<< Continued from parts 1 & 2

III

 

 

Braca stood in his quarters on the Command Carrier, hands clasped behind his back as he waited for Relnik to join him. They had boarded the Carrier earlier in the day but had not yet informed the Councilor of their presence. His flight with Relnik had been quiet, with Braca himself piloting, trying to suppress the exuberance that flying had brought back to him. The Marauder didn't handle the way a Prowler did but it was better than being grounded at Beta Station where he had spent the last ten cycles of his career without any leave from the station.

He moved towards the reflective glass and adjusted the collar of his uniform. His face had grown older over the cycles, of course, and weary. He'd been a Captain for nearly sixteen cycles, promoted under the auspices of then-Commandant Grayza. He had done his duty to her faithfully, waiting for the moment when he might take her place. Instead, Grayza's command had reached past the carrier to Beta Station; he was her second and now a witness to yet another Peacekeeper commander throwing away a valuable career over John Crichton.

He and Relnik had spent enough time in the Marauder for Braca to further consider the timing of Relnik's arrival. Nebari spies had been seen in their sector long before the attack on the station. It seemed foolish to think that was all due to one man. Crichton held knowledge that was valuable but so did the Peacekeeper techs who had built the weapon and the databanks where the information was stored. Crichton was not nearly the prize he'd been eighteen cycles ago when Scorpius had begun his single-minded pursuit of the human. Why had the Nebari expended so much energy on him?

"*Sir*," a voice came over the coms. "*Admiral Relnik here to see you.*"

Braca tapped his com. "See him in." He snapped to attention as the door slid open. The Admiral stooped to clear the doorway.

"Captain." The older man entered Braca's quarters and let the door slide closed behind him.

"Sir." Braca snapped his heels together.

"At ease, Captain. Please. Has the Councilor been advised of our presence?"

Braca shook his head. "Not yet, Sir. As you requested."

Relnik nodded in satisfaction. He put his arm companionably around Braca's shoulders. "Let me ask you something, Braca. How long have you been stationed here?"

"Ten cycles." He said it through gritted teeth.

"Any promotions in that time, Captain? Any recommendations, commendations, medals of any sort?" His grip around Braca tightened a bit, encouraging an honesty that Braca was afraid to hold back.

"No, Sir."

"Yet, Captain Lyczac was promoted from Lead Technician to Captain. Is that not so?"

"Admiral, Captain Lyczac is a decorated war hero for his part in helping us defeat the Scarrans." Braca was surprised that he was able to admit that freely and without irony. After cycles as Crichton's sentry, he had never considered how Crichton's actions had saved the Peacekeepers from certain destruction. It wasn't until now that he was finally free of the human that he had been able to consider that a sacrifice had been made. Whether Crichton had done it willingly or not, he had considered the lives of his children, and by extension, the Peacekeepers. His freedom, his quest for his homeworld, his desire to be with Aeryn Sun had all been given up for the sake of his children. It was almost admirable.

"Lyczac." Relnik drawled out the word and then released Braca. He pulled a vid chip from his breast pocket and slid it into the holo viewer. "Captain. I trust you'll find this familiar."

Braca looked up. The images were almost colorless, taken from a surveillance recorder attached to a Peacekeeper helmet. The picture swung nauseatingly from person to person to person until Braca had to brace himself against the console to keep from looking away from the images. The only discernible sounds came from Grayza as she barked out orders, and his own stiff replies to those orders‹"Yes, Commandant."

He was watching the aftermath of Crichton and Sun's ill-fated plan to retrieve their offspring on the Command Carrier. He hadn't considered that moment in cycles, had barely given it much thought even then. But looking at it now, he felt a physical reaction that made his stomach feel like it was hitting the floor.

In the holo, Crichton still wore the Peacekeeper infantry uniform, his chin bloodied. He lay on his back, unconscious. Braca saw himself holding Crichton's daughter. Grayza stared down at Crichton, smiling as she gave orders. Two Peacekeepers yanked Aeryn Sun's prone body by each arm and dragged her from the landing bay. He remembered that the guards had removed the Peacekeeper shielding that she had worn so as to cause more injury to her, continuing their abuse after she'd lost consciousness, all at Grayza's command. The traitor lay limp and bloodied; if he hadn't actually known Aeryn Sun was alive, he would have sworn that she had died that day.

"Braca. There is more, before this part. But I've seen it once and that was quite enough." Relnik paused. "These twoŠJohn Crichton and Aeryn SunŠ" He motioned to the images. "These two had come to the Carrier to retrieve their child."

Braca nodded, his throat dry. "Yes, Sir," he croaked.

"That is our ŚCaptain Lyczac', is it not?" Relnik's voice was low and soothing. "This is the war hero's inauspicious beginning. Quite a blight on Peacekeeper history, wouldn't you say? I can see why Grayza kept him under such strict surveillance. No sense in any of this becoming public knowledge."

"Sir, Crichton and his companions had previously destroyed a Command CarrierŠ" But even Braca was unconvinced of his next words. "Whatever else was done, was done for the greater good."

"Yes." Relnik nodded slowly. "Yes. Wormholes. And I would say that Crichton has paid his debt to the Peacekeepers by ensuring the continuation of our race. John Crichton saved the Peacekeepers from the Scarrans and managed to keep his offspring alive in the process. He stopped being a nuisance for you a long time ago, didn't he, Braca?"

"Sir?" Braca turned to him and felt like his mind had just been read.

"Captain." Relnik laughed. "Do you think I would come all this way with no knowledge of what I was going to find? I've known about Crichton since Scorpius began his quest for this human. Without Crichton, the Sebacean race would be a footnote in Scarran history. But this chapter must come to an end." He froze the images that were replaying in front of them and gazed at a smiling Grayza. "This is quite disturbing. I suspect there was something more than Peacekeeper security in Grayza's motives when she committed this act. Tell me I'm wrong, Captain."

Braca shook his head slowly. "AdmiralŠCouncilor Grayza is my commanding officerŠ"

"Let me ask you, Captain Braca? With whom does your loyalty lie? Because judging from what I saw on this chip and what I'm hearing from you now, I'm beginning to doubt whether you are the man for the job I have in mind." He laid a hand on Braca's shoulder. "I know of her powers of persuasion and I am certain you do too. So I ask you again, Captain. Of your own will. Where are your loyalties? What are you willing to sacrifice?"

Fifteen cycles ago, he would have said his loyalty was to Grayza without a doubt. Now, looking at the images in front of them, he wondered if perhaps there hadn't been another way, a way that recalled the Peacekeeper values of loyalty, sacrifice and honor. All he saw in the vid chip were vengeance, malice and destruction.

"Sir." Braca released the hold on the chip and the images began to play again. He saw himself walk towards Grayza, the tiny being still in his arms as he stepped over Crichton's body. The child's mother was gone. The child's father was their captive for Grayza to do with what she would. His own expression was one of fear. There was no honor in it at all.

"Captain, I have my doubts about the Councilor's ability to handle this matter in the best interests of the Peacekeepers. I need someone I can count on if she becomes unmanageable. Do you understand?"

Braca felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. He pulled the chip from the viewer and held it tightly in his hand. "I will do as First Command instructs, Admiral Relnik."

"That's what I'd hoped to hear, Captain." He held out his hand and Braca returned the chip to him. "This is a piece of history I never want to see happen again. And I will do what is necessary to ensure that it doesn't."

Braca nodded uncertainly. "SirŠis there more?"

Admiral Relnik laughed heartily. "Oh, Captain, there's much more. But nothing I'm going to share with you until I can be assured that you are able and willing to fulfill your duties to the Peacekeepers." He hit the door control and turned to the sentry in the passageway. "Alert Councilor Grayza that Admiral Relnik and Captain Braca wish to meet with her immediately." He clapped Braca on the shoulder. "Shall we see how Grayza plans to deal with this matter?"

*

"*Councilor Grayza.*" The guard outside Grayza's chamber signaled her. She turned away from the holo in front of her, the image of the Nebari host ship overwhelming everything else. It was irrelevant, or would be once the other two Carriers had joined her in a show of force. The Nebari Resistance movement was nothing more than a ragtag group of children trying to fight both its own government and the Peacekeepers. Ansofas had overstepped his bounds.

"What is it?" she said.

"You have two visitors, Ma'am."

Braca and Relnik. She hadn't known the Admiral was aboard, but the commed announcement of their visit had at least given her time to at grab a robe. She tied it around her loosely and turned to the door. "Let them in."

The door slid open and Braca stepped in followed by an older Peacekeeper officer. Admiral Telko Relnik, a man she'd never met but whose reputation preceded him. She caught Braca's smirk at her attire and then he looked down.

"Councilor," Relnik said. "I take it we have come at an inopportune moment?"

"Not at all, Admiral. I was just readying myself for bed." She extended her hand and he shook it quickly. "Had Braca seen fit to advise me of your presenceŠ"

"That's not Braca's fault," Relnik interjected. "My orders. Given the Nebari situation, I felt it best to keep communications limited."

"Yes. The Nebari situation. Please, sit down, Admiral."

"I prefer to stand." He left Braca by the door and paced around, stopping to look at the holo image still projected from the console. "That's Commander Ansofas' ship? Quite impressive, isn't it."

"Not nearly as impressive as he thinks," Grayza said. "You do know what crime Ansofas has committed, do you not?"

"My understanding is that he holds three Peacekeepers on his ship."

"That's a rather benign description, Admiral. His spies assaulted Beta Station and kidnapped three of our people. And he is working in conjunction with a Peacekeeper traitor. An Officer Aeryn Sun. Her criminal activities are well documented. She should have been executed long ago."

The Admiral shook his head. "That name is not familiar. So these three are being held against their will. You're sure of that."

Grayza nodded. "Yes. My daughter Melanie is among them. One of our war heroes, Captain Jak Lyczac and his daughter as well. The girl has lived under my patronage since her mother's death. And Lyczac is part of an important project. He is developing a prototype stealth device."

Relnik nodded but his expression was blank. His presence was making her angrier by the moment. If he were here to relieve her of her duty, then he would realize that First Command had made a mistake. The ship and its crew were hers and they would not transfer their allegiances to another commander without a fight.

"Ah, yes. Jak. The war hero." Relnik smiled. "Yes, I know of him. Everyone knows of him, eh, Braca?"

"Yes, sir." Braca nodded emphatically and cut his eyes away from her. He still had that smirk on his face; the sycophant smelled blood, it seemed, her blood and already she could see that he was transferring his loyalty to the Admiral. It would be his last mistake.

