns before Pilot spoke.
"Pa'u Zhaan, the craft has been captured within the docking web. Moya is detecting high levels of tau radiation."
Tau radiation could be fatal to Sebaceans. She did not know what its effects might be on a human.
"Please warn the others, so they may take precautions," Zhaan said.
"I have already done so," Pilot said primly.
Zhaan had already taken out her trauma supplies. Now she moved to the storage cabinets, and began assembling what she would need to treat radiation sickness. As she laid the instruments on the tray, she felt a moment of dizziness, and grasped the sides of the counter to steady herself. Moya had starburst, which meant Crichton's module was now on board.
A moment later, she heard Aeryn's voice through the comm. "We've opened the module. He's alive."
Crichton lay on a bed in the infirmary, still unconscious. Zhaan had done what she could, injecting him with microbes that would filter out the radioactive elements in his body and nullify the effects of the radiation poisoning. And the robo-surgeon had removed the device from around his neck, which Zhaan had said contained drugs used to control him.
Aeryn glanced down at his still form. A part of her could not believe that he had returned, and she reached over to touch his hand once more, to convince herself that he was, indeed, warm living flesh and not a product of her imagination.
For months now, she had thought him dead. In fact she had hoped he was dead, for the alternative, that he was still a prisoner, being tortured by Scorpius, had seemed a far worse fate.
Now he had returned, as suddenly and mysteriously as he had left them, and bringing new questions. How had he managed to create a wormhole? For that matter, how had he been able to steal his module, and use it to escape from the resources of a command carrier? They were lucky that only one prowler had come in immediate pursuit, and that it had been destroyed by the journey.
And perhaps the greatest question of all was who had returned to them? Was this indeed the Crichton they remembered? Or someone else?
One thing was clear. Zhaan had known for some time that Crichton was still alive. Indeed she had requested this detour to the Raisha system over a weeken ago, to prepare for this rendezvous. In her arrogance, Zhaan had chosen to keep her knowledge to herself, rather than to share it with the crew.
Aeryn swallowed her anger. This was not the time or the place for it. There would be time later to remind Zhaan of the meaning of the word trust. And how little Aeryn appreciated being kept in the dark.
"So it's like the temporary mind-cleansing? Only with a chip, instead of drugs?" Chiana asked.
Aeryn returned her attention to the diagnostic screen, which displayed a rotating image of Crichton's skull, and the loathsome device imbedded within his brain.
"I do not know how the neuro-chip functions. Only that it may be used to guide or control him," Zhaan said.
"And he's carried it since the Gammak base?" Aeryn asked.
Zhaan nodded. "So Stark told me. Yet John remains unaware of its presence."
Aeryn repressed a shudder. Such a device was a horror indeed, perhaps even more so than the Aurora chair had been. At least then Crichton had known what was being done to him. This chip was a far more insidious form of torture.
She promised herself that if she ever encountered Scorpius, she would ensure that he died a slow and hideous death. Yet even the worst torments she could devise would not repay that foul creature for the suffering he had inflicted upon others.
"I say we take it out. Now. Before he awakes," D'Argo said.
Zhaan shook her head. "The neuro-chip has integrated itself into the fabric of John's brain. Removing it may cause great damage, or even death."
"Better any risk than to leave Crichton a prisoner of Scorpius's device," D'Argo said.
It was an easy judgment to make, when it was not your brain that would be destroyed if the operation was unsuccessful. But there was logic on his side, along her own instincts that said anything Scorpius had created must be inherently evil.
"I agree with D'Argo," Aeryn said. "I would not want to live with such a thing in my head. Nor would Crichton. We should do this now."
"Too much has already been done to John without his consent. I will not make myself party to another such act. We will let Crichton make his own choice," Zhaan insisted.
The only thing worse than Zhaan being self-righteous was Zhaan being right.
"And what if Crichton can no longer choose for himself?" D'Argo asked. "What then?"
The question was addressed to Zhaan, but it was Aeryn who answered. "Then we will make the decision for him. As his friends."
Aeryn sat on a chair next to the bed, waiting for Crichton to awaken. Only then would they discover if he had indeed returned, or if this was merely a stranger who wore his form.
Wary of the neuro-chip's control, Zhaan had prepared an injector with a fast-acting sedative. Aeryn wore her pulse pistol. She hoped fervently that neither would be needed.
