Chiana wandered a little further off, sulkily taking delight in ignoring Crichton's earlier instruction to not go too far. Why the yotz had she wanted to tag along, anyway? Because she'd been stuck on Moya for too long and it was driving her crazy. Under those conditions, a commerce station, even one orbiting a hellhole of a planet on the border between the Uncharted Territories and Tormented Space, had looked like a lot of fun.
Well, it wasn't. Or at least, this particular corner of it wasn't. It had seemed like it was going to be, for the first few microts: as D'Argo, Rygel and Noranti had headed off to investigate the food markets on the hamman side of the station and she'd trailed after Crichton and Sikozu toward the non-perishables. There'd been a couple dozen stalls laid out along one side of the main marketplace, selling all kinds of trinkets; behind them, a row of stores beckoned, filled with gaudy clothes and glittering jewels and all kinds of toys for children and adults. But Crichton and Sikozu, having consulted with the immigration and customs officials when they'd stepped aboard, had hurried her past all the good stuff into the dreary depths of the street behind, where there were few goods of any kind on display, and corrugated gray siding fronted gloomy caverns that stank of chakan oil and other chemicals.
Casting another glance back, Chiana retraced her steps toward the main marketplace. They'd know where she'd gone, wouldn't they? They'd only have to walk back the way they'd come to spot her.
Reaching the principal thoroughfare, she began browsing along the stalls. The place was busy: local residents laden with bags stuffed with strange-looking vegetables pushed briskly between knots of traders who were drinking small cups of something hot and pungent being sold from one of the stalls, while boasting about the good luck they'd had on this or that planet and gossiping about the bad luck that had befallen their rivals. Elegant young men and women of various species languidly draped themselves at tables outside the eating-places and bars. Now and then one of them would leave with one of the other patrons, who were mostly tired-looking and dressed in battered leather: the crew of recently arrived cargo ships, Chiana guessed, and clearly hungry for more than food and drink after a quarter cycle in space, and who could blame them? At one point, a crocodile of children in matching uniforms—a school class?—wound its way across the square.
As she slowly made her way down the marketplace, Chiana fingered the necklaces and rings and scent bottles and fans and mirrors and other knick-knacks and gewgaws. Now and then, a prickle in her neck suggested she was being watched, but when she looked round, she saw no sign of anyone observing her. For a short while, she did wonder if she was being stalked by a long-limbed Sebacean a stall or two away, who appeared to be another of the many cargo pilots: long battered leather coat, his hair pulled back in an untidy braid, and what could have been a deliberate attempt to cultivate a goatee or simply a failure to shave for several days. But after she covertly eyed him for a couple of hundred microts and saw no sign he was watching her, she decided he was simply indulging in the same kind of casual examination of the merchandise as she was—now a stall closer, now a stall further away. Perhaps he was picking out a gift for whoever was waiting for him back on his home planet.
As for her, she didn't really want any of the bits and bobs she was handling, though she had money enough in her pocket to pay for them if she did, but her fingers were itching all the same. A quick glance up showed her the trader in charge of the stall she was currently browsing was busy unpacking a box, his back mostly turned. She scanned the merchandise again—cheap necklaces and bracelets that would likely tarnish or turn your skin an unhealthy color the moment you put them on, rings with unevenly colored glass glittering in their settings, stone pendants daubed with mystical symbols strung on leather thongs—and her hand almost involuntarily closed around one of the pendants and whisked it up her cuff until it was snugly tucked out of sight.
Scanning the table again as if dissatisfied with what she saw, she turned away.
The shout from behind her made her tense, but she knew to never react, never look back, always act the innocent.
"Hey! Grey girl!" The trader was closer now. Chiana picked up her pace a little, still trying to appear casual, though her heart was beating faster and something between fear and excitement was slithering in her belly.
"Hey!" She felt a hand on her arm and she shook it off and spun away, knocking into someone and waltzing her way on past. She was aware of a cry of dismay from whoever she'd bumped into, and the sound of things falling or being knocked over, and her own feet uncertain for a moment on a freshly mopped floor—I knocked over a frelling janitor, her mind supplied with irrelevant clarity— before she lost her balance entirely and fell backwards onto her eema.
Someone offered her a hand to help her up and she gratefully accepted it, finding herself looking up into warm, amused, dark brown eyes. It was the guy she'd noticed earlier, browsing his way along the stalls after her, though hadn't he been on her other side and behind—?
He clasped her wrist with his other hand. "Are you all right, miss?"
"I'm fine." She went on looking at him, trying to puzzle it out. What's wrong with this picture?
Then, from right behind her—over the sound of someone shrieking curses at the janitor: something about ruined shoes and do you know how much these cost, you stupid fekkik?—another voice snarled, "You thieving little tralk!" and a hand fell heavily on her shoulder.
She wriggled to get away, but the stranger who'd helped her up still held her wrist in a surprisingly strong grip, keeping her where she was. What the frell is wrong with these people?
The stranger looked past her at the trader, before briefly flicking his gaze back in Chiana's direction. "Honey, you know I told you to call me over if you found anything you like. But I don't think this—" Chiana tried not to gasp in surprise as he lifted his other hand to reveal he was holding the pendant she'd hidden up her sleeve. "—really suits your coloring. Here." He held out the necklace to the trader. "Sorry for any confusion, Stamoran. No harm done, eh?"
The trader's grip on Chiana's shoulder tightened for a moment, before he let go and, with an annoyed grunt, accepted the pendant. The mysterious stranger quickly wheeled Chiana around, leading her away.
"Where are you taking me?" Chiana again tried to pull free. "And why did you help me?"
"Because Stamoran's a drannit. And because the cops here are pretty tough on anyone who disrupts their idea of fair trade. So I'd knock it off with the five-fingered discount in future. Besides, I may have a prop—."
"Chiana!" Crichton, striding towards them, with Sikozu hurrying to keep pace behind him, drowned out whatever the guy might have been about to say. "Where the hell have you been and… who's your new friend?" Crichton's steps slowed and he looked warily at the stranger.
"You know these people? You wanna go with them?" The guy's muttered questions made Chiana whip her head round in surprise. He actually sounded like he cared about what might happen to her if he handed her over to Crichton.
Seeing the look on Crichton's face, Chiana was tempted to tell the stranger that no, she didn't want to go with them, but then common sense kicked in. "Yeah. Yeah, they're my friends." This time, when she tried to pull away from the guy, he let go of her quite easily.
"You should take better care of your friend," he told Crichton. "Cops here don't much like troublemakers. Specially the Chief." He gave a slightly mocking half-bow and swung away with a swirl of his coat.
Crichton watched him stride away for a couple of microts, before turning his attention back to Chiana. "What happened? What kind of trouble did you make?"
Chiana rolled a shoulder, wincing at the memory of the trader's grip on it. "One of these hingemots got some farhbot idea in his head…."
"Uh-huh." Crichton narrowed his eyes disbelievingly, before jerking his head toward something behind her. "That anything to do with you?"
Twisting around, Chiana saw the woman with the ruined shoes—she didn't recognise the species: the woman was tall and willowy, like Zhaan, but with light orange skin—was still berating the janitor, who now had his arms pinned back by a heavyset thoddo. One of the woman's bodyguards, Chiana guessed. A second guy, standing beside the woman, was curling and uncurling his fists experimentally. Possibly Tavleks, though neither wore a mask or appeared to be carrying a gauntlet. A wide circle had cleared around the four of them, and those on the edges of the crowd were studiously ignoring the disturbance.
"Me? No, no, nothing to do with me." Chiana edged closer to Crichton.
"Right, well, I'm taking you back to Moya." Crichton grabbed Chiana's arm and began to drag her in the direction of the doors to the immigration hall and the docking hangars that lay beyond it.
"What about the electrostatic scrubbers?" Sikozu, on Crichton's other side, skipped to keep up with him as he barged his way through the press of people.
"You heard what the man said." Crichton sounded irritated. "He doesn't have them in stock, but he should be able to get them from the surface in a day or two. So we'll come back tomorrow and see how he's getting on. Without you." The last remark was addressed to Chiana.
"Surely we should ask some of the other—?"