"First Command doesn't want a war over this, Councilor Grayza. If the Captain refuses to return, it's best to let it be."

"What?" Grayza looked at him from across the room, her eyes narrowed in anger. "Admiral, we have a project to complete. This stealth equipment‹Lyczac is instrumental to its development."

"Councilor, surely you have other technicians. Lyczac didn't do all the work himself. Braca can get us the list of personnel who worked intimately with Lyczac, as well as the prototypes for the device."

"Sir, Lieutenant D'Lay Yosten was his assistant," Braca said without hesitation. "And it is my understanding that the device has been tested successfully on a Vigilante, at least once. We have not yet completed our testing on anything larger than that."

"Captain," Grayza said quietly. "You are a fountain of information."

"Be that as it may," Relnik interjected. "First Command doesn't want this to become an issue with the Nebari. We are trying to build an alliance, or at the very least, a stable relationship with the Resistance movement. The Nebari Establishment has other weapons of destruction at its disposal and an avowed hatred of the Peacekeepers. An alliance with the Resistance might serve a purpose."

"And what message does appeasement send to the Resistance? That they can come onto our space stations and abduct our personnel? Steal Peacekeeper children? Is that really the message First command intends?" She placed the palms of her hands flat on the vid console and leaned across it towards the Admiral. What game was he playing with her?

"Your allegiance is to the Peacekeepers, Councilor. It comes above all others‹offspring or crew. If you feel this attack is a personal affront to you, you can extract whatever revenge you want. You're just not going to do it with a Peacekeeper Command Carrier."

"With all respect, Admiral, you have no authority over me nor should you offer a lecture to me regarding my loyalties. I have attained my rank exactly because of my allegiance and willingness to follow orders."

"My pardon." He offered her a low bow. "And it is true that I am not your superior. I appeal to your good nature, Councilor. I am merely putting this in perspective‹three Peacekeepers in exchange for an alliance that would strengthen our position against the Nebari Establishment. It seems to me that it's an uneven equation and the Peacekeepers have more to gain than the Resistance." He smiled at her and clicked his heels together. "I will bid you good night. Please consider my words. With me, Braca."

"Sir?"

"No, Braca, stay here. We must talk," Grayza said.

Braca looked confused. An Admiral and a Councilor‹the expression on his face was priceless. He was an insect caught on a pin.

"As she commands, Captain. Good night to you both." Relnik turned and left her alone with Braca.

"Captain Braca, when did Relnik arrive here? And why didn't you tell me?" she demanded. She took one last look at the Nebari ship and then shut off the view screen.

"Ma'am, he came aboard Beta Station after you'd left. He asked that I not reveal his presence. I suspect it is as he says‹he didn't want to alert the Nebari in the event they are monitoring our transmissions."

"Of course they're monitoring our transmissions. Aren't we doing the same? I will grant you this‹you were right to leave him out of it. We don't need the Nebari questioning my ability to deal with this situation alone." She steadied herself against the console and leaned forward. "Did he witness what happened there? Did he see the attack? Does he know that we are dealing with terrorists?"

"He came aboard after the attack, Councilor." His eyes shifted towards her as she approached him. She drew her fingers over her chest and then trailed them under his nose. She saw him shudder then his body relaxed as he breathed deeply. She had begun to rely less and less on the gland that had enabled her to coax so much information from Crichton. It had begun to take its toll on her body‹ she could feel herself grow dizzy. She fought past it and turned her attention back to Braca.

"Braca, what is the Admiral's true purpose in arriving at Beta Station so soon after the Nebari attack?" She stepped back from him and waited. What was it Ansofas had told her-- *My orders are specific, Councilor, and not to be shared.* What did that mean?

"I don't know, Councilor. Three days before the attack, the Admiral signaled his intent to visit Beta Station. He arrived after the Marauder and the two officers were returned. That is all I know, Ma'am."

Grayza nodded. "Yes. I believe you." What were the Nebari's orders? She turned to Braca. "Captain, we will do as the Admiral suggests. Send a signal to Ansofas and inform him that I wish to resolve this issue diplomatically. You and I will take a Vigilante onto the host ship. Make sure it's the Vigilante used in the trials. Have Lieutenant Yosten bring it here herself. I want to make sure that it's sound. I expect her to be here within a solar day."

Braca blinked at her. "The prototype? Councilor, the Nebari will not accept any proposal to allow a Vigilante on board their ship‹"

"The Nebari will accept whatever proposal I make. I have two other Carriers at the ready, Captain. I don't think they can afford to say no."

Braca turned away and hurried out of the room. Grayza ran her fingers along the soft fabric of her robe, remembering for a microt other fingers that had caressed her similarly. Perhaps in person John would realize that she meant what she said. If she came close enough to him, it would be very simple.

 

***

 

"Can't sleep?"

John stopped his pacing and looked up at the sound of her voice. Aeryn stood in the doorway, feet bare, wearing a pair of baggy black pants and a black T-shirt. Her hair fell around her shoulders and for a moment he felt himself lose his breath at the sight of her.

The years had not been easy on her‹he could see that in the heaviness of her eyes and the lines that creased her forehead. Grandma Crichton had had a saying‹you could tell the way a person had lived his life if you looked at the lines on his face. There was nothing in the lines etched on Aeryn's face that led him to believe there'd been much happiness in the last fifteen cycles. YetŠwhen she looked at him, her mouth seemed to fight itself from forming a smile. No matter what, she was still beautiful to him.

She crossed her arms over her chest and he watched as her chest rose and fell with every steady breath. He had been pacing for arns, wormholes and equations and death all forming a web in which he felt caught. He wasn't sure that she understood it yet, understood why he had such a firm stance against being a party to destruction again. She didn't understand the blood he saw on his hands.

"Sorry," he said. "Didn't mean to wake you up." He sat down on the couch and rested his elbows on his knees, letting his head hang as he considered the floor beneath his bare feet.

"You didn't." She sat down next to him, just far enough away so they weren't touching.

"SoŠChiana talk to you?" he asked. Chiana hadn't come back to him with any crazy ideas about running from Grayza or making some escape or anything to counter the offer he'd made‹himself in exchange for a stand-down from the Peacekeepers in any conflict with the Nebari.

"AboutŠ"

He looked up and turned to her. Her expression was barely controlled; she looked like she was going to crack.

"About Grayza," he said.

She remained still and again he watched her rhythmic breathing. He remembered yesterday, how good she'd felt next to him, how tightly they'd clung to each other and it made him sick to think how willing he was to throw it all away for something as elusive as peace between the species.

"She said nothing. But I know what you're thinking." She turned to him sharply. "I won't let you do it, John. No."

"You don't even know what we discussed‹"

"I know you. I know what you've sacrificed and I know what you would sacrifice again. You've become a true Peacekeeper, willing to die for your ideals." She looked down at her hands. "IŠI've changed."

"Yeah?" He reached out and brushed her hair away from her face, waiting for her to turn away from him but she didn't. "AerynŠwhat did you do to Scorpius?"

"I killed him," she said flatly. Her body was completely motionless, none of the fidgeting he had seen earlier when they had spoken to the girls. "I straddled him while he slept, I stuck my pulse pistol in his face, I woke him up and I blew his frelling head off."

"Oh." He sat back, trying not to envision the sight of Aeryn's pulse pistol raining Scorpy's gray matter all over a cell on Moya. As much as the son of a bitch deserved it, he just couldn't get his mind wrapped around Aeryn killing like that. Not the Aeryn he'd known.

"WhyŠ" he began.

She turned to him. "There was no reason for it. He was going to help us find you. We could have used him for Śbait.'" She laughed humorlessly and held up both her hands, studying each one like it was something she'd never seen before. "I know the guilt you carry with you, the guilt of having created this weapon. But your reasons were honorable. You and I both know the Scarrans would have killed or enslaved Sebaceans and then every race after that‹Nebari, Luxan, DelvianŠThe Scarrans are brutal and merciless‹"

"Were," he corrected. "They were."

"Were," she conceded. "I've killed for nothing more than information, gained from the highest bidder. There was no higher purpose, no intent to save my race or other races. My only interest, my only focus, was you, you and our daughter."

"Hope," he murmured. "You talk a good game, Aeryn. Hope." He took her hands into his. "I've put all my trust in you. The lives of my children are at stake here. Please. Tell me this isn't part of your quest for revenge.'

"Everything I've done since we separated I've done because I love you. I felt it was a fair trade if it meant I would reach this point." She squeezed his hands. "Don't sacrifice yourself for this attempt at peace. Don't return to Grayza, John. She will show you no mercy. She will do to you what I did to Scorpius only she will make sure that you suffer before you die. You and I both know that."

He raised her hand to his mouth and kissed it. "We both know we're not proud of what we've done."

She shook her head. "IŠI've had a lot of time to think, to consider my life. XhalaxŠ" She paused. "My mother. She was a mercenary for the Peacekeepers, a trained assassin. After John died, I fled to a planet called Valldon. I was looking for answers. Instead, I found Xhalax."

He trailed his fingers over her arm soothingly. They had never discussed Xhalax or Aeryn's time with the other John Crichton. He had only known the effect of Crichton's death on her and how it had affected him. Maybe if they had talked about it, he might have helped her finally work through it all but instead her grief had remained bottled inside. When they'd finally reached some small point of trust, they had been torn from each other, leading separate lives. That loss was what he saw in her eyes now and heard in her voice.

"SheŠshe revealed to me that she had killed my father so the Peacekeepers would spare my life. That was her punishment for breaking rank, her choice. She spent the rest of her existence waiting to see me suffer the way she had. Her vengeance drove her."

"Aeryn," he began. He remembered Grayza's words on the Carrier: *"This is the life you chose as a traitor. A mate. A child. You were born a Peacekeeper yet you think that you should be exempt from our rules and our ways. Now you must choose again. Show me how John Crichton means nothing to you."*

"You didn't make that choice," he said.

"No. I couldn't. In that moment, I swore to myself that I would not become Xhalax. But I've failed on all other accounts since then." She shook her hair back and turned to him. "John, I had hope that I'd find you again. I clung to it. But it wasn't enough. I thought my hatred would end with Scorpius but it only grew larger. And that hatred allowed me to kill when and wherever was necessary to reach my goal."

"Aeryn." The word croaked out of his throat. He put his arm around her and pulled her towards him; she melted into him. "It's okay, baby. It's okay." He rested her head on his shoulder and smoothed her hair. He could feel her hands clutching at his T-shirt, grasping at him for rescue.

"It won't end if you return to Grayza," she said.

