John’s had a headache since the Diagnosian: a gnawing, persistent pain triggered by a tumor, he thinks, a tumor triggered by alien tech; or maybe there’s an actual alien setting up house in his brain, renovating the available space with a grapefruit spoon.
No John, Harvey says. There are no tumors, no aliens. En habitación doble.
Hey, Harv? There were two in the bed and the little one said, roll over, roll over…
Harvey pouts. I was only trying to reassure –
“Stark says we gotta get her in the ground.” The ball John’s lobbing across Command hits the clamshell with a blunt thunk and a crackle of electricity, the combined noise enough like the rattle of a chain-link fence (enough like the chain-link fence between the junior high outfield and the Dairy Queen parking lot) to tighten his chest. “How long?”
Pilot bobs and bends. John aims for the second ridge of the massive, sloping brow, the exasperated mouth.
“A planet meeting Zhaan’s atmospheric requirements is less than an arn away –“
“So hetch it up, baby! Come on! Let’s go!”
The ball is warm and worn in his hand and John tries to remember which podunk trading post it came from, if that knowledge was taken out with the chip, if he ever really knew.
“I simply thought –“
“Pilot,” John says, “carpe diem. Seize the day. Move your ass.”
Pilot pauses. “As you wish, Commander.”
Moya curves through space, picking up speed. John puts a spin on the ball and the clamshell goes dark in a shower of sparks.
Chiana’s in the kitchen, straining a broth of bones and root vegetables into a Leviathan-shaped tureen. The broth smells thick and wild, nourishing, but John would give his left hand, maybe his right, for bologna and mayo on white.
He stuffs a piece of flatbread into his mouth so he won’t lay into her about Jothee, won’t ask her what-the-ever-loving-fuck-were-you-thinking because she might tell him, might make some kind of sense.
He wants this to be simple.
She’s sad too, John. A small twist of a smile occupies the corner of Harvey’s mouth. You should console her.
You lack compassion for her because you believe she was childish, Harvey says. He rests his elbows on the kitchen island, his chin on his hand, as Chiana ladles broth into three bowls taken from the cupboard. Is it childish to be scarred by your childhood? Your culture?
She had other choices.
Did she know that?
Get out, John grits. He needs this to be simple. “Out!”
Chiana startles, a bit of broth sloshing onto the serving tray as she sets the second bowl beside the first. She shoves the third bowl towards John, tears him another piece of flatbread and throws it in his face.
He raises his hands. “Chiana –“
It’s the second time she’s called him by that name; he recalls the context of the first and it sticks in his throat like tar. She leaves with the tray and trembling hands.
You are a fekkik, John says, but the specter is gone too.
He eats his meal in silence.
Moya’s slowly healing burns smell like charcoal and chicory, the Diagnosian’s salve like Coppertone.
John walks with his eyes closed, and breathes deeply.
He collides with the least simple thing in his life in a corridor on tier four. She smells like gun oil, hair oil, salt and peppermint. White, angular limbs tangle with his, lustrous black hair brushes against his skin.
“Hey, baby,” he says. “Where’ve you been?”
Aeryn extricates herself, her braid spilling over her shoulder. “With D’Argo.”
“Lending an ear?”
Her brow furrows as she puzzles out the phrasing. John wants to bury himself in her, body and soul, but she’s scarred by childhood and culture, and only interested in his body.
“No,” Aeryn says, and flexes her fingers. “A hand. I was lending a hand.”
She smiles, small and rueful. “Maybe a little ear.”
Aeryn swallows her smile, says, “He asked me if I trust you.”
It’s hard to hear her over the sputter of his heart, the scream of metal as his module crushes against her prowler, so he leans in.
Pilot’s voice crackles over the Comms. “Officer Sun?”
John presses the heels of his hands hard against his forehead, his temples. Sighs an obscenity.
Aeryn scowls at him, her features sharpening as she steps away. “Yes, Pilot?”
“We’ve arrived,” Pilot says, “but we’re not alone.”
Aeryn stops just outside Command, catches his hand in hers.
“John,” she says. “John, I – “
She’s lovely in her hesitation; but John can’t shake the taste of her skin in the neural cluster, the coldness of her casket.
She’s been scarred by him, too.
Idrija is a pebble of a planet, smaller than any John’s seen in the last two cycles, its surface smooth and silver-blue.
Charon, he thinks, but Moya’s the one ferrying the dead.
“These Tholians,” John says. He gestures towards the forward portal and the three ships that block their way: silent ships, ink-black and star-shaped ships, bound together and to the planet by gossamer strands of light. “They’re mercenaries?”
“Thaalians,” D’Argo grunts. “Yes.”
John claps his hands together. “Then what’s the problem? Mercenaries love money. We have money. Ipso facto, mercenaries love us.”
Aeryn has adopted the taut stance of a soldier as she assesses the situation; D’Argo hunches over the center console, a hulking, sulking bear. They share a look of vaguely amused scorn at his statement.
“They’re mining the surface for sepheiros oil,” Aeryn says, as though that explains everything; and John entertains the mean and fleeting fantasy of Aeryn and D’Argo on earth, made foolish by the world around them.