Sikozu was using the superior tone that always made Chiana want to contradict her, even when Sikozu was talking sense. Seemed it had the same sort of effect on Crichton, because he snapped, "Yes. If he can't give us a delivery date tomorrow, we'll ask around. But right now, we need to get this one—" He gave Chiana's arm a shake "—off the station before she frells everything up for all of us."
A glance back over her shoulder showed Chiana that the woman and her bodyguards had moved on. The janitor was kneeling on the floor, trying to swab up the worst of the spilled water with a sponge. He sat back on his heels to squeeze the sponge into his mop bucket and for an instant Chiana thought he made eye contact with her. Then he shook his head and bent back to cleaning up. Chiana felt a moment of pity for the poor grolash, before she shook her head to dismiss the thought. Stupid grot shouldn't have gotten himself in her way.
"D'Argo?" Crichton was speaking into his comms unit. "Sikozu, Chiana and I are heading back to Moya. We've gotten as far as we can with finding the parts Moya needs and—." He turned his gaze on Chiana and then seemed to change his mind about what he was going to say. "Best we don't hang around and get into any trouble. Who knows how far those wanted beacons have spread. I'll swing by for you guys when you're done."
"Understood." D'Argo's reply came over the comms unit. Chiana could hear the frustration in his voice as he added, "Could be a while. Our chief cook and our chief eater, I mean negotiator, are being very picky."
"Gotcha. Comm me when you're ready." They'd reached the doors to the immigration hall and Crichton pushed one half of them open, finally letting go of Chiana and waving her and Sikozu through ahead of him.
The place was quieter than when they'd boarded. A trickle of new arrivals were still making their way through the security stations in the other half of the hall, but the three of them were the only ones leaving. Everyone else must still be knee deep in the commerce or pleasure that had brought them aboard.
Crichton hustled them toward one of the exit checkpoints and the couple of bored-looking guards manning it.
One of the guards held out his hand. "Boarding passes."
Each of them had been issued on arrival with some kind of data chip that had recorded when they'd entered the station. Crichton began patting down his pockets, apparently having forgotten where he'd stowed his, while Sikozu was already holding hers out—Little Miss Efficiency, as always—before Chiana had managed to extract hers from where she'd tucked it away.
The guard shoved Sikozu's chip into his reader. "You didn't stay long."
"We'll be back." Crichton had finally managed to locate his chip. "Some of us at least."
"Which of you has your purchase manifest?" The guard was now scanning Chiana's chip.
"Uh, we didn't buy anything yet." Crichton shot an uneasy look in Chiana's direction as he answered.
"Right." The guard sounded unconvinced as he took Crichton's chip. "Then I'm sure you won't mind waiting while we check your station tracks to confirm which traders you visited."
His colleague, who'd been lounging against the counter, straightened and put his hand on his sidearm, making it clear they weren't going anywhere just yet.
"Why do they need to know what we bought?" Chiana asked of no one in particular as she eyed the second guard warily. Not that she had anything to fear: the pendant was the only thing she'd tried to take. But she didn't like people poking their noses into her business.
"Because they wish us to pay taxes," Sikozu snapped. "If you had any idea how civilized societies operate—."
Chiana made a face at her. Sikozu scowled back—and Chiana suddenly found herself thrown violently against the wall. Along with everyone and everything else that wasn't nailed down, like the boxful of data chips that had been sitting on the counter, the contents clattering against the wall that now seemed to be the floor.
Chiana cautiously sat up, shaking her head and trying to make sense of the newly tilted world.
"Crap!" Crichton sounded winded. "Artificial gravity failure?"
One of the security guards was coughing, while the other let out a pained groan.
"I do not believe so." Sikozu seemed to have come off best, having only been thrown a short distance before she came up against the wall. She was pointing to the other side of the hall, which was now above them, where the guards and the new arrivals were gawping at them in amazement with their feet firmly planted to the floor. The actual, normal floor.
"This is… weird." Crichton had tilted his head to one side and was blinking at the sight.
One of the guards had recovered sufficiently to grab a comms device from his belt and start gabbling into it about an incident and needing backup.
"Clearly a localized disturbance." Sikozu twisted herself until her feet were once more on what had, until moments ago, been the floor for all of them, though Chiana could see that she was braced against the gravity that held the rest of them in place.
Then a couple of familiar and unwelcome sounds drew Chiana's attention in a different direction. Turning her head, she saw both guards had drawn their weapons and were aiming them at Sikozu. On the other side of the hall, several guards had pushed through the crowd and had also drawn their weapons. The guard nearest Chiana spoke into his comms device again. "We need backup now."
John had still been checking himself over, to make sure he hadn't broken anything in the second fall, when the rest of the security officers had swarmed forward and slapped handcuffs on all three of Moya's crew. And now here he was, stuck in yet another cell. Why was it that everywhere they went these days, he ended up getting arrested?
Chiana, holding on to the cell bars, was trying to attract the attention of anyone who passed by. Most of the security officers were studiously ignoring her, although a few shot her worried looks and then hurried away. Her attempts to flirt with the guards who'd escorted them to the cell had met with an equally stony response. John had a suspicion her usual escape tactics weren't going to work somewhere as ordered as this place.
As for Sikozu, she'd been taken off to an interview room on the far side of the security office as soon as they'd arrived. The guards seemed to think she was responsible for whatever had happened back in the immigration hall, despite her protests—backed up by John—that she had nothing to do with it. They'd been questioning her for long enough that John was starting to get worried about what they knew and what she might be telling them. If those damn wanted beacons had reached this far….
The only bright spot was that the security team hadn't spotted and confiscated his comms unit. Once the guards had left them alone, he'd managed to contact D'Argo and hastily let him know that they'd been picked up, and that he thought the authorities would be looking for the rest of their party.
Turning to make yet another circuit of the cell, he puffed out a relieved breath when he saw Sikozu being escorted toward them.
"You all right?" he asked as one of the guards unlocked the door to the holding cell and waved her inside.
"Fine." Her tone was short and she rubbed at her arm where the other guard had been holding it, as if to scrub his touch off her.
John didn't get to ask her anything else before the second guard was pointing at him. "You. Out."
Heaving another sigh, John let himself be taken across the main office to the interview room Sikozu had just left. He didn't see what he could say that hadn't already been said, but the sooner whoever was in charge had talked to all three of them, the more chance there was of them being let go before either the Peacekeepers or the Scarrans turned up.
A little to his surprise, the interview room was empty, but he soon discovered that the investigating officers had, in the way of policemen the universe over, been fetching themselves coffee, or whatever passed for the local equivalent. He noted he wasn't being offered any.
There were two of them: a dark-haired man and a blonde woman, both Sebacean, or something similar. The man took a seat at the table opposite John, while the woman leaned against the wall, watching.
"I'm Chief of Security Wuornos." The man didn't look at John, busy setting up some kind of computer with a touch screen that probably held his case files, while making sure his coffee was positioned in exactly the right place. He tilted his head in the woman's direction. "This is Officer Parker. And you are… Crikton?"
"Crichton," John corrected wearily. "John Crichton." There were times when he really wished he had a name with a simpler phonetic spelling, whether in English or transliterated into the universal script used everywhere out here.
"So," Chief Wuornos looked up at him at last, "want to tell us what happened in the immigration hall?"
John shrugged. "I have no idea. Never seen anything like it before." He'd been thinking about it, on and off, in between worrying about Sikozu and their general predicament, while he'd been stuck in the holding cell, and he still wasn't any closer to figuring out an answer. To affect gravity that strongly over such a localized area without ripping holes in the universe seemed… unlikely at best.
"Your friend—" Wuornos fiddled with his computer for a moment, as if checking. "—Sikozu Svala Shanti Sugaysi Shanu. She seems to have some interesting abilities."
"Okay." John sat back and put his hands up in acknowledgment. "I'll give you that. I've seen her hang from the ceiling before, yes. You can also cut her hand off, stick it back on and it'll heal up good as new. But the rest of it? Local space-time going haywire? I've never seen anything like that before. And believe me, I've seen some weird dren."