"And you think it will if I don't go back there?" he said quietly.

"The only way I will allow it is if I'm with you. And if that is the ultimate sacrifice you're willing to make, for the sake of the universeŠ" She released him and faced him; the corners of her mouth turned up in a slight, almost sad smile and she reached out her long fingers to his temple, stroking his hair. "If that's it, then I'm willing to stand with you. You will not die alone."

The door slid open and he looked past Aeryn's shoulder. A'lya came forward, Melanie slightly behind her.

"Dad," A'lya began. Aeryn pulled back at the sound of their daughter's voice and composed herself, smoothing back her hair and drawing herself up into Peacekeeper mode. What was it Pip had said‹you could take the girl out of the Peacekeepers but you'd never take the Peacekeeper out of the girl. Nothing looked truer.

"A'lya, Melanie." Aeryn scrambled to her feet and shot him a worried glance. "What are you doing there?"

"We heard it all," A'lya said. She crossed her arms over her chest and stared at him. Melanie stood just behind her, lavender eyes transfixed on Aeryn, her expression stoic.

"We were only talking," John said. "MelŠnothing's gonna happenŠ"

Melanie shook her head but said nothing. He saw her lower lip tremble as her resolve dissipated and she flung herself at him. He scooped her into his arms and she buried her face in his neck; he could feel her tears hot against the scar just above the collar of his T-shirt.

"Melanie, honey," he murmured. He looked up at Aeryn and A'lya‹A'lya's gaze had moved away from him to Aeryn.

"I don't want you to go, Daddy," Melanie said hoarsely.

"Melanie," he said. "It wasn't supposed to be like this. It was never supposed to be like this."

"You kill and you kill and you kill," A'lya said to Aeryn. "Do you really think you're that different from your mother?"

"Do you?" Aeryn said. "Look at what you're doing, right now. You are my child, without a doubt." She stepped towards their daughter and gripped the girl's shoulders in her own strong hands. "So quick to judge without really knowing. I thought you had inherited more of John's character than mine. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps you don't have his heart after all."

John watched as A'lya bit her lip; he could tell she was fighting back tears. He had been so wrapped up in his own hopes and misery that he had forgotten about his daughters, how they would feel about Aeryn, especially how A'lya would react to her mother. She had reacted exactly as she had been raised‹skeptical and untrusting. Her bond was with him and Aeryn was an interloper.

"YouŠyou didn't answer my question," A'lya pressed on, trying to keep her voice steady.

"A'lya," he said. "Knock off the crap."

"No, John." Aeryn's voice was soft. He tried to stand but Melanie wrapped herself around him tighter, making it awkward. Aeryn turned to him and shook her head then turned back to A'lya, releasing her grip on the girl. "I am different because I don't want to see you suffer." She reached out and stroked A'lya's cheek; their daughter seemed frozen to the floor. "I told you that I would do anything for John. That extends to you too and to Melanie. But there is one thing I won't do‹I will not lose him again. If John chooses to return to Grayza, then I will go with him. But neither of us will force that on you."

"No." Melanie's voice was muffled against his neck then she untangled herself from him and dropped to the ground, standing between her sister and Aeryn. She looked up at Aeryn, Grayza's lavender eyes meeting Aeryn Sun's. John saw a flicker of uncertainty in Aeryn's expression; in that moment, he was certain she saw Grayza in those eyes. Melanie stood her ground between the two women who towered over her then reached out one hand to each of them, keeping them apart.

"A'lya," she said. "Just stop. Aeryn. You took us from our home. You brought us here. You can't just leave us now. You can't take our father from us."

Aeryn took a deep breath, and turned away from them, rubbing her forehead in thought. She looked at them all, frustrated. "I cannot do anything," she said finally, her hand cutting the air emphatically. She knelt down so that she was at eye level with Melanie. "I cannot force him to cooperate with the Nebari. John, it's just one more weapon to themŠ" She bit her lip and stood up. "They're not going to kill me or you or anyone if you don't assist them. But we will become part of this crew. They won't just let us go without some kind of payment. We will be what we were before‹on the run, hunted."

She was trying too hard to get through to him but she looked unconvinced that it would work.

"We're that now, Aeryn," he said quietly. "Either way, we're screwed. Peacekeepers. Nebari. It's all the same."

"Frelling stubborn human," she muttered. "We'll work this your way, John. I can't fight all of you." She looked from him to Melanie and finally at A'lya. "I know this means nothing to you, A'lya, but Šyou are my flesh and blood. I don't know what it will take to convince you that I meant no harm to any of you."

She turned away and went to her sleeping quarters then returned wearing a pair of boots and a jacket thrown hastily over her pants and T-shirt. "I will speak to Nerri," she said.

John watched as the door slid closed behind her. A'lya stared at the door, her eyes pale with anger and hurt. She placed her hands on Melanie's shoulders but the younger girl kept her gaze on him. He covered his face with his hands and leaned his head against the back of the couch.

"Crap," he said with a sigh. "It's never easy. Why is it never easy."

 

IV.

 

"Admiral Relnik." Lieutenant D'Lay Yosten stood at attention in front of the Admiral's console. Relnik sat back in his chair as he played the vid chip again, the one that told him all he needed to know about John Crichton and Aeryn Sun.

He had found the chip in the Peacekeeper databanks almost six monans prior to his arrival at Beta Station. It had been the final part of his research into John Crichton's past; it was so heavily encrypted that it had been almost impossible to access. The sound had been damaged to some extent and for that he had been grateful. His own long ago military experience had embedded in him the sounds of hand to hand combat. He hadn't wanted to hear the replay of Aeryn Sun's beating. The images were ugly, split flesh and blood, an infant being wrested from its parents but most of all, Grayza's sadistic pleasure at the defeat of her enemies.

Councilor Grayza was infamous for documenting everything aboard her Carriers and the Carrier she had won from Scorpius had been no exception. Relnik had watched another chip that showed the half-breed deserting Crichton and Sun aboard the Carrier. Grayza had not bothered to pursue Scorpius once she had had Crichton and her instincts had proven correct. Legend had it that a Peacekeeper had murdered Scorpius. Either way, within a cycle of Crichton's capture, Scorpius had been forgotten and never heard from again.

Captain Braca hadn't needed to remind him of Crichton's past. The chip had been the first chapter in Peacekeeper history for Jak Lyczac. The current situation would be his last, if Relnik had anything to say about it.

He reached over and released the chip from the holo-viewer and slid it back into his pocket. He had become obsessed with it, with the history of a Peacekeeper officer who had so willingly discarded her training for John Crichton.

"Lieutenant." Relnik nodded at her curtly. "What is the status of the wormhole data?"

"The Carrier is jamming all frequencies."

He nodded. "It may take some patience on our end. We can only hope that our contact is willing to take us at our word." There was a signal from the door. "Open that, Lieutenant. I'm expecting someone."

She stepped over to the door and motioned it open. Braca stepped in and blinked at her in surprise.

"Lieutenant Yosten?" He looked from her to the Admiral. "What is this about, Sir?"

"Braca," Relnik said. "What is Grayza's plan?"

"She is planning to take the prototype Vigilante to the Nebari ship and negotiate with Lyczac directly."

"Sir, the theory is that the prototype can hide itself from all sensors with a minimum of power," Yosten interjected. "Captain Lyczac referred to it as ŚProject T'raltixxŠ"

Relnik caught a faint smile on the young lieutenant's lips; there was no question that her loyalties were with Lyczac. "Lieutenant, how many of your technicians know of this ship's capabilities?" he asked.

She shook her head. "No one but the Captain and me. And Councilor Grayza, of course, sir. Captain Lyczac was very specific about limiting access to the project."

"Interesting," Relnik said. "Braca, do you suppose Councilor Grayza plans to use this device in a hidden attack on the Nebari once she's inside their vessel?"

"Sir, it's doubtful. I don't believe she would jeopardize her own life or that of the child. AndŠ" he hesitated. "And I do not believe she would be that magnanimous towards Lyczac."

Relnik nodded. "I understand. Such a death would be swift and far too impersonal." He turned back to the young woman. "So be it. Yosten, ready the Vigilante as Grayza directs. Dismissed." He waved them both away and turned his attention back to the holo-viewer.

 

***

Aeryn found Meelak positioned at the comms console on the command deck, his brows knitted together in frustration. The command deck was bustling but Nerri was nowhere to be found. Meelak looked up when he saw her and quickly shut down the screen in front of him.

"Where's Nerri?" she asked. She took note of the second pistol strapped to his leg; he had only worn one for as long as she could remember.

"Aeryn," he said curtly. "Where's Crichton?"

"With his daughters. I need to see Nerri." She frowned at him as he turned to her, his body blocking the comms console and both arms folded across his chest. His dark eyes stared at her, almost daring her to question him. She and Meelak had been comrades for cycles. This behavior was outside the norm and she was sure that it was associated with John's refusal to cooperate with them. "Why are you wearing an extra weapon?" she asked.

"We've begun receiving transmissions from Grayza's carrier. They're trying to jam our communications with theirs. Nerri's working on it now." Meelak relaxed slightly but didn't move away from the console.

"Is that what you're doing...there?" She nodded her head towards the comms.

"Crichton is jeopardizing our mission, Aeryn. You promised us wormhole technology in exchange for Crichton's freedom. You do understand the seriousness of this?"

"I understand." She rubbed her fingertips against her forehead, her eyes burning with weariness. She was tired of it all, tired of the conflict that had existed between John and her and his daughters, tired of her position between him and the Nebari. If she could, if honor would allow it, she would flee.

"Can you tell me where he is?" she continued.

"He's occupied. I will interrupt him if you have something to tell him that will be of some value."

Aeryn narrowed her eyes at him. "I'm not leaving until I see him."

Meelak shrugged. "So be it." He turned away from her and she stared through the viewport at the stars and the Command Carrier making its way slowly towards them.

*

Chiana leaned against the wall of Nerri's quarters, waiting for her brother. She had promised Crichton an answer but so far, had found nothing short of tying Crichton to his chair until they could break away from Grayza's Carrier.

The door slid open smoothly and Nerri stepped in, his face grim.

"Nerri." She sidled up to him and tugged his sleeve. He glanced at her and smiled but he looked past her towards the glass that separated his outer quarters from the command deck below. She followed his gaze and watched as members of the Resistance scurried back and forth below them, some one hundred in all currently in command. Some of them were hunched over their consoles, their stiff postures relaying the intensity of their concentration on the task at hand. Meelak was standing towards the entrance to the command deck at his own console, alone. She saw him glance up at them through the glass then saw a brief nod of her brother's head before he turned towards her again.

