The wonders Stark showed him had, for at least a while, given John something else to see.
But two arns later those things were almost forgotten, and John was getting tired of the sun. It filtered in pale and sickly from the window, giving him that drowsy, restless feeling he knew from afternoons stuck at the kitchen table with homework, yellow rays slanting across, the angle of light growing more acute as the day faded into sunset.
It reminded him of that, and yet still it was off. The degrees here were skewed and wrong, the sun glancing harmlessly off the walls of the cell. This strange sun, somewhere outside this stranger moon's orbit -- maybe a thousand or a million or a trillion light years from the kitchen in Annapolis. He couldn't remember if it had moved even an inch across the sky in the time he'd been on the Gammak base.
He could figure out the reason why, though. At least, he thought so. It was some confluence of lines and numbers and vectors, a fitting together of nature and mathematics that he knew he knew like the shape of his own hands.
John tried to think, to follow memory backwards to knowledge, backwards to learning. But it was no good -- that last bout in the Chair, though it had successfully diverted Scorpius' focus to Crais, had simply broken him. Memories spilling into endless space like beads on a string. Pictures, images, thoughts shuffled by foreign hands, a deck of cards thrown carelessly to the ground. He saw himself looking down on the mess from above, trying to re-sort it all into some kind of order.
Think, you sonofabitch, think. It's not hard, it's fucking child's play, it's motherfucking high. school. physics.
It made him furious, and the fury was worse than anything he'd felt the whole time he'd been floundering around out here on the wrong side of the galaxy. What the fuck, what the frell, what the fuck had that whitesnake in bondage gear done to his goddamn head! He was a scientist, an explorer, a collector of knowledge and data. His entire life was a compilation of education and experience, a database that by all rights still had at least thirty or forty more years of warranty in the package.
Carefully he let the debris of his memory flow past him, waiting for something familiar and tangible, a picture, a scene. Finally something tugged at him: a classroom with desks scratched and carved with graffiti, JFK banners over the blackboard, and Mr. Cooper the physics teacher standing at the front, drawing a diagram with squeaky chalk. Sun, moon, planet, angle of light through space. DK passing him a note: caroline just flashed her tits AGAIN!
He tried to focus on the diagram, tried to exercise all the ceaseless, restless brainpower that had propelled him to college, M.I.T., the IASA, to a part of the galaxy no human had dreamed of reaching in his lifetime. But he couldn't -- the Chair had stretched him too thin and the scene was fading fast like steam between his fingers, the chalk sound Dopplering out, DK's chicken scratch going gray and then white, the color of the paper.
And then...then John couldn't quite remember why he was remembering this anymore. His thoughts drifted to Stark's visions, the moving figures of light and fire, and the light blended with the sun sifting down from the window. He closed his eyes, seeing without seeing.
When he woke he was still cradled in Stark's lap. Around him Stark's arms smelled like rich musk and spices, whether from dirt, shit, sweat, or skin John didn't know. The mix of it with the sunlight made him want to vomit. His throat clenched and he shifted to breathe, the movement grinding his back against Stark's bony knees.
"Shhh," Stark whispered. Stiff, strong fingers spidered through John's hair; goosebumps raced along scalpskin and neck in response.
John swallowed. "Everything's so.... I can't think. How long have I been asleep?"
"Half an arn. Though you could never tell by the sun."
"Help me sit up."
Stark slid the circle of his arms around John's torso and applied upward pressure helpfully. This time John ignored his shushing and flat-out yelled.
Stark went apeshit. He dropped John back onto the floor and crouched over him, waving his fingers in nervous jittery circles. "You must be quiet, you mustn't speak, be quiet, they'll come back for you, they'll put you back in the Chair --"
John went still immediately. "That fucker," he slurred. "I'll kill 'em. I'll take that leather butt-floss he calls a mask and I'll frelling strangle him." He fidgeted, trying to raise himself up without Stark's help. Bones pressing hard into the dusty floor, the weight of an alien gravity. "It hurts," he whined.
"I'm sorry," Stark said quietly. His hand crept back over John's shoulder, not quite holding him down. It was calming, though, and John stopped struggling.