"You sure about that?" Officer Parker spoke for the first time, her gaze fixed thoughtfully on John's face. "Seems you've been responsible for quite a bit of… disruption, if those Peacekeeper wanted beacons are anything to go by."
John was half out of his seat before Wuornos held up a hand to stop him. "We're not interested in doing the Peacekeepers' dirty work for them. As long as you don't cause any problems for Haven, we don't care what you've done or who wants you. But what happened in the immigration hall…."
John sank back into his seat. He ought to be relieved the Haven authorities weren't going to call in the Peacekeepers and collect Grayza's bounty—but he didn't entirely trust Wuornos was telling the truth, despite the barely suppressed irritation in Wuornos' tone that suggested he didn't think much of Peacekeepers either. "I told you," he said carefully, looking from Wuornos to Parker and back again, "I've no idea what happened in the immigration hall. This is your crazy-ass space station. Me and my friends, we're just visitors."
"Right. Here to do business with Crocker." Wuornos gave him a hard stare. "Want to tell me what that's all about?"
"Who?" John racked his brains, but the name didn't mean anything to him.
Wuornos curled his lip in a sneer. "You were seen talking to him."
"Nope." John shook his head. "Only person I've been trying to do business with is a biomechanoid parts trader by the name of Garrick. As recommended by some of your immigration officials when we first arrived, I might add."
"In the main marketplace," Wuornos prompted. "He seemed quite friendly with one of your shipmates. The Nebari woman."
"Yeah, well, Chiana's good at making friends." Wuornos' words had shaken something loose in John's mind, though. "Wait, tall? Dark hair? Longish? Scruffy beard?" At Wuornos' nod, John shrugged. "Met him for a few microts when he was with Chiana. Never seen him before. Never plan on seeing him again."
Wuornos tapped his fingers on the table. "And what was the Nebari doing with him?"
"I have no idea." Which was only half-true: John had gotten the impression this Crocker had prevented Chiana from getting arrested, or worse, though he didn't know quite what Chiana had actually done to deserve that. He added under his breath, "He was right about you guys, though."
"Oh?" Wuornos arched a brow, but John just stared him out. When it was clear John wasn't going to say any more, Wuornos took another look at the notes on his computer and pointed out in a casual tone, "And right after you met Crocker, you decided you'd concluded your business on the station for the day and it was time to leave?"
"No. Right before I met Crocker. Right before I met Crocker, I'd already concluded my business on the station for the day and decided to leave." John rolled his eyes, wondering how the hell he'd evidently managed to—yet again!—end up in the middle of some local personal beef. Because, even if nothing else was clear, it was obvious that Wuornos and Crocker had history. A lot of history.
Wuornos opened his mouth as if to ask another question, but before he could speak, Parker pushed off the wall and laid a soothing hand on his shoulder. Leaning forward, her other hand splayed on the table, she caught and held John's gaze. "Look, we don't care about your business with Crocker. We're just trying to figure out what happened in the immigration hall."
A glance at Wuornos showed John that the question of Crocker wasn't off the table as far as he was concerned. Trouble was, he didn't have any answers about what had happened in the immigration hall, either. Before he had a chance to point that out—again—there was a splurge of noise from the main office outside: some thumps and bangs, a few shrieks and a lot of swearing. Wuornos and Parker exchanged a wary look and then moved as one to the door, throwing it open.
"What the—? Here as well?" Wuornos sounded incredulous. Craning sideways, John couldn't see much, but it was enough for him to conclude that at least part of the security office was experiencing the same kind of gravity frell-up as they'd seen in immigration.
Wuornos took a few steps outside, but Parker hurried after him and put her hand on his arm, holding him back. "Let me. This looks…." She didn't finish the sentence, merely shook her head.
Wuornos took a half pace back, apparently conceding the point. "Just be careful," he cautioned.
Curiosity getting the better of him, John got up and headed for the door as well. The people on this side of the main office had backed up toward the walls, peering up in horror at the tangle of colleagues and desks and chairs and cabinets on the ceiling in the other half of the room. The ceiling folk were carefully helping each other up and lifting furniture off those pinned underneath and kneeling down to provide first aid. It would have all looked quite normal, except everything was upside down, as if someone had fed the film the wrong way up into a projector.
John's brain was racing. Last time, gravity had been turned through ninety degrees. This time it had flipped a one-eighty. He wasn't sure if that was significant, but it was certainly another data point in… something that was making his brain hurt badly.
Reaching the door, he cautiously leaned forward, keen not to attract Wuornos' attention and be sent back to his seat, so he could squint in the direction of the holding cell. As he'd pretty much expected, it was in the affected half of the room—which wasn't doing much to help his claims that he, Chiana and Sikozu had nothing to do with what was going on.
To his relief, both the girls seemed to have survived this inversion without too much damage. Chiana was rubbing her elbow as if she'd bruised it, but they seemed fine otherwise. Perhaps even better off than the people out in the main office: all the furniture in the holding cell was bolted down.
John turned his attention back to Parker, who'd walked out into the middle of the office and stopped beside the last desk that was still the right way up. Squaring her shoulders, evidently bracing herself, she stepped forward.
And absolutely nothing happened. She walked a few paces further forward into the affected area and tilted her head to look up at the people above her, who looked back down at her mutely. Apart from some low moaning and sobbing, you could have heard a pin drop. It was certainly quiet enough for John to hear Wuornos' muttered, "Oh, crap."
Clearing his throat, Wuornos stepped forward and added in a more normal voice. "People, we'll figure this out and get you down, but for now, I'm afraid you're all just going to have to sit tight. And last time this happened, it reversed itself just as abruptly, so I advise you to try find somewhere to wait it out where you won't get hurt if things do get put to rights."
He moved sideways and spoke softly to a couple of officers. From what John could catch of the conversation, it sounded like he was giving them instructions to find a way to bring people back to the normal side of the office. By the time he was done, Parker had walked back over to him. She rolled her eyes as she approached. "Well, if we wanted proof we've got a Trouble on our hands, we just got it."
John could hear the capital letter in Trouble in the way she said it. Her gaze slid past Wuornos, her expression turning speculative as she met John's quizzical look. "What's a Trouble?" he asked.
She went on considering him thoughtfully, before shaking her head. "It's nothing. It doesn't matter."
John rested his shoulder against the door frame and crossed his arms. "You didn't say you'd got trouble. You said you'd got a trouble. And that looked a lot liked you were testing a hypothesis out there—and that you were pretty sure you knew what the outcome would be." He dipped his head toward the center of the office.
"And did you?" That was Wuornos, again giving John a suspicious stare.
"No." John hesitated, and then admitted, "But I am a scientist. And one of the things I've studied a fair bit is gravity and… anomalies." He held up his hands defensively as Wuornos took a pace towards him. "Look, I swear, this is nothing to do with us. At least, if it is, we're not doing it deliberately. But… I might be able to help you figure it out, if you tell me what you think is going on. What a Trouble is. Because that?" He gestured toward the knot of officers who were standing either side of the invisible line between normality and crazyworld and holding a brain-twisting discussion about how to transfer people across. "That is not something I want to see in my reality."
Wuornos went on frowning at John for a few microts, before turning toward Parker. "You think we should trust this guy?" He didn't seem bothered that John might be able to overhear.
Parker shrugged, her gaze still fixed on John. "We could use some help on this one. Unless you forgot to tell me you took Advanced Astrophysics back when you were a rookie cop?"
"He might be responsible." Wuornos shot John another unfriendly look.
"In which case, he can run rings round us anyway." Parker put her hand on Wuornos' arm and tilted her head in the direction of the messed-up half of the office. "Can he really make things any worse than they already are?"
Wuornos puffed out a breath and then reluctantly indicated Parker should lead the way back into the interview room.
John settled himself back down at the table, while Parker eased herself into the chair opposite. Wuornos, having pulled the door closed behind him, was the one to take up position by the wall.
Parker folded her hands on the table, her forehead creased with worry. "You wanted to know what a Trouble is? It's things like that, out there." She nodded in the direction of the door. "People here on the station, some of them, have abilities. They can do things that shouldn't be possible. Like make people see and hear things that aren't there. Attack people with their shadows. Have their emotions affect physical objects—like turning food rotten or messing with the station life support systems. Or… screwing up gravity."