"Nerri," she repeated. "They're still out there, aren't they?" She raised her gloved hands towards the holo hovering in front of them. He had not shut it down since they had left the Peacekeepers' Beta Station. The images ran continually; she had encountered him a few times just sitting and staring at them when he should have been sleeping. All three Carriers were visible now, the two more recent arrivals still hanging back from the Carrier that was allegedly escorting them to the end of Peacekeeper space towards the Uncharted Territories.

Treaties were wonderful things, she supposed. The one the Resistance had agreed upon with the Peacekeepers was just enough to keep them from having a go at each other. This was the first time it had actually been tested.

She had never thought about politics much before and it still didn't interest her too much. But she had learned enough in the time that she'd been with her brother again to see that he was no longer a boy trying to protect his younger sister. His obligations went beyond that. The Resistance had grown stronger as more Nebari had tired of the repressive and corrupt Establishment. Mercenaries like Aeryn and D'Argo had also joined in the crusade but there was still not enough strength in the Resistance movement to defeat the Establishment.

Nerri had taken a huge risk in taking Crichton from the Peacekeepers; *Chiadda* was the pride of the Resistance and symbolized its strength. To lose *Chiadda* would cost Nerri everything. Yet he had put it on the line both for personal and political reasons. John Crichton. Crichton was the key to the Resistance's ability to finally defeat the Establishment and entrench itself as a player on equal footing to the Peacekeepers.

Getting Crichton back was all she'd wanted, both for Aeryn and for herself. She had lost lovers, had not felt settled enough to have a family. It was just her, and D'Argo, and Aeryn, the three of them sometimes having nothing more in common than the fact that they were without anyone else in the universe.

"Did you speak to Crichton?" Nerri said. He clasped his hands behind his back and didn't turn to her, still intent on the images in front of him.

"Yeah. Yeah, I did." She nodded her head quickly.

Nerri turned to her but his face was hard. There was no trace of her loving brother in his black eyes. "And?"

She shrugged. "I...I don't know, Nerri. He wants to help, sure. I'm sure he does. But if he gives this to us-"

"We don't have much time." His voice was somber and low. "If those carriers overtake us, I cannot guarantee that the Peacekeepers will uphold the treaty. Did you tell Crichton that?"

She sighed. "He says he'll return to Grayza before he'll do any more wormholes."

"Then it's all for nothing. No, Sister, I will not let that happen. It's time for me to pay a visit to Crichton myself."

 

*

 

Aeryn caught up with Nerri as he strode past the command deck and to the crew quarters, Chiana straggling behind him. Meelak had done nothing to stop her from following the Nebari commander.

"Nerri, I need to speak with you," she said, falling into step beside him.

"Aeryn, this is not the time. Chiana told me what Crichton is planning to do." He stopped and turned towards her. "Please tell me you've talked him out of that."

The expression on her face said it all, she knew, because he turned away from her and started walking again. "Aeryn, I understand the situation between you and Crichton is difficult. But you made a promise."

"Hey, Nerri, wait a minute." Chiana caught his arm. He stopped and turned towards her.

"Chiana, we had a promise that Crichton would assist us. We are at the mercy of the Peacekeepers now. Make no mistake‹I will not lose this ship or our cause for Crichton." He looked at Aeryn and laid a hand on her shoulder. She didn't move away‹she saw the sorrow in his eyes and understood his position as well as she understood her own.

"Aeryn," he said. "If Crichton returns to the Peacekeepers, they will kill him rather than let him live with his wormhole knowledge. I will not risk losing him."

She cleared her throat. "Nor will I. John is stubborn and he believes you will use this weapon unwisely."

"As the Peacekeepers did?" Nerri raised an eyebrow. "Does he believe that only Peacekeepers can keep this weapon in check? The more races who have it, the less likely it is to be used."

They were at her quarters. Aeryn palmed the door control and walked in. John was fully dressed in Nebari gear and she noticed that he had strapped a holster and pistol to his leg. He was pacing again, rubbing his thumb thoughtfully over his lips. He stopped when he saw them but his expression was almost expectant. He'd obviously been waiting for this moment.

"Where are A'lya and Melanie?" Aeryn asked.

"Chi's quarters. I figured y'all would be coming by." His eyes never left Nerri.

"John Crichton." Nerri said. His tone was sharp. "I am Nerri Ansofas." He raised a hand in greeting.

"Nerri. Thanks for the rescue, man." He extended his hand. Nerri looked at him suspiciously until Chiana nudged him.

"Take his hand and shake it," she said to her brother.

Nerri raised an eyebrow at her but did as he was told, grabbing John's hand and moving it up and down several times until John pulled away. Chiana tried to keep the smile off her face.

"Thanks, Pip." John rubbed his arm. "I can see why you're the man in charge, Nerri. That's a killer handshake."

"What is this business I hear about you returning to the Peacekeepers?" Nerri said without ceremony. "You are aware they have two additional Carriers on the way."

John nodded. "Yep, I'm aware of that. That's why I've made this decision."

"It's an unnecessary one. This is about wormhole technology." Nerri would not be deterred. "Can you construct a device to get us out of here?"

"Let me just wave my magic wand..." John patted his coat pockets. "Nope, guess I left that in my other jacket."

"John," Aeryn said. "Nerri, I apologize. John hasn't been himself..."

"No, Aeryn. I am myself. I am perfectly myself." He turned to Nerri. "Nerri, truthfully, I owe you my life. My future. But I cannot be a party to this destruction again. I can't do it. And what guarantee do I have that you guys won't turn around and destroy the Peacekeepers?"

"My word, Crichton. You ask Aeryn the value of my word."

"I understand it. I understand what you've done for Aeryn. I understand that you've lost a few of your guys in this undertaking. But I don't think you'd be here without Aeryn."

"Listen, Crichton." Nerri's tone was softer, cajoling. He laid a hand on Crichton's shoulder. "Chiana has told me everything there is to know about you. And if she wasn't telling me, D'Argo was. Or Aeryn. I know what you've done for all of them and if it were my decision alone, I would leave it at that. You paid your debt for this raid a long time ago with your protection of my sister. You were a brother to her when I couldn't be. But. It is not my decision alone." His hand tightened on John's shoulder.

John nodded. "I understand. Politics."

"Yes. My position is not tenuous. Don't misunderstand. But some of my captains feel I've been soft on this matter, have taken it too personally. Perhaps they're right. They believe that you should be my prisoner until you cooperate with us. Perhaps they're right about that too." His black eyes flicked at Aeryn. "I've told Aeryn as much."

"Yeah. This is the thing. Even if I wanted to, there's no way I can build anything quickly enough to get us out of this jam. Their treaties with you guys stipulate that they won't start any aggression. But by picking me up, you were the aggressor, which means they can retaliate. And I know Grayza." He took a deep breath. "I know her better than anyone."

John grimaced. Aeryn reached out her hand, steadying him. He looked at Aeryn and smiled slightly then turned back to Nerri. "I think maybe we can negotiate an agreement with her."

Nerri snorted. "I've heard of the price you're willing to pay, Crichton. You heard what I said. That is unacceptable." He pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I have scientists who have been studying wormholes. We aren't completely without resources. Peacekeepers don't have the only scientists in the universe." He smiled tightly.

"Not arguing that point," John said.

"What are you proposing, Nerri?" Aeryn said.

"What if Crichton‹you just guide them. Would that violate any mandate you have with the Peacekeepers?"

John took a deep breath. "Wormholes..." He paused, and then continued, his voice softer. "Wormholes eat me alive," he said, rubbing his thumb over his lip. "Once I start, I can't stop. One becomes another and another...without the proper stabilizers and guidance, we'll create a mess. You guys just don't have the technology to control it. That's no knock on your scientists. It's all me."

Aeryn looked at him. His blue eyes were elsewhere, staring off into a distant past that only he could see. She gripped his arm tightly and recognized what he saw‹death. Those deaths mingled with the ones she had brought about with own hand in a way more personal than any wormhole technology could have created. She had stood over her enemies and watched them die and recalled feeling nothing but emptiness when it was all over. Not even Scorpius' death had brought her any real satisfaction.

"John," she began but a voice, cold and precise, echoed through the comms system and sent a chill through Aeryn.

*"This message is an all points broadcast from Councilor Grayza of the Peacekeeper craft Kierro. Commander Ansofas, I request permission to board your ship to negotiate for the release of the Peacekeepers you still hold as prisoners. Failure to comply with this request will result in the destruction of your ship."*

"What the frell?" Nerri hit his comm. "Meelak, what the frell is going on there?"

*"Peacekeepers are jamming our comms, Nerri. You'd better get down here. Grayza is on screen and waiting for your response. We have ninety microts."*

Aeryn heard Nebari oaths and then D'Argo was on the unsecured comm channel. *"John, it's true. Their cannons are locked and targeted."*

"Let's go," John said. "We don't really have much of a choice anymore."

 

*

A'lya reached into the locker for their weapons when she heard Grayza's voice ringing through the system. She and Melanie had complied with their father's request to wait for him in Chiana's quarters but, even as she'd done so, she had begun to suspect that Melanie had been right. Her sister, ten cycles old and hardly out of her first section of cadet training, had out-strategized A'lya. She had allowed herself to let emotions get in the way of clear thinking, the same way Aeryn Sun had so many cycles before. She would not let emotions cost her father his life.

"How are we going to get to him?" Melanie said.

"Just get your pistol, Melanie." A'lya bundled her rifle in a Nebari jumpsuit and clutched it clumsily under her arm. "Let's get to her quarters. Maybe...maybe he hasn't heard it yet."

"I don't know..." Melanie looked skeptical. A'lya finished zipping up her cadet's uniform and took hold of her sister's hand. They went into the corridor. Nebari soldiers rushed past them, headed for battle stations or command. She and Melanie walked against the crowd, ignored in the rush.

The door to Aeryn's quarters was open. A'lya stepped in and did a quick canvass of the room.

"He's not here." She ran one hand over her hair in thought. "He's likely gone with them to command. And if we go there-"

"We'll stay there until she boards," Melanie finished. "Do you think they'll let her aboard, A'lya?"

"It doesn't sound like they have much of a choice. She's going to want to take us back‹all of us." She paused. "Melanie, those star charts. Where are they?"

Melanie smiled. "I put them under your bunk." She ran towards their sleeping quarters and re-emerged, the charts rolled up in her hand.