"Talk to me. Tell me...tell me some things."
"What do you wish to know?"
Stark's voice was so deep it was almost tangible. John wanted to pull it over him like a blanket. "Tell me about your home world. Gotta be way different from this hellhole, huh?"
"It is a hellhole," Stark said shortly. "Peacekeepers saw to that."
He felt Stark's thumb slide around to touch his collarbone. Calluses, edge of nail. Funny how a person made of glowing, pulsating light all inside, from who knew where in the galaxy, could still have a hand that felt so like his own. He remembered the first time he ever saw Aeryn Sun, the wonder he'd felt at the sheer familiarity of her face in such a strange setting. Was that the only time he'd ever truly thought they were alike?
The memory slipped away and he couldn't remember anymore.
"Those thoughts you showed me," John said. "Was that from...?"
"Some of them," Stark said. "But I showed you only the surface of things. The real, the reality, that I save for the dying."
"You mean I'm not gonna die?" Damn if that wasn't disappointing.
And it hit him like a fist to the throat -- Aeryn, cold and still in the belly of Moya. His fingers flexed, but they were useless, strengthless, closing only on air, and soon the memory drifted away again.
"You won't," Stark said. "Not now. I could ease your passage though, if you wanted it. Keep me around after we leave this place, I could be of use to you then."
"You're of use now," John murmured. "Just...keep talking to me."
He closed his eyes against the sun, though still it seemed to permeate his eyelids like a candle behind oilskin. Above him Stark began to speak, his voice welling up thick and viscous. "Thirteen cycles," he said. "They fashioned my mask with fire and metallics, and when they put it on my face it was still warm. I could feel the heat seep inside me. I could feel it changing me, covering the part of me that had been so open to all levels of existence. That day the world grew a thousand times darker and I never once recovered the same light again."
John shivered, trying to understand.
Stark continued, "My training was incomplete, but that didn't matter. There was enough death among the slaves to practice. The Stykerans were picked off one by one, another and another and another and another, and when there was no one left but me..." Suddenly he tittered, spreading his fingers to balance along John's sternum. "When there was no one left but me, I got Scorpy. Scorpy and the Chair, Scorpy and the Chair, Scorpy and the Chair."
"Rockin' name for a band." John snorted. "Wait, no, you're right, they wouldn't sell."
Stark's hand tightened into a fist, lying heavy on John's chest. "I'm not mad, if that's what you think. I'm not. Have you ever been to Valldon? That is a world where mad people speak to the dead. The dead speak to me, but I'm not mad. If I spoke to them first I might be, you could perhaps say I was mad, but I don't speak to them first, they speak to me. They speak to me."
"Uh huh, no argument here." John rolled his eyes back open, peering at the underside of Stark's chin. A smear of something dark and greasy shadowed the U shape of his jaw.
The memories were churning in his head now like a disturbed sea. He tried to think what Aeryn would have been doing at this moment, in his place. Aeryn with her odd, deprogrammed-Peacekeeper combination of insight, compassion, unyielding concrete strength. She wouldn't have spent hours lying in Stark's grimy lap, he knew, waiting for the next round in the Chair. She'd have been clawing the walls, attacking the guards for their guns, tearing down the corridors toward open air, yelling a war cry at the frelling sun.
Christ. Even if he never made it out of here, he still hoped Chiana had gotten the tissue to Aeryn. Something had to go right, to make this frelling suicide mission worthwhile.
Stark had fallen silent. John pushed the thoughts of Aeryn away, trying to sit up again. "So you said," he panted, "the dead speak to you?"
"They speak because I can hear."
"Seances on the other side of the universe...I'm cool with it. So, what do you talk about? Do you compare notes about the afterlife?"
"Among other things." Stark sounded wary now. He watched without expression as John managed to prop himself against the wall, half-leaning on Stark's shoulder.
Upright now, John's head began a slow, lazy tilt sideways. "Ugh." He blinked until the room rotated back into place. "So if you know so much, what am I looking forward to? Eternity in a La-Z-boy? Master bedroom at the Playboy Mansion? Or maybe I just get to stay stuck out here until the universe collapses."