"And you think that's what's happening here?" John still wasn't sure he believed in supernatural powers, though, God knows, he'd been jerked around by Maldis—twice—and by those Delvian cultists and by that Orican witch who'd nearly killed Moya. After all: any sufficiently advanced technology….
Parker made a face. "It looks like it, yes. For some reason, Troubles don't affect me. I'm immune to them. So when I walked into the other half of the office…."
John nodded, understanding now the experiment she'd been conducting. "You didn't end up upside down. Because it's one of these Troubles, not gravity really being screwed up."
"Yes." Parker gave him a tired smile and he wondered how often she had to deal with Troubles, and whether they were all as troublesome as this one. "It may be that you, or one of your friends, is Troubled without being aware of it. Most of the time, people don't even know they're doing these things, and usually they don't mean to hurt people, but people get hurt anyway."
"So how do you stop stuff like that happening?" It was John's turn to jerk his head in the direction of the main office outside.
Parker rolled a shoulder. "Find the Troubled person who's causing it. Try to figure out why. Most Troubles lie dormant for years, until something activates them. Often when people get upset or get angry. Sometimes the effects are felt by everyone. Sometimes they're targeted just at whoever's making the Troubled person upset or angry. And some we can stop from happening by figuring out what's bugging the Troubled person and fixing it. Others…." She sighed heavily. "All we can do is work out how to minimize the effects. It's… not really an exact science."
"So why—?" Before John could finish his question—Why would gravity get screwed up?—there was another burst of noise from the main office: more heavy thumps and bumps; more exclamations of surprise and fear.
Wuornos pushed away from the wall and opened the door far enough to take a quick glance outside. "We're back to normal," he confirmed. Shutting the door again, he turned and glared at John. "For now."
The look told John that he and the others weren't getting out of the security office any time soon. But the expression on Parker's face as she regarded him suggested she'd genuinely appreciate his help. Suppressing a curse, because helping people never went well, John addressed her. "Look, if we help you, will you give us an amnesty if we've done anything we shouldn't have."
"That depends on what you've done," Wuornos pointed out menacingly.
Parker raised her hand, asking him to leave the floor to her. John briefly wondered about their relationship: wasn't Wuornos her boss? On the other hand, Parker seemed to be the one who took point on dealing with these Troubled people, so maybe Wuornos thought it best to follow her lead on this stuff. Parker leaned forward, folding her hands together on the table. "We can't give you a blanket amnesty," she warned, "but we're not interested in the small stuff. So yes, if you help us prevent any more people getting hurt, we'll be willing to overlook a few things."
John drummed his fingers on the table, trying to decide what to say. At last, he huffed out a breath. "Look, I don't know exactly what she did, but I think Chiana may have gotten herself into trouble, and that Crocker guy helped her out of it. She can be a little… fuzzy sometimes on what belongs to who. Old habits. That's why we were leaving so soon, to take her back to our ship so she couldn't cause any more trouble. The trader we talked to hadn't got the parts we need for our ship, but he was going to see if he could get them for us in a day or two, so there wasn't much point in us hanging around anyway. The rest of our crew who came aboard with us were working on replenishing our food stores. None of us is capable of doing something like that deliberately." John flapped a hand toward the main office. "But maybe one of us upset someone who can."
Wuornos pushed himself away from the wall. "Sounds like we need to talk to your Nebari friend."
John smiled wryly. "You won't get anything out of her on her own. But if I you let me talk to her, I can probably get her to tell you what actually went down with Crocker."
Wuornos hesitated for a moment and then gave a nod of agreement. As he opened the door, John called after him, "Bring Sikozu, too. She's a pain in the ass, but she's smart. Be good to have her eyes on this as well."
Noranti was deep in conversation with the storekeeper at the counter. D'Argo grabbed her arm. "Come on, granny. Time to go."
She resisted his attempt to drag her away, her eyes wide with surprise and confusion. "Oh, but Marjean here and I haven't finished discussing the properties of tragon leaves."
"Another time." D'Argo grasped the back of Rygel's thronesled and towed it away from the counter.
Rygel waved his hands indignantly, spraying drops of sauce from a piece of meat speared on the fork he held. "And I haven't finished eat—uh, sampling the goods to make sure they're fit for purpose."
"I'm sure you've sampled quite enough," D'Argo remarked through gritted teeth.
"What about our deal?" The shopkeeper was rounding the counter after them. "We need to agree quantities and prices—."
"We'll be back in a couple of arns," D'Argo promised wildly, fighting against Rygel's attempt to steer his thronesled back toward the food—the stupid, greedy little frellnik—and Noranti stopping ever three steps to exclaim something like, "Oh, look, jixit root! So useful for dealing with obstruction of the bowels when taken with dried gavork."
At last, D'Argo managed to manhandle the two of them out of the store and down a quieter side street. "The others have gotten themselves arrested," he growled, letting go of both.
"Oh. Oh, dear. Not good." Noranti turned herself around in a full circle as if looking for options. "Not good."
"Serves 'em right," Rygel snarled. Meeting D'Argo's furious expression, his shoulders sagged. "Oh, all right. The old woman has a point. Not good. So now what do we do?"
D'Argo looked up and down the street. "John said they were looking for us as well. So I guess we should make ourselves scarce for a while. See if there's any way to get off this hunk of tin and back to Moya without being spotted."
"First thing you need to do is ditch those boarding passes they gave you in immigration. They can use them to track your location."
The voice from the shadow of a doorway made D'Argo spin and instinctively reach up for his Qualta blade—which he wasn't carrying. The authorities had made it quite clear when they'd allowed Moya past the planet's outer defensive perimeter that weapons weren't permitted on the station. None of them had much liked that, and Aeryn had flat out refused to come along on those terms—though she'd pointed out that, in any case, someone needed to stay behind and keep an eye on Scorpius. But this Haven had seemed like a well-regulated place: if the rules were strictly enforced for everyone, it should be safe enough. Still got my tongue, D'Argo thought smugly to himself, as he lowered his hand.
Seemed the lanky Sebacean who stepped into view knew it too. He stayed well out of range, holding up his hands to show he meant no harm.
Rygel glared at him. "What's it to you?"
"Just a bit of friendly advice, for free." The guy tilted his head and added with a smirk, "For a price, I can get you off this hunk of tin and back to your ship. Or, you know, I could call a couple of bounty hunters I know and get a cut of the finders' fee. Even for just the three of you, should be a useful amount."
D'Argo irritably swatted at Noranti, who'd sidled behind him and was now popping out on first one side of him and then the other to peek at the stranger. "Last lot of bounty hunters who tried to collect ended up dead," he sneered. "What makes you think you're any different?"
The guy gave an unbothered shrug. "Well, in that case, I guess you won't mind putting yourself in the hands of the station authorities, so they can turn you over."
D'Argo exchanged a look with Rygel, who edged his thronesled forward. "You can get us back to our ship without being detected?"
"Uh-huh." The stranger crossed his arms and leaned one shoulder against the wall. "Got a ship of my own docked in the residents' hangar on the other side of the station and a couple of routes in and out that I sometimes use for, uh, non-official merchandise."
"A smuggler." Rygel infused the word with all the contempt of a former ruler who would have cheerfully counted every last penny of his empire's tax receipts himself—if it hadn't interfered with dinner.
The guy gave a small mock bow. "I prefer entrepreneur."
"How much?" D'Argo growled. He didn't see that they had a lot of choice, given they didn't know their way around the station, the number of places to hide would be limited—and they could likely be detected and found in most of them—and there would be even fewer options for getting off the damn place unseen.
Again, that unhurried shrug. "Let's say… ten per cent of the bounty listed on the wanted beacon."
"Five per cent," Rygel snapped back. "And just the bounty on the three of us."
The stranger regarded them for a moment, his gaze shifting from Rygel to D'Argo and then back. "Done." He dipped his head and held out his hand. "Give me your boarding passes."
D'Argo reached into his pocket to pull out the chip, still not entirely sure he trusted this guy, but feeling like he didn't have much choice. They hadn't come this far to simply have the authorities on some backwater planet pick them up and hand them back to Scorpius and Grayza, and he couldn't do much about rescuing the others if he was skulking around in back alleys with Rygel and Noranti in tow.