A'lya tightened her lips and nodded in satisfaction. "She'll want you, Mel. And if you're not here, she'll come after you. Even with Dad in her custody, she's not going to return to the Carrier without you." She turned to her sister and crouched down in front of her. "Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Melanie nodded somberly, the smile fading from her face. "Yes...yes, I do."

"Right. As long as we're agreed." She grabbed her sister's hand. "Let's get to the hangar."

Nebari in battle gear and body armor rushed past them in the corridors, some of them going the same direction they were, some headed for command, some for parts unknown. She felt like she had steel in her spine. This was a battle, perhaps even more so than the one they'd partaken in when they'd been kidnapped from Beta Station. There were no Peacekeeper escorts, no Nebari Resistance fighters, no Aeryn SunŠNot even their father. They were on their own and instead of fear, A'lya finally felt in control of her own destiny. She would not fail John Crichton the way everyone else had.

When they arrived at the hangar, her resolve faded. The Nebari ships were well guarded, technicians working on each and every one as pilots climbed into them. There wasn't a spare anywhere to be seen.

"A Prowler, a Prowler, a Prowler," A'lya muttered. She stopped and looked down at her sister. Melanie's face was as pale as the Nebari, and A'lya could see her swallow hard, fighting down her fear. A'lya set the pulse rifle on the ground next to her and took Melanie firmly by the shoulders. "Mel." Her sister looked at her blankly. "Melanie, you're a Peacekeeper. Remember your training, Cadet! When you were here earlier, did you see a Peacekeeper Prowler? Aeryn's Prowler."

"I...I can't remember." Melanie's voice shook

"Think! You were there for awhile. Did. You. See a Prowler? I'm sure Aeryn has one. A Peacekeeper pilot wouldn't fly any other craft, not in battle."

Melanie nodded. "Yes...maybe..." Her face lit up and she grabbed A'lya's hand. "I remember! This way."

A'lya followed her to a far corner of the hangar, nearly abandoned. She could see the hangar doors open as Nebari fighters flew into open space. The call to battle stations had sounded but, along with that, was a call for restraint. There would be no firing unless fired upon. A'lya nodded her silent agreement with that order as they found what she was looking for.

The Prowler's canopy was open, the ladder set up against the ship, ready for battle. She climbed in first and dropped into the pilot's seat. Melanie climbed into the jump seat behind her. It was an older model Prowler without any wormhole modification but it was similar enough to the sims she'd flown. A'lya snapped the canopy shut and moved towards the control panel when a colorful patch of orange emblazoned with a shape of red, white and blue caught her eye.

The patch was wrapped tightly around one side of the Prowler's steering control. It almost looked like a banner or flag of some sort, white and red lines stacked upon each other, with a blue square and white star-shapes decorating the left side of it.

She detached it and held it between her fingertips. The fabric was unlike anything she'd felt before and the shape had been embroidered to the orange piece. Another patch with the markings *I A S A* was placed carefully on one side of the Prowler's control panel. These were not Peacekeeper markings, nor were they like anything she had seen on the Nebari vessel. She stared at both items, not knowing what to make of them, until she felt Melanie prod her in the back.

"Do you know how to fly this or not?" Melanie's voice was shaking with fear.

"Yes, yes. Give me the charts." Melanie handed them over. A'lya scanned them briefly and programmed the coordinates. She opened the control panel and felt the Prowler come to life. They glided out of the ship alongside a squadron of Nebari fighters.

"Do you know where you're going?"

A'lya shrugged and completed the navigation program. "Somewhere out there. That's as good as it's going to get for now." She felt Melanie's small hand on her shoulder and she patted it reassuringly. "We're going to be all right, Mel. All of us. You'll see."

*

 

"Grayza." John stood on the command deck, Aeryn alongside him. She had taken time to grab her pulse pistol and strap it to her pajama pants but that was about it. He had sent D'Argo and Chiana to find his daughters and hide them for now, to reassure them that what they were hearing through the comms would not affect them, but that would be a lie.

Grayza's image glared down at him from the holo-viewer in front of them. He could see that she wasn't on the Carrier. The setting behind her looked familiar but he couldn't place it. She stood there, arms crossed over her chest, uniform open as usual. The heppel gland wasn't used nearly as much as it used to be but it was still her greatest weapon.

"Captain Lyczac," she drawled. The Nebari were still trying to cut off her ship-wide communications, unsuccessfully so far.

"John Crichton," he replied. He held up his index finger, pointing it at her image. "My name. Is John Crichton, Grayza. Let's quit pretending, right?" He let his hand drop to his side then he felt Aeryn's strong fingers grasp his hand tightly. He turned to her and she offered him a quick smile, lifting her chin just slightly, encouraging him.

"Crichton," Grayza conceded. "Did you really think Aeryn Sun's good deed would go unpunished?"

He laughed shortly. "Never. Grayza, if there's one thing you've taught me, it's the meaning of the word perseverance. That's the only thing you, me and Aeryn all have in common."

"Understand, Crichton," she continued. "Officer Sun has betrayed the Peacekeepers, you and your daughters. She has put your life in jeopardy."

"Councilor Grayza." Nerri stepped forward. "Our scans are picking up a smaller vessel. We have not yet agreed to your presence on our ship."

"I've ordered a stand down of the Carrier. Perhaps Crichton can identify this ship for you." She stepped towards a console and nodded towards the officer at the panel. Crichton recognized the Peacekeeper before the ship's specs flashed on the screen.

"Lieutenant Yosten," he said flatly. He gazed at the young woman who faced the screen but her gaze was rapt on the console in front of her. "D'Lay. The prototype‹it's not ready." The Vigilante, the project he'd been working on before going on house arrest and then getting hauled out by the Nebari.

Aeryn turned to him, eyebrows raised. "Prototype? Of what, John?"

He turned to her, his hands gripping both her shoulders as he leaned in, his voice low enough to avoid detection by Grayza's scans. "We were testing stealth technology, " he said.

"You and the LieutenantŠ"

"I had this thought, if I could get clearance to fly it Š"

She looked at him and he saw her swallow hard, understanding dawning in her expression. "Escape," she whispered.

"Maybe." He shrugged. Building that thing had been much like talking into his tape recorder when he had first come through the Uncharted Territories‹a lesson in futility. No one would ever hear those tapes and he would never escape the Peacekeepers in the ship, much less be able to smuggle his daughters out. Still, it had given him something to do. HopeŠmaybe he'd had it after all.

He scratched his head. "Aeryn, the problem is that the ship has a working prototype‹"

She nodded slowly. "A hidden assault could damage *Chiadda* despite her armament, giving the other Carriers time to come in and press their attack."

"Yeah. Pretty much." He released his grip on her arms. The holo of Grayza wavered and then dropped off the screen. He turned to Meelak.

"What the hell was that?" he said.

"We've blocked her communication with *Chiadda*," Meelak said. "Nerri, we have another transmission. For your eyes only."

Nerri nodded. "Maintain our presence." He turned to Aeryn. "Under no circumstances do any of you leave this ship. Is that understood?" He took a chip from Meelak and went past them to his quarters.

*"John. Aeryn."* D'Argo's voice boomed through the comm Aeryn had attached to her jacket. *"Meet me in the hangar. Aeryn, your Prowler's gone. And so are your daughtersŠ"*

John felt his chest tighten. "What the hell‹" he began.

Aeryn grabbed his hand. "Let's go."

 

***

 

"Captain!" Grayza's cut through the silence. Braca turned to her from his place at the navigation console and stood at attention.

"The Nebari have cut off our communications. They've apparently found a way to jam us," he added. He glanced at Yosten who sat calmly at her tech console, entering figures that meant nothing to him. Grayza had brought her along to use the ship to its full advantage. If Crichton created a wormhole, they would be after him and he'd never know it.

Grayza turned and stared at the stars and the formation of Nebari fighters that hung near the Nebari ship, awaiting orders. The Carrier was within firing range but she was abiding by Relnik's recommendation to not use the Carrier as her own personal arsenal. There was no need at this moment.

Braca's orders were less clear. Relnik wanted the problem solved but he had not given Braca any indication of what that solution should be.

"Captain Braca." Grayza pointed her finger towards the formation. "What is that Prowler doing there?"

Braca squinted at the image. "Councilor, it doesn't appear to be one of ours. The insignia--"

Grayza cut him off. "Lieutenant, magnify the image as much as possible."

Yosten nodded and they watched as the Prowler appeared on screen. The pilot was difficult to see but she was not Nebari‹long black hair was knotted in the back of her head, eyes intent on the screens in front of her, sharp nose and angular face just barely visible in the magnification. The Prowler's windows were so heavily marked that it was difficult to make any further adjustment to see the pilot. Grayza had obviously seen enough‹her eyes narrowed at the image in front of her and she crossed her arms over her chest. Her voice was ice.

"Aeryn Sun. What kind of games are you playing? Lieutenant, open communications with the Nebari ship."

"I can't, Ma'am. They're still interfering with our communications."

Grayza nodded, her expression tight. "Set your course for that Prowler. If the Nebari won't cooperate, we'll take them ourselves. Let's see if Ansofas has the mivonks to start a conflict."

 

*

 

"A'lya?" Melanie's voice was excited and scared.

A'lya waved her away, intent on navigation. The Prowler was unwieldy compared to the sims and the navigational readings were unfamiliar. Now that she'd had the opportunity to fly it, she realized that the ship couldn't possibly have been used in any battles recently. It seemed to be a hodgepodge of salvaged pieces with a communications array that bore little resemblance to the sims or real Prowlers A'lya had seen.

"The scanŠ" Melanie said.

She felt perspiration running down her back. The atmospheric controls were minimal, just enough to provide breathable air. Why had Aeryn Sun bothered to keep it when she'd obviously had a larger arsenal of ships, all more capable than this Prowler?

Her hand lingered near the little orange patch on the steering column and she wondered if it had any relation to her father. Had he noticed yet that they were gone?

She felt her sister's hand on her shoulder again, shaking her and pointing. A'lya glanced at the scanner then out the cockpit's window. She couldn't detect the ship with the naked eye but the shape on the console in front of her was familiar‹a Peacekeeper ship, Vigilante class. Just as suddenly, the ship disappeared from the scanner.

She flipped a switch and felt a boost of power rumble through the Prowler, sending a shudder through her. This was it, a real ship, their lives on the lineŠand she was scared beyond reason.

"What are we going to do?" Melanie whispered.

Navigational readings scrolled on the panel in front of her; she regarded them all. Stars, nebulas, constellations flashed by until she saw it, so close that she was surprised she'd overlooked it. A planet. The readings told her it was barren but had breathable air. It would have to do for now.