"The afterlife is different for each person, according to each person's beliefs." Stark looked at him, his one eye twitching in the dim light. "I've never encountered your kind before."
"Yeah, I'm the new kid on the block. So what is it, heaven or hell?"
Stark hummed dreamily. "If you only knew how many species believe themselves destined for either paradise or purgatory. I often wondered as a child whether their own beliefs had created those other realms, through some sort of unexplained physics of dimensions, some connection between mind and matter. Or if each species had always had their own versions of Stykerans, bringing tidings from the dead that then became legend. Which came first, the conception or the reality, the reality or the conception..."
"I learned about heaven and hell in Sunday School," John ventured. His head had started on a serious loop the loop. It felt like his brain was being turned on a roasting spit. He closed his eyes again, leaned his head back against the solidness of the wall. "Miss Julie Rotunda. Great ass." A giggle bubbled out of him. "Goddamn, those Sunday School teachers."
Stark tilted his head. "What is your home world?"
"We like to call it Planet Earth." John lifted a heavy hand and waved it toward the window. "Located somewhere...up there, give or take any direction."
"Why did you come here? Your species, did they send you? Do you have...plans?"
John snorted, which made his head hurt. "Your guess is as good as mine. I've been asking myself why ever since I realized I was gonna have to set my watch about a gazillion hours ahead." He thought a moment. "Or behind, whatever."
"I wonder..." Stark muttered suspiciously. "Perhaps you haven't got plans, but maybe the others on Erz do. Plans, hmm. Hmm."
"Believe me, bro, nobody on Earth is planning any vacations out here. Don't take it too hard, but y'all just didn't make the Triple AAA approved list."
He doubted Stark was actually capable of getting the joke, but he seemed to get the drift anyway. He gave John a hurt look as he picked himself up and shuffled over to the corner again. His feet scraped against the floor, the sounds scissoring through John's brain.
John squinted in the dim light, feeling a bit delirious. "Hey, don't get all unfriendly-like, now. Momma always said I had a mouth like the devil."
Stark muttered to himself, squatting and hunching his shoulders like a malevolent toad.
John sighed. The spinning of the room was picking up speed now, and he closed his eyes. "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs."
"They're going to come back for you," Stark said from the corner. "Back in the Chair, back you'll go."
"You're just jealous," John murmured.
He still had the vague sense of motion inside his head, but it was getting bearable, and he could ride it out with only a slight dizziness. His own personal ferris wheel, taking him on a tour of his own personal universe. He should have charged Scorpy for tickets.
In the dark it was easier too to search for his memories. Images, sounds, signs of the life and times of John Crichton. He tried to gather them all close, hold them tight so they couldn't be ripped out of place again
Ripped. Rip in spacetime. A swirling vortex of blue energy, lightning crackling around the core. And all he had ever wanted to do was see the universe.
In his head Scorpius gnashed his teeth and ordered more power to the Chair. You goddamned psycho, John thought. But fuck if you weren't even the first to screw with my memories. You were just the one who found out about it.
He felt his mental grip weakening. The flood went on around him, but he couldn't hold onto anything he caught. He felt like a ghost standing in the middle of a river, unable to touch the water.
Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. If I die here, John thought helplessly, if I die...
More scraping on the floor. Stark's hands touching his ankles, sliding up his calves. Stark's voice floating like a dream toward him. "Don't despair," he was saying. "You will not be here much longer."
John swiped at his eyes. "So you're psychic, too?"
"No. But my crypt encoder is close to working. I'll take you with me when I go."
John wheezed. "Not that ham radio thing again."
"Even though you laugh, I will not leave you here."
He heard the earnest, urgent undertone, and it pulled at him. He reached out in his mind, struggling to take hold of a memory, something bright and hard and familiar. But his hands only closed on emptiness.
"Try all you want," he muttered, "but it doesn't matter anymore. Everything's gone to shit."
Now Stark looked puzzled. "Shit?"
"Yes, shit. Dren, grot, trat, gris, dookie, poop, number two, the inside of my head. All of it's shit."
Stark's expression turned sulky. "Pessimism serves little purpose. You should trust a Stykeran when he tells you you're not going to die."