The guy had produced a flask from somewhere inside the battered leather duster he wore and was unscrewing the lid. He accepted the chips and dropped them one by one into the flask.
D'Argo raised his brows. "You carry acid around in your pockets?"
That produced a laugh and a shake of the head. "It's just water. But with the flask as well, it's as good as." The guy screwed the lid back on the bottle. "Now they won't know where you've gone. But they will know where you were last, so let's move." He swung around with a whisk of his coat and set off, drawing them further away from the market place. "Name's Crocker," he threw back over his shoulder.
The three of them hurried after him, Rygel grumbling and Noranti needing the occasional shove from D'Argo to keep her moving quickly enough. Crocker led them through to the next street over, along that for a while, down another side street and then along a street that ran lengthwise along the station, where they had to sidestep numerous small trucks trundling along with crates. Abruptly, Crocker ducked into a warehouse, raising a hand in salute to a Saltici on an upper walkway who turned to watch them as they hurried through the place and on out through a low door at the rear into a narrow alleyway. Along again—they were slowly working their way toward the front of the station, D'Argo realized—and then through another low door into the rear of a second dimly lit warehouse. Crocker swung left and led them to a corner where a number of crates had been stacked, walling off a small space in which a handful of Sebaceans were sitting around a table playing some kind of card game.
"Crocker!" A plump Sebacean who seemed to be acting as dealer grinned at the sight of their guide. "Come to join in the game?"
Crocker shook his head. "Not this time, Fiegler. Need to borrow a crate for a few arns." He turned around and ran an appraising eye over D'Argo, Rygel and Noranti. "Kwarton-size, with ventilation, should do it."
D'Argo didn't understand why Crocker wanted to borrow a crate. When he finally made sense of it—as the guy swung the side open and waved for the three of them to climb inside—he still couldn't quite believe this was the plan.
"You're joking, right?" D'Argo growled. He wasn't even sure they were all going to fit, and he and his sense of smell certainly didn't want to be in such close proximity to either Noranti or Rygel.
Crocker laughed. "What? You thought we could just walk on to my ship unobserved, even in the residents' moorings? But they usually don't bother with scanning outgoing crates. And if they do pick up lifesigns, I'll tell them you're a bunch of Vorcs I've borrowed to deal with some pests."
"Vorcs?" Rygel bridled at the comparison.
Crocker quirked an eyebrow. "Or you can take your chances with the station authorities and the Peacekeepers…."
"Oh, no, no, no. That sounds like a very bad idea." Noranti bobbed her head a couple of times, before stooping and ducking into the crate, settling her skirts around her in the corner. She patted the floor next to her. "Come, D'Argo. Come, Rygel."
D'Argo shook his head and growled wordlessly, but he didn't seem to have much choice. He lifted his hand to his comms device. "I should tell Pilot and Aeryn we'll be coming in on another ship."
"I wouldn't." Crocker put up a hand to stop him. "Authorities might pick up the transmission. You can signal her once we've left the mooring and I let you out."
D'Argo growled again, liking this even less. The guy was expecting them to let themselves to be locked in a crate without anyone knowing what was going on?
Apparently Crocker wasn't stupid and knew exactly what D'Argo was thinking, because he shrugged. "Here." He pulled a pulse pistol from somewhere inside the skirts of his coat—how many pockets did that thing have?—and held it out to D'Argo. "You can shoot your way out and then shoot me if you think I've doubled-crossed you."
D'Argo took the pistol cautiously. "Should you be carrying this thing?" He slid the ammo clip out and tested the charge. It seemed to be fully loaded, or close enough.
Crocker chuckled. "It's registered and I have a concealed carry permit, yes. It's only drunken pilots on shore leave and disgruntled traders who made bad deals that they don't want shooting the place up. And Security Chief Wuornos might have a charge sheet of unprovable crimes as long as his arm that he'd like to pin on me, but murder and assault aren't on there."
D'Argo slid the clip back into place and reluctantly crawled into the crate, folding himself up uncomfortably. "Rygel?"
Rygel slowly lowered himself in his hoversled and edged forward into the crate, still muttering something about Vorcs and six billion subjects. Crocker swung the crate door closed and D'Argo heard him snap the clasps into place, though there were no sounds to indicate the crate was being padlocked. There was a moment's stillness in the dark and then the three of them jostled against each other as Crocker—presumably—began to wheel the crate along.
With one hand gripping the pulse pistol, D'Argo put the other over his nose, trying not to breathe in too deeply. It didn't do much to reduce the pungent smell that soon filled the cramped space. Then, just as his nose had become accustomed enough to stop protesting, he detected a second odor swelling up underneath. In a way, he was glad they needed to keep silent: that way, he didn't have the chance to say anything and confirm without doubt that Rygel was responsible for the new stink.
At least the two of them were mostly keeping still, though Rygel's thronesled was wedged heavily against one of his arms and Noranti's bony knees were digging into his thigh.
They'd been rolling along for what seemed like forever, though it was probably only five hundred microts, when the crate stopped moving. Straining his ears, D'Argo could hear voices outside. The security check Crocker had mentioned, he guessed. He tightened his grip on the pulse pistol, but then there was another jolt and they were moving again, Rygel's thronesled bumping against him hard enough that the breath was half knocked out of him.
Everything suddenly got much noisier—whatever they were now traveling over was rattling loudly under the crate's wheels—and the crate suddenly tilted quite abruptly, sending D'Argo sliding toward Rygel and Noranti. He instinctively braced his legs to steady himself. Crocker must be pushing them up the loading ramp into his ship.
Or delivering them to the station authorities, or a ship full of bounty hunters….
Then the crate came to a stop. There was a solid thump that seemed to make everything shake and then, at the limit of his hearing, what sounded like footsteps fading away.
Silence fell. And stretched on. And on. Until—.
One of Rygel's stomach's gurgled noisily and the smell inside the crate increased again. "Now what?" Rygel squeaked, his voice a couple of octaves higher than normal.
D'Argo shrugged. "We wait?" He'd hoped Crocker would let them out as soon as he had them on board, but he must have decided to take off first, to minimize the risk of them being spotted. D'Argo just hoped Crocker wouldn't get too close to Moya before he released them; he really should have impressed on the guy that Aeryn was not going to take kindly to a unknown ship approaching.
At last, maybe half an arn after they'd climbed into the crate, when D'Argo was starting to get worried and seriously beginning to consider shooting his way out, there was the clatter of lock clasps. The crate swung open and D'Argo gratefully breathed in a gulp of fresher air.
"About frelling time." Rygel propelled himself out of the crate.
D'Argo followed more slowly, his joints creaking. Putting out a hand to help Noranti out after him, he looked around. They were in a slightly shabby cargo hold. Someone had, at some point in the past, slapped a coat of gray paint over everything that was now chipped and scored by crates long-since unloaded. Webbing nets hung here and there, providing anchor points for smaller boxes but capable of being easily pushed aside for large cargoes. Apart from the crate in which they'd boarded, the place was bare.
"You don't seem like a very successful trader," Rygel sneered, waving a hand at the empty space.
Crocker's mouth quirked into a smile. "I specialize in small but valuable cargo. Often unusual and dangerous. Not unlike yourselves."
"Hmm." Rygel's expression turned even sourer.
"Have we left the station?" D'Argo asked impatiently.
Crocker bobbed his head. "Yes. We're on a slow course toward your Leviathan."
"Then we should signal them to tell them we're coming. Aeryn doesn't like surprises."
"Of course." Crocker gestured for them to follow him toward a door set in the end wall. He paused with his hand on the handle. "Only my friends and trusted business associates go through this door."
"We are paying you," Rygel pointed out, scooting his throne sled forward and bumping it into Crocker's arm.
"Yes, you are." Crocker threw open the door and stepped through, taking a pace sideways so he could wave them in after him. "Lady and gentlemen, welcome to the Red Nebula."