A'lya sighed deeply. Her hands gripped the steering column and she noticed that her fingers were pressed tightly against the patch on the column, each indentation of her finger a perfect copy of the imprints in the patch. "I have no frelling idea," she breathed as she made a turn towards the planet.

 

*

 

"What the hell's going on?" John stared at D'Argo in the half empty hangar. Most of the Nebari fighters had taken up defensive positions around the ship. Aeryn's hand gripped his arm tightly, almost steadying him. Almost. He could feel himself wanting to shake with fear and anger at all of them. "What do you mean Aeryn's Prowler is gone?" John's gaze moved to an object D'Argo held in both hands. It was a Peacekeeper pulse rifle. At the Luxan's feet was a discarded Nebari jumpsuit, the one his daughter had been wearing when he'd last seen her.

"I don't frelling believe this," John breathed. He turned on Chiana. "Pip, I thought they were with you!"

She shook her head and her whole body seemed to shake with it. "TheyŠthey were in my quarters when I went to talk to Nerri," she offered. She withered under his glare. "Crichton, they were there! I didn't think they'd take off. I'm sorryŠJohnŠ" She put her hand on his arm but he pulled away.

"So you guys went to Chi's, didn't see the kids, came up here, didn't see the kidsŠwhat else?" He looked at the three of them. Aeryn's expression was tight and worried. Chiana looked down guiltily. "How the hell do you know they've gone anywhere?" he demanded.

"This star chart was under your daughters' bunk." D'Argo held up a flimsy under Crichton's nose. "I've been comming them for the last half arn and they're not responding." D'Argo handed the pulse rifle to Aeryn and laid his big hands on John's shoulders. "It's possible that Grayza's communication frightened them off."

"Ya think, Big D? It scared the hell out of me too." He pulled away from his friend and squatted down, rubbing the fabric of the Nebari jumpsuit between his fingertips. He looked over at Aeryn‹she stared at an empty spot in the hangar.

"A'lya can fly a Prowler, John," she said quietly. "No one else would take it."

"We'll find them, John," D'Argo began.

"It's a fucking needle in a haystack!" John exclaimed. He scrubbed his hands over his face and stood up. "Aeryn, do you have any way of tracking your ship?"

She shook her head. "IŠI had no reason to. But if they still have their comms we can track their frequency."

"IfŠmy life's come down to Śif'. We're wasting time here." He sucked in his breath. "We're getting off this boat and we're going to find my kids."

"Lo'La," D'Argo said. "Aeryn, take Lo'La and find them. We'll meet at the rendezvous point."

"I'll deal with Nerri," Chiana finished. "Crichton, I'm so sorryŠ"

He shook his head. "Never mind. Let's just get the hell out of here before we lose them." He looked at Aeryn. "I can't lose them, Aeryn."

"You won't." She offered him a half smile and then turned towards the Luxan ship.

 

*

 

A'lya's stomach felt the ragged pull of the Prowler's engines even before the sensors read it. They were going to crash. The planet's atmosphere dragged on the ship; she could feel the Prowler losing altitude under her fingertips.

Every monitor in the ship was sending off warning signals, beeps and alarms. She heard her sister's breath coming in and out in short gasps, felt Melanie's knees braced against the back of the pilot's seat. A'lya looked at the Prowler's scanner‹the Vigilante was either gone or the scanner itself was off-line. She had no way of knowing and no time to worry. They were frelled either way.

She wanted to turn to her little sister and hug her, comfort her, apologize but there was no time. The controls shuddered in her hands and the Prowler convulsed as they entered the planet's atmosphere.

"Melanie, you still there." Her voice was shaking.

"Yes."

*"A'lya. Melanie. Pick up the phone if you're out there. Come on, girls. Let me know you're out there."*

The voice was coming through her comm. A'lya sat up and turned her head around to look at Melanie. Her sister's lavender eyes were wide. Their father's voice was shaking and frightened but she realized that her plan had worked. He had followed them off the Nebari ship.

She tapped the comm to respond. "Dad."

*"A'lya!" * She heard his sigh of relief. *"Tell me where you're at and we'll get you."*

"Where are you?" she began.

*"D'Argo's ship. I don't know what the hell you're doing out there or what the hell you _think_ you're doing out there but send me your coordinates."*

"IŠ" She faltered. "I don't recognize this comm array," she admitted. "Dad, nothing in this ship is as it should be. It's a piece of dren!"

*"It wasn't meant to be taken out and flown like this."* Aeryn's voice was steady and held a hint of amusement. A'lya blinked. Aeryn had gone with him.

*"Well, then what the hell WAS it for?"* John's voice was clear over their comms.

*"Later."* Aeryn dismissed him. *"A'lya, listen to my instructions,"* she said.

"We're already in the planet's atmosphere and I don't think we'll have enough power to pull out," A'lya said. "Dad, you'll have to retrieve us here."

*"That's fine,"* Aeryn said, ignoring the fact that A'lya had addressed her comments to John. *"Do you think you can land safely?"*

"I thinkŠ" A'lya began, Melanie's hand firm on her shoulder. "I think. Yes."

*"Good. There is a beacon on the communications array."* Aeryn's voice was matter of fact. *"Set it now, A'lya. Just turn the knob and that will enable it.*"

*"We're about half an arn behind you, baby,"* John said. *"We _will_ find you."*

"Yes. I believe you," A'lya said.

 

*

 

Grayza laughed. It was a sound without humor, cold and biting. Yosten glanced at Braca. He nodded at her to continue their path onto the planet.

"Too easy," she said under her breath. "Lieutenant, you were able to get a fix on both ships?"

"Yes, Councilor. The Prowler has already entered the planet's atmosphere. We won't have a precise landing point for it but we will come within ten metras."

Grayza nodded. "Good. By the time we arrive, Cri‹Lyczac and Aeryn Sun will have already joined his daughters." She strode over to Braca and laid her hand on his arm. "You see, Captain? Patience. Perseverance. There is no such thing as blind fortune or fate. We make our own destiny. When we find them, I will finish the job with them that I should have fifteen cycles ago."

She drew her fingers over her breastbone and under his nose. He felt himself grow dizzy as he fought to maintain control. PerseveranceŠ

"Bring Melanie to the ship," she said. "I don't want her to witness their executions."

"Ma'am," he said brusquely. This chapter must come to an end, Relnik had said but there'd been no other words of guidance. Was this how he had meant it to be?

 

*

 

The landing wasn't as bad as A'lya had expected. She had managed to set the ancient Prowler down in an area of brush and young trees. It half hung in the crown one of those trees, the nose of the ship dipping so that it almost touched the ground. She popped the canopy open and breathed in deeply. The analysis had been correct, at least. Breathable air.

"Move slowly," she instructed her sister. "We're not too far up but I don't want to send this crashing down either."

Melanie nodded, speechless. A'lya was still scared but she felt a measure of relief that she had gotten her father away from the Nebari ship for the time being. That was the extent of it though. How long before Councilor Grayza decided that her father wasn't worth the effort?

"Don't you think we should stay in here?" Melanie said, her voice barely squeaking out. "I know it has the beacon on‹"

"We could," A'lya said. "I'm just worried that if it goes, we'll go with it so don't wiggle around too much." She smiled reassuringly at her sister. They just had to wait for their fatherŠ

"What's that?" Melanie sat up with a start; A'lya felt the ship settle further into the tree. "I hear something coming."

"Could they be here already?" A'lya craned her neck to see over the open canopy. The voice spoke before she could duck her head.

"Cadets Lyczac and Grayza. Abandon the Prowler immediately."

"Captain Braca," Melanie said, closing her eyes. "It's Captain Braca."

"Frell!" A'lya's eyes scanned the crowded Prowler but she didn't see it‹her pulse rifle. "Frell," she said again. "Mel, I left the rifle on the ship. Give me your pistol."

"A'lya‹"

"Now, Melanie!" Her voice was sharp and cold. Melanie handed the weapon to her without question. "Stay down." A'lya stood gingerly, the pistol firmly in one hand, until she was able to rest both arms on the edge of the ship, the pulse pistol leveled directly at Braca.

"Captain, step back." She tried to control the shaking in her voice.

"Cadet Lyczac, drop your weapon." His voice was soft, not what she had expected in this situation. "Drop it and there will be no bloodshed."

"A'lya," Melanie whispered. "Shoot him."

"What?" A'lya turned her head to look at her sister in disbelief, just enough to be distracted. She felt the sting of the pistol leaving her hand as Braca got off a clean shot with one blast of his pulse rifle. It was enough movement to send the Prowler crashing to the ground. She fell back and hit her head‹the last thing she saw was Melanie's face over her.

 

*

 

John stood over the remains of the crashed Prowler and tried not to let fear completely overshadow reason. He could hear the pinging of the beacon Aeryn had described. The Prowler itself was no longer space-worthy‹it was arguable whether it ever had been‹but the damage wasn't enough to have hurt anyone. It was obvious that the brush had broken its descent. The remaining lunge to the ground had only set the Prowler flat on its body without benefit of landing gear. StillŠneither of the girls was there.

Aeryn climbed clumsily into the Prowler and then emerged, her expression closed. In her hand, he caught sight of a small patch. Recognition tugged at his heart. It was a piece of his flight suit, carefully cut so that the American flag stood out in relief against the orange material. She stared at it thoughtfully then hit her comm.

"A'lya? It's Aeryn. Please respond."

Silence.

"A'lya." Aeryn's voice ratcheted up a notch. "Respond now."

"What's that?" John lifted his chin towards a black object under the wing of the Prowler. Aeryn was on it before he could move his feet. She lifted it up towards him‹it was a partially blasted pulse pistol.

Aeryn's eyes closed momentarily and she dropped the pistol to the ground. "They brought these aboard when we took you from the Peacekeepers. It's Melanie's."

John shook his head. "No, no, noŠ"

"One of us should wait here in case they return," she suggested, taking a deep breath to steady her voice.

He put his hands on his hips and paced. "Yeah, right, Aeryn, get separated. That's a really great idea."

"We're already separated," she snapped. She grabbed his arm and turned him towards her. Her lips were tight and he saw the fear in her eyes, the same expression he was sure she could see in his. "I will stay," she said softly.

"You're right. I can't just stand around here waiting." He stroked her cheek. "Aeryn, this isn't your fault."

"Let's just find them and get the frell out of here, John." She pulled the comm from her jacket and handed it to him. "These comms are very similar to the ones we had on Moya. Just keep the channel open in case they respond."

"IŠI don't want to leave you here without any communications," he began.