"Yeah, well, Momma also tol' me not to be talkin' to strangers. That's not what I'm concerned about, genius. What concerns me is what's gonna be left of John Crichton after Leatherface finishes scooping out the rest of my brains. Because it's spreading pretty thin right now, gotta say."
Stark's grip tightened. "All of you is still there. You simply need a stronger container." His hand swirled over his mask. "Just as this contains my true essence. You must fashion something similar for yourself."
John snorted. "This ain't metaphysical Play-doh, son. This is brains you're talking about."
"I will help you!" Stark let go of his legs, his fingers clenching and unclenching. He crouched over John, pressing his face close, the one eye rolling madly. "You must listen to me, Crichton. Do as I say, do you understand? I think this will work."
"I'm sure if I had a choice, I'd ask you first what the frell you're talking about, and then say no."
Stark was already loosening his mask. Some of the light escaped around the edges, and John had to avert his eyes. "I told you I'm able to keep my thoughts from the Chair. It's an ability that's innate in us, the Stykerans, since we are not built as others are. But what we might understand is that you do have the means."
"That voice, the one that came from the wall, it told you to think of a kiss. So you thought of a kiss, you sat in the Chair and thought of a kiss, in the Chair, and you gave Scorpius nothing. And then you came back. He found nothing, and he put Crais in the Chair instead of you! Don't you see? They put you in the Chair instead of me, because I also gave them nothing, and then they put Crais in the Chair instead of you, because you gave them --"
"Nothing," John whispered. "But I had help from Gilina. I can't hold out against the Chair by myself."
Stark made shushing motions with his hands. "This will work. You'll do it over and over again with me until it does. You see, what I do and what the Chair does, it's quite similar." He cocked his head to the side. "Or, quite the opposite. It's...similar in the way that it's...reversed, you see. My images and memories, I give them to you, put them in your head, and the Chair, it takes them from you, out of your head." He paused. "Although of course, nothing truly gets subtracted or added -- conservation of memories, conservation of matter, conservation of energy --"
"Don't tease me with physics," John said. "It's cruel."
Stark ignored him. "What you need to prevent both, to stop the exchange, is a stronger container." He bared his teeth in a goony smile, fingers still twitching. The light beneath his mask quivered, sending tendrils of brightness to caress John's face.
As if from the corner of his eye, John caught just a scattering of images, a brief snow flurry from the inside of Stark's mind. "This is not gonna work," he grumbled. "What's supposed to happen? I let you shoot your alien brain rays at me? Try to resist the pretty pictures?"
"It's not as easy as it sounds." Stark sounded a little put out.
"Which is why, I repeat, it's not gonna work. But hey, go ahead and shoot me. Not like you can frell things up any worse than they already are."
Stark drew off the mask with careful hands, leaning in closer, until he and John were almost kissing. "You must look at me," he murmured, gripping John's shoulders.
John realized he had fixed his gaze on the window, where the sun streamed in. "Sorry," he said, and looked into Stark's light.
He was enveloped in whiteness, the edges gold and wavering. The light moved, but didn't change. He had expected scenes and images like he saw before, the incandescent planet hung like a pearl droplet in space, the pale blue sands stretching beneath a blushing sky, the silver-skinned creature gliding forward like a figure of mercury.
He saw nothing but the light, though, and he realized Stark was holding back.
What are you doing? I thought we were practicing.
You must prepare first. Prevent me from entering.
How do I do that?
Before I get there, replace me with something else.
John thought. He had the memory of the kiss with Gilina, tried and true. Christ, Gilina. If Stark was going to take anyone off this godforsaken moon, John was going to make damn sure she was at the head of frelling line.
But the kiss wasn't what came to him. Or at least, not that kiss. He had no idea if he had a permanent hold on the memory of kissing Aeryn Sun, but he knew where it was, and he could move with it down the river, keeping it always in front of him. Aeryn, her hair wild as they pulled apart, her eyes dark and completely, utterly focused.
Stark let go, then. Just as John had predicted, it was an immediate lost cause. The images flooded his brain like a dose of drugs. A sun reflected in a golden eye, wind pushing stray clouds over a shining city, a brilliant red flower with petals like fans. A sleek, smooth leviathan, meandering through a glittering asteroid field.