D'Argo understood Rygel's breathless "Oh!" of appreciation and Noranti excitedly clapping her hands together when he followed the two of them down the short corridor into the Red Nebula's living quarters. While the cargo bay gave every appearance of belonging to the sort of run-down rustbuckets they'd seen aplenty on their way into the station, and the outside of the ship was likely a match for that, the crew quarters wouldn't have been out of place on some rich dilettante's planet hopper. The walls were paneled in wood that warmly reflected the soft yellow light cast by a couple of lamps and everywhere he turned, D'Argo saw comfort and luxury: from the compact but well-furnished galley and dining table to the semi-circular padded bench where a pilot and his friends could relax. At the far end of the room, a half-open door revealed sleeping quarters and a large and comfortable-looking bed.
Clearly Crocker's business was doing just fine.
"Bridge is up above." Crocker pointed to a ladder fixed next to the door to the sleeping quarters. "I should check on the autopilot and you should call your friends."
Rygel was already investigating the kitchen, peering into storage jars and cupboards to see what he could find to eat, while Noranti had sat down on the padded bench and was lightly bouncing up and down on it. D'Argo followed Crocker up the ladder and wasn't at all surprised to find the cockpit stuffed with the latest in navigational displays and sensors. He had a feeling that if Crocker ever allowed him to look at the Red Nebula's engines, he'd discover they'd easily outrun a Prowler, or even a Scarran Stryker.
Crocker pressed a few controls, glancing at D'Argo as he did so, before waving him forward. "I used the location signal that your comms unit is broadcasting to identify your Leviathan's frequency and open a secure channel. Go ahead and speak to your Pilot."
D'Argo cleared his throat. "Pilot, it's D'Argo. Can you hear me?"
Pilot's response was immediate. "Yes, Captain D'Argo, I hear you. But where are you? The transport pod is not equipped to provide the kind of encryption on this transmission."
D'Argo shifted from one foot to the other. "Uh, can you patch in Aeryn and I'll explain?"
There was a microt's silence and then D'Argo heard Aeryn's voice. "D'Argo, what's going on?" She sounded like she was caught somewhere between confusion and irritation.
"Uh, we ran into a little trouble on the station. Rygel, Noranti and I are on our way back to Moya on a ship belonging to a… new friend." D'Argo shot a sideways look at Crocker, who was leaning against a bulkhead with his arms crossed.
"Where are the others?" Aeryn now sounded worried.
"I'll explain when we get there. Just let us dock. We're on a cargo ship called the Red Nebula."
"Moya's sensors are detecting you," Pilot cut in. "The treblin side hangar will be able to accommodate you."
"Understood." D'Argo stepped back and indicated he was done. Crocker moved forward and made a few adjustments to the controls. Presumably closing the comms channel and increasing their speed: the sensor readouts indicated they were approaching Moya more quickly now.
D'Argo waited until Moya's docking web had drawn them inside the hangar before, leaving Crocker to set down the ship and secure her, he headed back down the ladder. Down in the main cabin, he hastily chased Rygel out of the kitchen and Noranti out of Crocker's sleeping quarters, where she'd been rubbing the bedcovers against her face.
Not a moment too soon. Crocker joined them a few microts later. He led them back out into the cargo bay and hit the control for the loading ramp. As the ramp slowly lowered, D'Argo found himself facing the wrong end of a pulse rifle.
Crocker raised his hands defensively and uttered a low, "Whoa! Easy there!"
Aeryn swept her gaze over the four of them and then targeted the pulse rifle more firmly at Crocker. "Where's John?"
"What else did you expect us to do?" D'Argo glared back at her, his expression turning annoyed. "Mount a rescue mission? Unarmed? Or go and ask nicely if we could have our friends back—and get ourselves locked up as well?"
Aeryn turned and strode a few paces down the hangar, trying to get her fear for John under control. "This is bad. Very bad." She gripped her pulse rifle more tightly, taking comfort from it. "Those Peacekeeper wanted beacons—."
"Wuornos isn't going to tell the Peacekeepers about your friends." The stranger who'd brought D'Argo and the others back to Moya—Crocker? Was that what D'Argo had called him—was standing with his arms folded and an amused grin on his face. "The last thing anyone on the station wants is a couple of Marauders or a Vigilante turning up on our doorstep. Haven's neutral, and everyone wants to keep it that way. Even me." He rolled his eyes, and added, "Even when there's a quick buck to be made. Speaking of which…." He turned toward D'Argo and Rygel, an expectant look on his face.
"Oh, no." Aeryn took a step forward and jabbed the pulse rifle in Crocker's direction. "You're not done yet. You're going to take me over there and help me get the rest of our friends back." She didn't trust him further than she could throw him, but that didn't mean he couldn't make himself useful.
Rygel scooted forward, half putting himself between Aeryn and Crocker. "You'll get yourself arrested," he warned.
"Rygel's right." D'Argo shrugged helplessly. At his side, Noranti bobbed her head up and down in agreement.
"For what?" Aeryn snapped. "I wasn't on the station when… whatever they were arrested for happened. And don't you think we should at least find out what they're supposed to have done, and how much dren they're in, before we do anything else?"
D'Argo still looked unhappy but he didn't raise any further objections. Aeryn waggled her pulse rifle at Crocker. "You. Move."
"Look—." Crocker spread his hands in protest.
"I'd do what she says," Rygel advised, propelling himself past Aeryn and toward the hangar exit. "You don't want to get on her wrong side. And I don't think she's going to let us pay you until we've gotten Crichton back."
Crocker shifted his gaze back to meet Aeryn's and evidently read in her face that Rygel's assessment was correct. He sighed heavily. "Okay. Okay." He turned and gestured toward his ship. "This way."
"No." Aeryn indicated with the pulse rifle that he should move in the other direction. "We're taking my ship."
Crocker affected an air of unconcern as he ambled beside her in the direction the hamman-side hangar, though Aeryn noted that his gaze constantly flicked from side to side, taking in and assessing his surroundings. He dropped the languid attitude entirely when they entered the hangar and he caught sight of the Prowler. He whistled softly. "You know how to fly this thing?"
Aeryn slung the pulse rifle across her back and circled the Prowler, carrying out a quick visual inspection while still keeping an eye on Crocker. He'd made no attempt to escape or threaten her as they'd crossed the ship, but that didn't mean she was going to let her guard down. What she did trust was that, the whole way, they'd been followed by 1812, waving his plasma welder threateningly: it seemed John had given 1812 instructions to take care of Aeryn while he was away from Moya.
Rounding the rear of the Prowler and heading back toward Crocker, Aeryn saw 1812 had now positioned himself to have a clear shot at Crocker if he moved, and that Crocker was looking down at 1812 with a mixture of amusement and respect.
"Icarian Company, Pleisar Regiment," she muttered, in response to Crocker's question, hitting the control to open the Prowler's canopy, though she didn't know why she was bothering to tell him anything.
Crocker turned his gaze back in her direction and inclined his head in salute. "Ah, yes. The former Peacekeeper commando…."
"…till Crichton ruined my life," Aeryn grumbled to herself. Ruined it in more ways than she'd ever thought possible, because she'd discovered since she'd returned to Moya that not being wanted by the person you loved was even worse than falling in love when you didn't want to. Several times, she'd thought maybe she ought to leave again—but she didn't want to go without fixing things with John. She couldn't bear the thought of him somewhere out in the galaxy thinking badly of her. Besides, last time she'd left, he'd fallen into Grayza's hands. No one would tell exactly what had happened, but she knew it hadn't been pretty. John needed her to protect him from himself.
Shaking off her bleak thoughts, she indicated to Crocker that he should climb into the Prowler's second seat. He hesitated for a moment and then lightly hoisted himself up, betraying a familiarity with the Prowler's footholds that surprised her. He quirked an eyebrow as he settled himself in the seat. "Do you trust me back here?"
"No." She grinned mirthlessly at him. "That's why 1812's coming too." The DRD had been anxiously butting her foot and beeping ever since Crocker had climbed onto the Prowler. She picked 1812 up and turned his eyestalks to face her. "He makes one false move, you shoot him. Understood?"
1812 beeped cheerfully at her in response and she placed him inside the Prowler's cockpit. He settled himself in a better position on the side of the fuselage, just below the canopy, and waggled his plasma welder at Crocker as Aeryn stowed her pulse rifle within easy reach and slid into the pilot seat.