She drew her pulse pistol from the holster she had strapped to her leg. The sight of her carrying a gun while wearing something that was little more than pajamas was absurd.

"John, don't worry about me. If we don't find them‹" she interrupted herself but he knew in an instant what she was thinking. If they didn't find the girls, nothing would matter after that.

"We'll meet you back here," he conceded then turned away from her and started off blindly towards the brush, the silent comm held out in his hand like a compass.

 

*

 

A'lya opened her eyes. She lay on the deck of a ship, her uniform dusty and her head pounding. She sat up and reached back to feel the lump forming on her head. Councilor Grayza stood over her, holding the comm that had been attached to Melanie's uniform. Melanie stood beside Grayza; the Councilor had one hand on Melanie's shoulder and A'lya could see the tears streaming down Melanie's face but the girl didn't make a sound.

"Councilor Grayza." She felt her stomach churn with dread. The comm was the one their father had used to find them; it was perfectly clear what Grayza's intent was.

"I've sent Captain Braca to retrieve your mother and father. They should be here shortly, Cadet," Grayza said. Her fingers stroked Melanie's hair. "Were all your questions regarding your mother answered, Cadet Lyczac?"

"IŠI don't know, Councilor," A'lya said softly.

"This was partially your doing," Grayza continued. "Your inquisitive nature was something inherited from your father. It's a shame; you would have made a fine Peacekeeper. No one had rated so well since, well, since Officer Aeryn Sun took her ratings. But, as you can see, there is more to being a Peacekeeper than knowing how to fly a Prowler." She turned away from A'lya towards Melanie. "And you, Cadet Grayza?"

"Councilor, don't harm my father. Please."

Grayza patted her on the shoulder and turned to the young woman who stood just to her right. A'lya recognized her‹Lieutenant D'Lay Yosten, her father's chief technical officer. A'lya knew that her father considered Yosten a friend, one of the few he'd seemed to have on Beta Station. Whether Yosten knew his true identity or not, A'lya had no way of knowing.

"Lieutenant, please keep Melanie here while the Captain and I deal with the traitor."

Yosten nodded, her lips pursed together tightly. She shot a glance at A'lya and nodded her head just slightly in acknowledgment. Then she took Melanie's hand and pulled her from Grayza.

"No, Councilor. Please." Melanie cried. "Councilor‹mother, please let A'lya come with me."

"Cadet, let's not make a fuss." Grayza's expression was hard and she turned her back on the pleading child.

"Go, Mel," A'lya said. "Just do what she says. We'll be there in a little bit. It'll be all right."

 

*

 

Aeryn watched until John completely disappeared from her sight through the brush. One fist tightened around the little orange patch she held in her hand, her other hand firmly gripping the pulse pistol. She looked for tracks but the ground was covered with vines‹not even the broken stems of the growth gave any clue as to which direction Melanie and A'lya might have gone.

Grayza's voice seared through her memory. Betrayal. A'lya had heard those words and undoubtedly believed them. Were it not for Aeryn's foray onto Beta Station, the girls would be there now, safe with their father, no worse off than they were before. Aeryn had taken a gamble and had met with the unexpected at every turn. She wanted to blame fate but she knew better; she had told John as much. No matter what he'd said, she was responsible for putting them in this situation.

She turned back towards the Prowler and found the other patch from John's uniform. *IASA*. She had never learned what those markings had meant to John. She only remembered the pain of scavenging his quarters after she had begun recovering from her injuries, frantically searching for pieces of him that she could carry with her, pieces that would take her back to that time when John had still been an innocent in the Uncharted Territories. Before Scorpius, before Grayza, before the Nebari‹before her longing for him had brought them here. The perspiration from her fingertips had faded out the red, white and blue of the patch; her grip had worn a groove into it. The little orange patch and the IASA symbols had become a fetish to her, something that had belonged to him. Sometimes it had felt like that was all she'd had left.

She leaned her left side heavily against the damaged Prowler, still clutching the pistol. She didn't want to be here, alone with her thoughts and that anger that had resurfaced as soon as she'd heard Grayza's voice filling the Nebari communications channels.

She had controlled herself around John and hadn't wanted to admit to him that her need to destroy the woman who had almost destroyed her was nearly as great as their need to find his daughters. There was no point in trying to describe how love and hate could coexist in her so strongly. The image of Xhalax, her expression of hate and fury, had haunted Aeryn in the years of her separation from John. He was the one who'd made her a better person, had brought out the part of her that wanted to protect and love a child she had never known. Yet, she had identified with her own mother on a primitive level, wanting to extract revenge from Mele-On Grayza, slowly kill her until she begged for her life. It was a horrible, shameful thing to admit and the more she tried to push it off, the more it came to her, unbidden.

"Drop your weapon, Officer Sun."

The point of a pulse rifle pushed Aeryn in the small of her back. The woman's voice was dispassionate. Aeryn whirled around and in one motion, head-butted Mele-On Grayza in the stomach. Grayza tumbled backwards but grabbed Aeryn by the arm, bringing her down as well. The pulse rifle and Aeryn's pistol went tumbling away from them. Aeryn tried to grapple for one of the weapons but Grayza caught her wrists, her grip much stronger than Aeryn had anticipated.

"Your daughter is as good as dead without your cooperation," Grayza said. She didn't even sound like she'd exerted herself.

Aeryn twisted away from Grayza and drew her fist back. The knuckles of her right just grazed the Councilor's cheekbone as the woman rolled towards the discarded pulse pistol. Aeryn reached for it and wrested it from Grayza's pale hands, moving so that she had pinned the Councilor underneath her.

"You're wrong, Grayza," Aeryn said. She held the pistol against Grayza's forehead. The lavender eyes stared into Aeryn's own‹there was no fear there, just a look that mocked her and dared her to pull the trigger. "You've earned this moment, Councilor." She spat out the words, her knees digging into Grayza's arms, holding her firmly to the ground. "You. Took. Everything. " She pushed the pulse pistol into Grayza's forehead but still the Councilor didn't flinch.

"No. No." A'lya's voice was hurried. "Don't kill her. Aeryn."

Aeryn looked up to see A'lya standing over her, eyes widened with fear. The girl's hands were bound in Peacekeeper cuffs. Her broken comm hung from her uniform. Aeryn had no idea where she'd come from‹she'd seen no one but Grayza.

"It has to end, A'lya," Aeryn said. "She will never let us go. She will never let us rest."

"You can't do it," A'lya said. "ItŠthere has to be another way. For Melanie."

"There is no other way. Don't you understand that? She's destroyed my past and is stealing my future. I will not let her do that again."

Grayza laughed. "Oh, Officer Sun. What a speech. Just end it, then. End this charade so that Braca can arrest you for the murder of a Councilor. Between that and your other crimes, the Living Death will be too merciful a punishment."

"Aeryn." A'lya stepped forward and put her bound hands on Aeryn's shoulder. "Mother." She forced the word out. "If you kill her, you'll have gained nothing. One more death, and then yours. And my father's."

Aeryn felt her hand start to shake but she steadied the pistol with both hands. Her breath came in hard, sharp gasps.

"Let my daughter go," Aeryn said, the pistol still pressed against Grayza's forehead. "Let her go and I will spare your life."

"Officer Sun, you are in no position to negotiate. Braca has summoned reinforcements. It's just a matter of time, really."

"Then they'll find you dead, Grayza." Her finger twitched on the trigger of the gun but she didn't have time to pull the trigger. A'lya slammed her body into Aeryn, knocking her off the Councilor. Grayza grabbed the pulse rifle and trained it on both of them.

"A'lya." Aeryn sat back, hands flat behind her, supporting her weight, too stunned to move. "A'lya." Her throat was constricted. The Peacekeeper indoctrination that had been instilled in A'lya since birth was stronger than Aeryn's own upbringing had been. The girl was a Peacekeeper above all else.

"I don't want you to kill anyone else!" A'lya said finally, her voice shaking. "No more blood on your hands, Aeryn."

"I'm already dead," Aeryn said heavily. She forced herself to her feet and moved, weaponless, towards Grayza. The Councilor grabbed A'lya and pointed the rifle at the back of the girl's head.

"It took fifteen cycles but I see you've finally made your choice, Officer Sun," Grayza said slowly. "Death for all of you." She pointed the rifle at Aeryn and fired.

 

*

 

John heard the pistol blast and it stopped him in his tracks. The comm was still dead but the shot had come from the direction of the Prowler. He stood for just a microt‹Aeryn, the girls‹it could have been either of them. He turned towards the sound and started to run.

 

*

 

"Frell," Aeryn said softly. She dropped to her knees and stared at the lifeless body that lay in front of her. The eyes were staring and empty but the expression was still bitter.

Councilor Grayza was dead. A'lya turned her head away and stepped back from the body. Captain Braca stood with the pulse rifle aimed at both of them, his expression hard.

"Where's Crichton?" he said. He nudged the rifle towards Aeryn.

Aeryn shook her head slowly. She felt cemented to the ground, her gaze fixed on Grayza as she felt relief flood through her. "You killed herŠ"

"Where's Crichton?" he repeated. "Cadet Lyczac?"

"IŠI don't know." A'lya averted her gaze away from all of them. "Looking for us."

"Give me that comm." Braca ripped it from her uniform before she could respond. He tapped it but heard nothing but static.

Aeryn heard heavy footfalls through the thick grass and turned to see John moving towards them, his pulse pistol leveled at Braca. "Aeryn!" he shouted. "What the hell's going on?" His gaze moved from Aeryn to A'lya to Braca and then finally on the dead body of Mele-On Grayza. "Aeryn? Did youŠ"

"Dad, it was the Captain," A'lya said.

"Braca." He moved until he stood between Aeryn and the Peacekeeper, one hand drawing A'lya behind him.

"It's over, Crichton. You, your children, yourŠmate." Braca spat out the last word and motioned with the rifle at the three of them. "I have my orders. You are to leave Peacekeeper space immediately. How you do that is your problem."

John shook his head quickly, unsure. "WhatŠ"

"I'm letting you go!" Braca shouted. "This ordeal is over. Do you understand me?" He moved towards John and stood toe to toe with him. "Lieutenant Yosten has Melanie. We will give her to you then you will leave this area and never return. Give me your ship's coordinates now."

"This is some kind of trickŠ" John began.

"You're going to have to trust me if you're to leave this sector. Your coordinates?"

"Give them to him, John." Aeryn stood up and moved slowly towards A'lya. Braca looked at her then tossed her the key to the handcuffs. Aeryn undid the lock.