It was no use. He couldn't block the input, and instead of wanting to, he embraced it. The pictures were tangible, substantial. He touched each one with awe and pleasure, wishing he could wander in these memories forever.
John, you must try.
He didn't listen. He swam with halga fish in the sea of Kresna, their clear eyes like marbles. He stood atop a massive rock formation and watched the three moons of Grellik sink below the horizon. He watched a star implode on itself and rebound in a supernova. His hand brushed the edge of the explosion and came away crackling with kinetic energy.
It didn't work. I told you so. I'm just going along for the ride now.
Stark pulled back. The images receded, and John was immersed in the white light again. He spun, flailing wildly, half-blind.
You began the right way. You only need to try again.
Bring it back!
Sooner or later Scorpius will realize Crais knows nothing. He'll come back for you.
Let the frellnik come. He's already scrambled the eggs up nice and tasty.
Frustration. The golden edges of the light trembled and curled, flashing brighter. For the first time John wondered if he could OD on this stuff. Might actually be a great way to go, all things considered.
He heard Stark's voice coming at him from far away, realized it was his real voice, soft and urgent. "Try this. Try imagining that your inner self has eyes. You see your memories with them, you see my pictures with them. You have eyes."
John shifted. "What now?"
"Eyes, not hands. Instead of trying to grasp things, try to see them. See them as they were, in the places where they belong. Then try not to see them at all. If you can't find them, neither can Scorpius."
"Watchoo talkin' 'bout," John muttered.
"Open your eyes. Then close them."
Stark waited, humming softly, or maybe it was the light making the noise, or maybe it was the sound of something building. John watched the memories streaming past. Of course he had eyes. No need to imagine that kind of thing.
He remembered the first time he had ever gone up in the shuttle. The Earth hovered serene and blue beneath him, the Sun a blazing white flame just beyond. The memory floated by, and instead of trying to grab onto it, he imagined he was bending down, getting closer. He opened one eye wide, pressing his face against the scene.
Immediately the Sun and the curve of the earth leaped toward him.
He remembered. He remembered it hadn't been like flying then. He remembered he had expected it might be, even though on an intellectual level he knew differently, had heard different stories. What he had actually discovered, once he was up there, was that flying through the vastness of space utterly trumped flying through the sky on Earth. He was weightless, directionless, no gravity to tell him which way he should point himself. He could see South America disappearing around the bottom curve, but outside of that, he realized he could be standing on his head and the Sun and the planet would still, without fail, render him speechless.
He remembered that from this perspective, outside all he had ever experienced in his life, everything was so much bigger and smaller than it was supposed to be. Everything was surrounded by so much darkness.
All he had ever wanted to do was see the universe.
Stark let go and the white light rushed toward him, but this time the memory stayed with John. This time he was in the memory, and outside of it the light beat its gold edges like a beggar at a window. John kept his eyes open, and didn't let them touch him.
Is that your home planet?
Yes, that's Earth.
He felt Stark's wonder and curiosity at the strange new world.
You taking notes? Adding us to your collection?
Stark said nothing, presumably doing just that. John turned away from him and floated.
All the numbers, all the theories, all the science -- all of it evaporated into meaningless posturing when confronted with the actual subjects of study. He had calculated the length of Earth's orbit around the Sun in the eighth grade, and at age twenty-eight, experiencing the reality, he had finally understood how measureless the distance truly was.
Below him an entire planet full of people lived their lives out, sleeping, working, eating, screwing, oblivious to the fact that a man was hovering twenty thousand miles above them. Nothing mattered out here. Nothing could touch him.
He felt Stark's images pushing forward, but his mind was already crowded with his own. He could see the places again where they belonged. He couldn't understand how he'd ever lost them.
I don't believe it. You crazy monkey, Stark. I don't believe it.
We're not finished. You've managed to block my input, but the Chair will pull this memory from you, along with all your others.
The blue halo of the Earth shimmered with unease.
How do I stop it?
If you are to hide your thoughts from the Chair, you must hide them from yourself.
But I just found them again!