It only took a short while to reach the space station. It took longer for them to get clearance to dock. Aeryn was tapping her fingers impatiently—and nervously—on the Prowler's stick by the time they were giving the go-ahead to enter, but she was relieved to catch a glimpse of Moya's transport pod parked in the hangar as she swept past to her allocated spot and set down.
"No weapons," Crocker reminded her as he followed her out of the cockpit while she was reaching back in for the pulse rifle.
When she looked at him sharply, he pointed to the large sign hanging over the entrance to the immigration hall. Sighing—but recalling that the weapons ban had been the excuse she'd seized on to avoid tagging along with John and the others when they went ashore—she let go of the pulse rifle and then drew her pulse pistol from its holster, setting it down on the pilot seat.
"And the rest." This time, it was Crocker's turn to grin mirthlessly.
She hesitated for a moment, before she pushed her hair back from her neck, pulled out the small pulse pistol she kept stowed in the collar of her coat and dropped it next to her sidearm. But she was damned if she was going to remove the knife sheathed in her boot. Good luck with them detecting that against the rest of the metal in the fastenings. She reached out and patted 1812 on his casing. "Stay here and take care of them for me."
Rolling his eyes, Crocker checked she was ready to accompany him and strode forward into the immigration hall. He barely broke stride as he passed the two security guards standing either side of the checkpoint, but when Aeryn tried to follow, she found a pulse pistol jammed in her face. It took all her control not to instinctively floor the guy and wrestle the gun out of his hand. Shooting a startled look at Crocker, now standing on the far side of the checkpoint, she saw that, having waited until he was sure she was watching, he was ostentatiously stowing away some kind of identity chip she didn't realize he'd had in his hand.
He was so going to pay for that. And he'd better not think for a moment that he was going to skip out on her now they were back on the station. Though his ship, back in Moya's hangar would be reason enough for him to continue helping her, she reckoned, for all it looked like a rustbucket.
She became aware that the guard was asking for her name, ship and business.
"Aeryn Sun from the Leviathan Moya. Some members of our crew are in custody and I'm here to see about their release."
The guards' expressions turned wary and both of them took a step back.
"What?" Aeryn snapped irritably.
Crocker laughed drily. "Oh, didn't I tell you? Your friends were arrested for turning the local gravity haywire."
"What?" Aeryn repeated, sure she must have heard him wrong. She knew about Sikozu's ability to climb walls, but there'd never been any evidence it could affect anyone else. Crocker smirked at her again. She turned back to the guards, raising her hands in submission. "Look, I have no idea what my friends did or didn't do, but I promise you, messing with gravity is not in my repertoire." Half under her breath, she added, "Inflicting extreme pain on irritating drannits, on the other hand…."
Eventually, after they'd scanned her for weapons twice—on neither occasion finding the boot-knife—and held several conversations over comms that she couldn't hear most of, but which brought her an extra two guards as an escort, she was allowed onto the station. The guards accompanied her to the main security office, with Crocker tagging along behind after Aeryn reminded him she was holding his ship hostage.
Glancing around as they entered the security office, Aeryn wondered if there'd been a fight: there were a number of damaged desks and chairs pushed together in one corner, and the half dozen security officers at work in the open looked up suspiciously at her as she entered. What appeared to be a holding cell in one corner of the office was empty. She wasn't sure if that was a good or bad sign.
One of the officers escorting her had been talking to a colleague while she assessed the place. Now he waved for her to follow him. When he threw open a door, she was startled to find herself on the threshold of a small, crowded room. John and Sikozu, along with two Sebaceans she didn't know, were gathered round a table strewn with transparent data sheets covered with schematics, with a couple of the handheld data displays they used here half visible in the mess. Chiana was leaning against the far wall with her arms crossed and wearing a bored expression.
John leaped to his feet when he saw Aeryn in the door, his face lighting up for a moment, before he rearranged his features into something more guarded. "What are you doing here?" He reached her in a couple of quick strides and gripped her elbow. She gave his arm a quick squeeze in reply, while she confirmed her initial impression that he wasn't hurt and didn't even seem to be in much danger.
"D'Argo told me you'd been arrested." Aeryn shot a glance at the two Sebaceans, wondering who they were. They looked back at her with equal interest.
"Damn!" John slapped a hand to his forehead. "I forgot all about him and the others. Are they okay?"
"They're fine." Aeryn gave his arm another squeeze. "They're back on Moya."
"How—?" A frown settled on John's face.
"They made a new friend." Aeryn tilted her head backward a little, toward Crocker, who she could sense was hovering just outside the door, almost as if he wanted to stay out of sight of those inside the room.
John let out a wry laugh. "You, again." He dipped his head in Crocker's direction.
At the table, the woman had shifted sideways, her gaze going past Aeryn. She frowned slightly, before she leaned back the other way, closer to the man, and said something to him in an undertone. He stood up abruptly, putting his hand to his sidearm. "I thought you said you didn't know Crocker," he snapped.
John turned, mouth open to deny it—Aeryn knew his expressions well enough to know what he was going to say—but before he could speak, Crocker stepped into the room, hands held up in supplication. "They don't. We just seem to keep running into each other." He glanced around the room, his gaze lingering when he reached Chiana.
The Sebacean man gave him a hard stare. "And this gravity Trouble's nothing to do with you?"
"Me?" Crocker pointed a hand to his chest. He shook his head. "I know you think I'm the source of all Haven's problems, Nathan, but not this time, no. But it's definitely a Trouble?"
"Uh-huh." The woman shrugged. "We had another incident in the main office. I wasn't affected."
Aeryn shook her head, trying to make sense of the conversation flowing around her. She put up a hand. "Wait. Will somebody tell me what the frell is going on." She turned back to John. "And are you under arrest or not?"
A quarter arn later, Aeryn's head was spinning. Between them, John and the two Sebaceans—they'd introduced themselves as station chief of security Wuornos and his investigator Parker—had explained about Troubles and about this particular Trouble. Also that John, Chiana and Sikozu weren't under arrest, exactly, but Wuornos wasn't going to let them leave until he'd gotten to the bottom of the Trouble. "Assisting station security with its inquiries" was how he put it. He also had some sharp words for Crocker about the penalties for bypassing immigration and exit controls when it sank in that D'Argo, Rygel and Noranti were back on Moya.
Aeryn was all for letting Crocker suffer, but John stepped in. "Why don't we talk about that after we've solved the Trouble." Not waiting for Wuornos to agree, he went on, "I've been thinking: seems to me that the disturbance is so localized—fifty, a hundred feet?—that the cause has to be local, too. Either the Troubled person was there, or something the Troubled person has a connection to was there."
"Well, we've narrowed it down to those two—" Wuornos indicated Chiana and Sikozu. "—being the only two who were in the affected area on both occasions. As far as I can tell, Troubles mostly seem to affect Sebaceans, although we've not had many Kalish on board and I can't remember the last time we saw a Nebari, so I guess it's possible…."
"But unlikely." John nodded, pacing the length of the room. "It's more likely one of them is carrying something that's the focus for the Trouble." He swung round again, turning his attention first on Sikozu, who gave him an annoyed look in return, and then on Chiana, who looked away, trying to affect an air of indifference. John stepped up close to her and said quietly, "Chiana, I don't suppose you upset anyone earlier? While we were in the marketplace?"
Chiana looked back at him, her expression wide-eyed and guileless. "Who, me?"
Aeryn snorted quietly to herself. Chiana was evidently guilty of something, whether or not it was connected to the Trouble. John clearly wasn't buying her innocent act either, because he raised his eyebrows at her.
Before she could say anything, Crocker spoke up from where he'd been lounging by the door with his arms folded. "There was that poor sap you ran over in the market."
"What?" Chiana narrowed her eyes at him. "What are you talking about?"
Crocker shrugged. "The janitor. When you were, uh, in a hurry." He suddenly closed his eyes and banged his head lightly against the wall behind him. "Frell. Hueena!"
Chiana looked at him in confusion, but Wuornos and Parker straightened. They exchanged a look and then Wuornos said carefully, "What's she got to do with all this?"