"Thank you, A'lya," she whispered. She took her daughter in her arms and held her tightly. The girl's slim body shook with fear and grief against her, her sobs uncontrollable. Aeryn stepped back and smoothed her daughter's thick black hair. "You were right. Thank you."

 

*

 

"This is where it ends." Braca gestured, and Lieutenant Yosten let go of Melanie's hand. D'Lay Yosten offered Crichton a quick nod and a smile then returned to the Vigilante. The girl ran to her father, and John swooped her up into his arms where she wrapped herself tightly against him, looking over his shoulder at A'lya and Aeryn.

"History will be rewritten," Braca said. "I'll wager in one cycle, no one in Peacekeeper space will remember you."

"What about you, Braca?" Crichton offered him a crooked smile.

Braca straightened his back proudly. "Me? I will be glad to never think about you again."

"Were these your orders?" John asked.

Braca looked at Crichton's children, the two Peacekeeper cadets looking like little more than infants to him. Aeryn Sun stood next to Crichton, bloodied and dirty from her fight with Grayza, her expression soft. It was the first time he'd seen anything less than gritty determination in Officer Sun's gray blue eyes.

"My orders were to solve the problem of your existence and Grayza's obsession," Braca answered. "The solution itself was up to me. The Peacekeepers will not miss you, Crichton." Thoughts of Relnik's vid chip came to mind but he dismissed them quickly; it was over for him as well. He turned and entered the Vigilante, the hatch clanging shut behind him.

*

*

 

Relnik was replaying the chip again when Braca's voice filled the Admiral's quarters. *"Councilor Grayza was killed in the line of duty, a hero to her people. Captain Lyczac, the traitor Aeryn Sun and the Captain's two daughters were killed in the crash of their ship."*

Relnik nodded. "Councilor Grayza served our people well," he intoned, although he doubted the veracity of both his words and Braca's. "Report back at once, *Commandant* Braca. Beta Station and *Kierro* need you. A commanding officer's place is with his ship, especially in this time of sorrow."

There was a pause and then Braca cleared his throat. "Lieutenant Yosten and I will return to our duty stations, Admiral." His voice was crisp and sure.

Relnik nodded his assent and turned his attention to his communications console, fingers moving over the controls until he found the encrypted channel.

"Captain Meelak?" he said.

*"Admiral."*

"The wormhole data transmission is complete. And your side of this arrangement?"

*"The treaty is in place, Admiral. Commander Ansofas has proclaimed it. We will work as allies against Nebari Prime."*

"This was the right thing to do, Captain. Crichton was reticentŠwe couldn't afford to have him fall into the wrong hands."

*"Yes."* The Nebari sighed heavily. *"What happened to Crichton?"*

"He and his family were killed in a crash on the planet," Relnik said.

*"Oh."* Only one word, but it betrayed the young Captain's sorrow at the loss. *"Officer Sun was a comradeŠa friendŠand CrichtonŠ"*

"I am not the one to whom you should offer the eulogy, Captain. Sometimes we have to make great sacrifices for our cause."

*"Yes. Meelak, out."*

The transmission ended abruptly. Admiral Telko Relnik turned his attention back to the images on the vid chip, images that had now been burned into his memory. He took the old vid chip from the viewer and rubbed it between his fingers before dropping it to the floor and crushing it under his heel.

 

*

 

John, Aeryn and their daughters approached the broken Prowler. Melanie's face was buried in his shoulder as he hung tightly onto her, her sniffles the only thing that had broken the silence. Aeryn walked just behind him, her hand on A'lya's arm, guiding her. He'd noticed that his eldest had not looked at either him or Aeryn since losing control after he'd found them in the clearing with Grayza's body.

"I'm sorry," Melanie said against his shoulder.

"What?" John stopped and she pulled away from him. Her eyes were wet from crying and her nose ran a little. She wiped her sleeve across it and looked at him then at Aeryn and A'lya.

"Mel, what do you have to be sorry for?" he said.

"This‹it was my idea, to run away like that. When I heard my moth‹the Councilor's voice, we were afraid. I had the star charts and we took the Prowler and‹"

"Melanie, this started long before you were born," Aeryn interrupted.

"Mel," John said. He stopped and set her in front of the Prowler then squatted down to her eye level. "Melanie. I love you. Nothing, no one will ever hurt us or threaten us again." He pushed her black hair away from her eyes, sighing. The Nebari. There were still the Nebari, Chiana and D'Argo with them. He didn't know how desperate the Nebari were or if they would stoop to using his friends against him.

"Aeryn," he began. "The Nebari still want the technology‹"

She nodded. "Yes." She leaned against her dead ship, rubbing her fingertips across its damaged hull absent-mindedly. He saw the little bit of orange and the white of the *IASA* patch sticking out from her gun belt.

"The ship," he began. "You said it wasn't meant to be flown. WhatŠwhat was it meant for?"

She shrugged and shook her head, looking suddenly embarrassed at the question. "I went to it when I needed refuge. It hasn't seen battle in almost fourteen cycles. IŠI wanted to bring your module butŠI could neverŠI could never face flying it without youŠ"

His face broke into a smile. "My moduleŠ" He laughed softly. "SentimentalŠkind of a human trait."

She smiled slightly in return. "Yes. One of those things I learned from you." She turned to A'lya and put her hand under the girl's lowered chin, raising it until their daughter's eyes met Aeryn's. "You understood more than I realized, A'lya. Like your father, you forced me toŠ" She faltered, searching for words. "Be more."

A'lya said nothing. John studied her expression. She looked more like a kid than she ever had before. The Peacekeeper bearing that had been ingrained in her since birth was gone; she was just a fifteen-year-old girl, confused and scared but willing to learn.

"Let's get back to Lo'La," he said. He reached for A'lya's hand but she withdrew and shook her head at him. He gazed at her, puzzled, then watched as she took hold of Aeryn's hand and laid it gently in his.

"Let's go," she agreed quietly. She took Melanie by the hand and the two girls followed their parents to the ship.

 

_EPILOGUE_

 

 

Chiana's voice was excited, calling his name when they returned to Lo'La.

*"Crichton, Aeryn! Answer me. Come onŠ"*

Aeryn was the first to respond. "Chiana‹"

Chiana's whooping cry burst through the transmitter. *"You're alive! I knew it. I knew it. D'Argo, didn't I tell you."*

*"I believe I told you. John, Aeryn, the Peacekeepers said you'd crashed but I knew Lo'La was intact. Nerri thinks you're dead."* He paused. *"They‹the Resistance has formed an alliance with a Peacekeeper Admiral. Relnik. Nerri gave a speech, told everyone about your deaths. I don't know what exactly he gained in return butŠ"*

"Wormholes," John said. "Relnik gave him wormholes, Nerri joins him and they defeat Nebari Prime. Relnik has a reputationŠ" He turned to Aeryn. "He's pretty famous in PK space, a stickler for old values."

She nodded. "Loyalty, honor, sacrifice. Yes. I understand."

*"Crichton,"* Chiana interrupted. *"What the hezmana happened down there?"*

John looked at his children sitting behind them on the floor. They were both dirty and emotionally wasted. "Long story, Pip. And I think I have some others to tell before we're done." He paused and took Aeryn's hand. "Aeryn, about this rendezvous point of yoursŠ"

"Moya," Aeryn said. She tightened her grip around his hand. "And then from there it is completely up to you." She turned towards the comm console. "D'Argo, Chiana, you'll excuse us if we do not communicate with you until we get there."

*"Yeah."* Chiana's soft laughter floated through the ship. *"Yeah. We'll excuse you, Aeryn. Fly safe, all of you."*

Aeryn nodded and shut down the comm system. John watched as she programmed in their coordinates; for a moment he considered whether or not Braca would keep his word then realized that the Captain had finally gotten what he'd wanted. His command.

He reached over, his hand lingering over Aeryn's gun belt. She turned to him, smiling. It was the smile of a kid, joyful without reservation. It lit up her whole face. *The radiant Aeryn Sun*, his heart whispered.

"What are you doing, Crichton?" Her voice was low and not a little seductive. He smiled in return.

"There'll be plenty of time for that," he whispered into her ear. "Just going to tell a story, Aeryn. Thought I could use a couple of props." He pulled the two patches from her gun belt and kissed her fully on the mouth. "You sail the ship, Captain. I'll provide the movie."

"Again with the movies," she muttered but the smile was still on her face; he had the feeling it would never disappear again.

John moved towards his daughters and sat between them. He held the patches out in front of him, studying the red, white and blue that had once meant so much to him. His father had been an astronaut, an American icon. *Every man is his own kind of heroŠ* Jack's words came back to him and John was surprised at the tears he felt springing to his eyes.

"What do those mean?" A'lya said finally. She reached out and took the flag from him.

"They're from my homeworld," he began. "Earth. The United States of America. My father was a hero there. My dadŠhe would be very proud of the both of you." He handed the other patch to Melanie then put his arms around his daughters, pulling them close. "Very proud of how brave you are, how strong, how beautifulŠ" He cleared his throat, fighting back the tide of emotion that was washing over him.

"I was an astronaut on Earth," he began. *One day, when we have all the time in the world, I'll explain it allŠ*

*

 

Aeryn listened to John's voice as it filled the ship. She remembered parts of the story that she'd heard before and those she had lived; strained to hear those she had always wondered about. Sometimes her mind drifted to her own story, to the memory of her mother falling, finally freed from her anger and hurt‹*You live for me*‹imaginings of her father, thoughts of the other Crichton and the way he had unlocked her heart. But it all came back to the man whose voice rose and fell behind her as he told the stories of their pasts to their daughters.

She still remembered lying on the floor of a Peacekeeper transport, battered, adrift, bereft of all that she had loved. But the pain was gone, and with it the hatred. She was beyond hope. It was all she had left. It was all she needed.

 

The End

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Title: Days of Future Past

Author: officersun524, eporter70@cox.net

Rating: PG

Type: AU.

Sequel: Part 3 of the "Future" Series

Part 1: The Future or Something Like It by officersun524

Part 2: Futures End, by Kernezelda.

 

Notes: This is my answer to the challenge Kernezelda put forth for writing part 3 of this series. Her answer is A Shared Future, also on the Leviathan list. Many thanks to Kernezelda for pushing me to finish this and for offering encouragement, feedback and, of course, beta work. Also thanks to Cathy for putting up with my whining. When I wrote the original story, I never thought it would go this far.

Summary: Fifteen cycles earlier, John and Aeryn had tried to retrieve their daughter A'lya from Grayza. Now they are facing the consequences of their reunion as their pasts complicate their futures.

 
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