“It’s a planet,” John says. The alien squatting in his head twists the spoon like a screwdriver. “The Ewings are wildcattin’ in the front yard? Fine, whatever. We can’t go around back?”
Aeryn and D’Argo share another look.
Zhaan’s skull seems soft beneath her shawl, smells soft, like flowers left too long in a vase. There’s a slight sway to her walk, a weakness in the way she stands, even when supported by Stark and Chiana.
D’Argo is the first to notice her in the doorway, the first to stop shouting. She releases Stark’s hand, Chiana’s; and reaches out to the Luxan. She lays her head on his shoulder and her hand on his chest.
“Please,” Zhaan says. “Life is too short and too sacred to waste in anger. I do not fear my death – I fear this.”
John sees the tears swelling in his eyes mirrored in Aeryn’s, and turns his head.
Chiana and Stark pluck at each other, a nexus of nervous energy, and John thinks ‘don’t be angry, don’t be afraid’ is today’s equivalent of ‘don’t think about elephants’.
The Tholians ignore one hail, then two, then three.
Stark falls to his knees in prayer. Chiana shrieks in frustration. Aeryn sighs.
“Come on, Crichton,” she says. “You’re with me.”
It would be smarter, safer, to take separate cars, but he’s totaled Aeryn’s and D’Argo can’t find his keys, so they’re down to the Farscape-1 and the transport pods.
“Module,” Aeryn says as they stride across the hangar bay, side by side.
“No,” John says. “There’s no way I’m tooling up to a mini Death Star in a minivan.”
“Death Star?” She crosses her arms over her chest, her head cocked. “You said they were – and I quote – ‘mostly harmless’.”
“What do I know about Tholians? You said they were trigger-happy crackpots.”
Aeryn arches an eyebrow, a smile breaking across her face. “I did not say crackpots.”
“Pretty sure you did.” John smiles too. “We’ll take the module. You drive.”
“No,” she says. She bites her lip. “You drive.”
John remembers their lessons, the way she would squirm in his lap, two hands on the throttle, and stops himself from asking if meaningless charity sex is still on the table.
He pops the top on the cockpit. “Any way you want it, baby.”
It isn’t until they’re spaceborne, her knees and her weapon pressed against his back, that John realizes it isn’t an issue of intimacy, but survival.
If I started speaking like Scorpy-Sue right now, would she shoot me?
Harvey doesn’t respond.
Up close the Tholian ships resemble a crafty child’s string of paper snowflakes. John swings closer still and Aeryn says, “There.”
A portal on the center ship, a sudden, searing strobe of light; and John’s universe collapses into the cramped space of the cockpit, Aeryn’s whole body pressed against him, pressed forward and down, down, down
John hollers as they roll, his hands tangling with Aeryn’s over the throttle, two more shots strafing across their belly.
Aeryn’s voice is laced with adrenaline. “I told you so.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” John pulls the module closer to Moya, into a holding pattern. “So to summarize the stupid: this planet is Zhaan’s only hope; but Tholians don’t answer the phone, answer the doorbell with a shotgun, and we should get the hell out of dodge before they decide to slaughter us all.”
“Thaalians.” Aeryn rests her forehead on his shoulder, leather creaking. He can’t feel her pulse pistol anymore. “I’m angry,” she says. “I’m angry with you and with Zhaan. I’m angry with myself.”
Behind his eyes someone is scraping off the old wallpaper; blue roses, he imagines, like his grandmother’s.
He imagines it would have been better if D’Argo had snapped his neck when he begged for death, if Natira had slit his throat, if the Diagnosian had severed an artery.
John says, “Me too.”
He circles around Moya, finds her docking bays closed. There’s silence on the Comms and he can feel Aeryn’s frown boring into the back of his neck.
“Pilot,” John says. He thrums his fingers against his thigh. “Pilot. Earth to Pilot.”
The Comms crackle to life. “For the gods’ sake, Crichton – ”
“Rygel?” Aeryn says. “Where’s Pilot?”
“Commander,” Pilot says, “I believe you should ‘move your ass’.”
John takes in the streams of sepheiros oil, the energy readouts on his control panel, and throws the module into reverse.
Moya surges, curves like she’s hanging a U-ey on the Autobahn, the electrical charge of a nascent starburst igniting the outermost stream on the outermost ship.
The Tholians go down like dominos, like pinwheels, like the 4th of July, Chinese New Year, and Niagara Falls rolled into one.
Aeryn wraps her arms around his chest and watches the display with the wide eyes of a child, her chin digging into his shoulder.
They find Moya on Idrija’s surface, a golden island rising from a silver lake, the Tholian ships falling from the sky in iridescent fragments.
D’Argo has dug a bed in the soil for Zhaan; Chiana has helped her wash, clothed her in new garments, anointed her head and hands with healing oils. Stark stands guard over the ground, serene.
“She’s still conscious,” Rygel says. “If you want to say goodbye.”
“Goodnight,” John says. “If you want to say goodnight.”
Aeryn makes her way over to the others but John remains at the water’s edge. She’s different, Stark had told him. Death has made her beautiful.
She’s always been beautiful.
A few more spins in the chair, Harvey says, and you might be able to see her the way Stark does.
Maybe, John says. He sits beside Harvey in the sand and closes his eyes, counts the day’s dead like sheep. Maybe.