Then you will know their places when it is time to look for them. Now, close your eyes.
John resisted. The Sun blazed unceasingly in the distance, its light filling his vision. It was even more dangerous to stare at it out here than on Earth, without the protective layers of the atmosphere, but he didn't care. His eyes were staying open.
He felt Stark increase the assault from his end, and stared even harder at the Sun.
But Stark didn't. He pressed on relentlessly, like a bulldozer of light. John saw the swarm of images approaching before they hit, and tried to prepare himself as best he could for the onslaught.
An alien, female, her torso split open by a laser beam. He could see her organs coated in yellow slime, hewed in half and tumbling out.
A Luxan with his face peeled away to reveal the dark flesh beneath, mouth twisted in agony.
A leviathan engulfed in flames and flipping end over end.
A pack of wild doglike creatures tearing a Nebari baby apart.
A troop of reptilian-like aliens slaughtering a crowd of Sebaceans. God, God, they looked so frelling human.
A planet covered in bodies. This time he couldn't identify any one species. There were millions of them, piled atop each other in varying stages of decay. He realized suddenly he was looking at a massive dumping ground for the dead.
In his head John Crichton cried out and shut his eyes.
And then it was dark.
He'd never realized just how dark it could be, the inside of a person's head. Or how endless. Stark was nowhere, light was nowhere. He had only the sensation of fear to accompany him, and it was a cold thing that he curled around and clutched like a buoy at sea. Besides fear he sensed only the deep, vast dark.
Yet there was also himself. The realization slipped inside the emptiness, and when it entered it came to fill the emptiness. The dark was all his own -- he owned it and had created it. He could uncreate it, too.
For an eternity, he floated in the dark and contemplated its easy, changeless peace. There were other things outside, he knew, but he could wait to meet them. For now it was quiet, and nothing could enter or leave its place unless he allowed it.
Finally he opened his eyes. Really opened them, looking around the dirty cell awash in nauseating sunlight, at Stark dozing against the wall a few feet away.
He didn't know how long he'd been sitting in the same place on the floor, but he'd make a first guess at something like centuries. His body felt like a battlefield, all sore muscles and sleeping limbs.
He hardly noticed it, though, in the resounding quiet inside his head.
No debris of memories, no chaos of unconnected uprooted images. Everything had become clear again, settled. Normal. Awestruck, he wandered through and explored the restored landscape.
Eventually Stark began to shift and waken. He opened his one eye, staring across at John with a horrified expression. "You're awake. I'm sorry, Crichton. I didn't mean to...I left you alone."
Still somewhat dazed, John said, "No sweat, bro. I didn't even notice."
Stark sat up. "But that means it worked." Excited, he began waving his hands around. "It worked, didn't it. It worked!"
"Yeah, I guess it did. Worked something, anyway."
"What did it feel like?" Stark slid across the floor eagerly.
John thought. "It was kind of like...being asleep. But being completely awake at the same time, and knowing I was asleep and awake." He looked at Stark. "What's it like for you?"
"The Aurora Chair passes through me like a hand through water." Stark swam his own hand through the air. "It makes ripples, but the water always flows through the spaces between the fingers."
"And you like it?"
Stark's face grew stern. "No. Only as much as you might like the same sensation in your innermost heart, your vital organs. But I will not be a slave to the Chair, and I will not be a slave to Scorpius."
"Me neither," John said. He pushed against the floor, trying to stand. Muscles clenched and trembled in protest, but he ignored them. The wall scratched the tips of his fingers, and he left sweat marks behind as he braced against it.
Stark had scrambled to his feet as well, looking ready to catch John if he collapsed. He drew close, put a hand on John's shoulder and helped him turn so he could hold himself up by leaning. "We will not be here much longer," Stark said softly.
"I believe you," John told him. "And I also hope like hell you're right."
"It will be soon," Stark said with certainty.
"Okay." John took a breath and stepped away from the wall. He felt a rush of dizziness, but closed his eyes until it passed. The sun from the window kissed his face and eyelids, turning his vision burnt orange.
When he felt the world come right again, he opened his eyes and looked at Stark.
"Okay," he repeated. "Soon."