Zhaan sat crossed-legged on the floor meditating, while Rygel hovered by the door. Chiana and D'Argo sat side by side on the vacant bed.
Jothee had been here earlier, eager to see the alien of whom he had heard so much. But as the waiting turned from moments into arns, Jothee had left. Which was probably for the best. Crichton would be confused enough when he awoke.
Besides the radiation poisoning, which was surely a result of his escape attempt, Crichton showed no signs of having been injured or harmed during his long imprisonment. Which argued that Scorpius had not needed torture to get what he wanted. Perhaps it was the brain implant, or perhaps Scorpius had found some other way to control Crichton.
There was a sound from the bed, as Crichton stirred.
"He's waking up," Aeryn announced. Her right hand slid to her side, to ensure that her pulse pistol was free in its holster.
Zhaan rose to her feet with a graceful movement and the others gathered around the bed.
Crichton opened his eyes.
She thought she had remembered him perfectly, but she had been wrong. She had forgotten how blue his eyes were. And how guileless. How innocent he seemed, despite all that he had done, and all that had been done to him.
She hoped desperately that he was still the same man he had been.
"Aeryn. Zhaan. D'Argo. Chiana. Hey, Sparky! Damn, it's great to see you all," Crichton said softly, giving them a crooked smile.
Aeryn and Zhaan exchanged glances. Crichton should have been surprised to see them. Or elated at having escaped and been rescued. Instead he seemed strangely calm.
"If only this was real," Crichton added. He looked at each of them in turn, as if trying to memorize their faces. Then his crooked smile melted into a grimace, and he turned his gaze towards the ceiling, or towards something only he could see. "Scorpy, I know you're pissed at me for trying to escape. But what did you expect? Have your goons beat the crap out of me, if it will make you feel better. But quit with the mind games."
He lifted his head, and began to struggle upright, only to fall back on the bed, white-faced and sweating. "Feels like someone already beat the crap out of me," he said.
He thought himself still a prisoner. Aeryn had an instant to wonder what other mind games Scorpius had inflicted on John, that he could accept an apparent hallucination so calmly.
"John, lay still," Zhaan said. "You are suffering from the effects of radiation poisoning. It will take time for the treatments to work, and to heal your body."
"You came through a wormhole," Aeryn explained.
John turned his head to look at her. "Sure. Right. And the wormhole led me straight to my only friends in this galaxy. You'll have to find a better story than that."
Aeryn pushed back her hair with her left hand. She understood his disbelief. What could she say to convince him this was real? So many others had played with his mind, striving to convince him to believe in the unreal. What could she say or do that others had not said or done before?
"John, look at me," Zhaan said. She waited until John turned his gaze towards hers. "The wormhole brought you to the Raisha system. Moya was here, because Stark told me we must come here, and wait for you."
"Stark?" John whispered. "There's no way he could know about Stark."
"Do you remember him communicating with you?" Zhaan prompted.
John swallowed convulsively, his right hand fumbling blindly on the blankets. "Stark. He said. He said---"
John closed his eyes. Aeryn grasped his right hand with hers, and he squeezed as if he was hanging on for his life.
"Stark helped me escape. Scorpius had drugged me, but with Stark's help I was able to steer the module towards the wormhole. Stark said I might find help on the other end. But he didn't mention you," John said, opening eyes that were now bright with unshed tears.
The naked longing on John's face made her uncomfortable. No one should be that open, that vulnerable.
"He wasn't certain that he could guide you to us," Zhaan explained.
"And I'm really here? On Moya?" John demanded.
"Who else would have gone to the trouble of rescuing you and that pathetic module of yours?" Rygel grumbled, but there was affection in his voice.
"It's really us, big guy. You're home," Chiana said, reaching down to touch pat his left arm reassuringly.
"Yes, human. We are all real. Even you," Aeryn said, trying to reassure herself at the same time as she reassured him. "Just look what trouble you get yourself into, when you don't have us to watch out for you."
John grinned. Then just as suddenly, his face grew dark
"Scorpius won't let me go. He'll be after me," he said, with rising panic. "He's got tracking devices on the module. Maybe on me as well."
He raised his free hand to his neck, rubbing where the collar had been.
"We starburst the moment you were on board," D'Argo said. "And the DRDs have already located and removed the tracking devices from your module."
"You didn't find them all," John said, with absolute conviction. "We'll never find them all, until he finds us."