Crocker puffed out a breath. "When we were in the market earlier, gray girl over there bumped into one of the janitors and knocked over his pail. Hueena was passing and her shoes got splashed and… she didn't seem very happy about it. I'll bet you half the value of the Nebula that Hueena scared the dren out of the janitor and triggered his Trouble, and it's focused on Chiana because he holds her responsible. That's who you should be talking to."
Parker made a face. "Damn." She reached out and picked up her comms unit from the table and began flipping it over and over in her hand as she added, "If he's gotten on the wrong side of Hueena, there may not be much we can do. Even I can't talk someone out of that kind of funk."
Wuornos shrugged. "At least we'd know. And we could… relocate him down on the planet? Or—."
"Wait." John held up his hand. "You wanna back up a moment here and fill the rest of us in on this Hueena person? Are we talking about that tall, orange chick and her goons who were causing a scene in the marketplace earlier?"
"That's Hueena, yes." Wuornos sighed. "Full name: Hueena Areggi Kitto Natsheh. She's a trader and—" He stopped, exchanging a look with Parker. "—and a lot of other things."
"Like?" Aeryn took a step forward and, folding her arms, fixed Wuornos with a challenging stare. "It would help to know what we're up against."
Crocker pushed away from the wall. "Like extorting protection money from half the traders on the station so their shipments don't mysteriously disappear in transit on the way here. Fencing stolen goods and running banned merchandise. Including weapons and people trafficking. Plus ordering a dozen murders, at the very least. I'm no Delvian Pa'u or Luxan Orican, but Hueena's into stuff I wouldn't touch from three star systems away."
"You should know," Wuornos sneered. "You used to be partners."
Crocker took a step back, his mouth twisting into a wry smile. "We did a few deals once, yes. A long time ago." His tone warned Wuornos to drop the subject.
"So why has she not been arrested?" Sikozu asked, as if it was inconceivable to her that, in a well-ordered world like Haven, such lawbreaking would not be immediately dealt with.
"Yeah." Chiana had regained some of her cockiness now the focus was off her misdeeds. "How come she's still running around being all high-and-mighty, if everyone knows she's so bad?"
It was Parker's turn to shrug. "Because she's also rumored to have half the planetary judiciary on her payroll, while the other half are too scared of what she'll do to their families if they do stand up to her. Every time anyone's tried to bring a prosecution against her, the witnesses have backed out, the evidence has gone missing, or the judge has thrown the case out on a technicality. I used to work planet-side for the Global Security Agency and, believe me, we tried. Lost a few good agents that way. She's pretty much untouchable these days."
"So, local mafia boss." John nodded in understanding.
The term he'd used was unfamiliar to Aeryn and she supposed it was some Earth reference. The days of her asking him to explain—of asking the other John to explain—were long gone. Pushing aside her regret for what had been lost, she turned back to Chiana. "Do you think you could recognize this janitor?"
"What? No!" Chiana backed away slightly. "I barely remember the guy!"
"It's all right," Wuornos said. "We can ask station maintenance who was rostered in the market. This was a few minutes before the incident in the immigration hall?" When John nodded in confirmation, Wuornos jerked his head at Parker to accompany him. "We'd best go find out who it is as soon as we can. Before there are any more incidents."
"I'll come with you." John was also moving toward the door.
Wuornos waved at him to stay where he was. "You're still in custody. All three of you. It's safer for everyone if you stay here until we've figured this out. Especially her." He indicated Chiana.
"Then I'll come with you." Aeryn stepped forward and met Wuornos' gaze, staring him down.
"I do what she suggests," Crocker advised. "She has ways of being very persuasive."
At last, Wuornos reluctantly nodded his agreement, before turning and pointing a finger at Crocker, still slouched against the wall. "But you are definitely staying here."
Crocker held up his hands. "I wasn't gonna suggest otherwise."
Five hundred microts later, Aeryn was following Wuornos and Parker down a narrow, gray-painted corridor lit with harsh, blue-tinted strip lights. They were several levels below the main marketplace and she could hear the thump of air fans from somewhere along the hallway and the hum of a generator a little further off. It was unpleasantly reminiscent of being back on a Command Carrier and she realized how much she'd come to appreciate the warm yellow light and quiet background pulse of Moya's systems.
One thing had been bothering her about the whole situation. "How come this janitor focused his Trouble on Chiana?" she demanded. "Why isn't this Hueena the one with the gravity problem?"
Parker glanced back over her shoulder. "My guess is he's too scared of Hueena to blame her directly. He knows if he shows any sign of standing up to her, he'll only make things worse for himself. Everybody knows that's what happens to anyone who tries to push back. So easier to point his anger at Chiana for getting him into this mess."
The three of them turned into a bay where a variety of cleaning machines stood ready for use. One corner of the bay had been sectioned off as an office, but apparently cleanliness ended at the door. The shelves along one wall were jammed with broken parts and devices, some with once-hopeful notes attached to them whose faded scribbles detailed what needed to be fixed or what could be salvaged. Piles of paper were heaped on the desk in tottering stacks. A trash bin overflowed with disposable cups and food wrappers.
The man sitting behind the desk matched his surroundings: badly shaven, the cuffs of his overalls frayed, and an old food stain visible above the badge on his chest that said Maintenance Supervisor.
He eyed Wuornos and Parker warily. "What can I do for station security today?"
"We need to know who was working in the main marketplace this morning. Around ten, standard solar time." It was Wuornos who answered.
Watching the maintenance supervisor closely, Aeryn saw a flicker of uneasiness in him. Then he shrugged. "Didn't have nobody there today."
"No?" Parker arched an eyebrow. "Isn't that a little unusual? Must be a never-ending task to keep that place clean, with the food stalls and dirty boots."
The man shrugged. "Too busy in the mornings. We send someone in after lunch, when it quiets down. Take a look at the board and see for yourself." He gestured at the wall behind them. Turning, Aeryn saw there was a large white board divided up into a grid. Times were written down one side and places across the top, and various squares were filled with barely legible names.
Parker stepped forward and traced her finger along the row marked eight to twelve until she reached the column headed with Main Market. The square was empty.
Aeryn turned back to watch the maintenance supervisor again. Something on the desk caught her eye. She casually inched forward, using the excuse that Wuornos had shifted away from the desk when he'd turned and looked at the board.
Parker, leaning forward, was scrutinizing the square closely. "There used to be a name here."
"Sometimes I write the names in the wrong place. Have to rub 'em out. When I gets people coming in here and distracting me with nonsense." The supervisor folded his arms and leaned back in his chair.
Aeryn edged closer to the desk and took another surreptitious glance down at the thing that had caught her eye, confirming it was what she thought.
Wuornos swung back round. He pinned the supervisor with a steely glare. "You know, we really need to know who was working in that area this morning."
"I'm telling you. Wasn't nobody," the supervisor repeated sullenly. "Now, if you'll just leave me to—. Now look what you've done!"
Aeryn, moving even closer to the desk, had send a pile of papers that had been teetering on the corner cascading to the floor. "Sorry," she exclaimed, falling to her knees and scrabbling at the mess.
"Leave it!" the man barked. "Just get out and don't come back!"
"Yes, yes, of course." Aeryn hastily got back to her feet and put out her hands to shepherd Wuornos and Parker out of the office. A little to her surprise, they obeyed. "Sorry. So sorry."
Out in the main equipment bay, Wuornos puffed out a frustrated breath. "That was a waste of time."
"Not really." Aeryn was still encouraging them out in the corridor, but she reached up under the bottom of her jacket and pulled out the piece of paper she'd hastily folded up and stuffed up there. "There were copies of this week's rota sitting on top of that pile I knocked over. And there was a name in that square."
She handed the paper over to Wuornos, who unfolded it and squinted down at it.
Parker frowned at her disapprovingly. "You stole the rota?"
Aeryn rolled a shoulder. "Guess I've been hanging out with criminals and fugitives for too long. And I got you your name, didn't I?"
A quick call back to the main security office and Wuornos soon had an address, too. The crew quarters were on the level above and reminded Aeryn even more sharply of her life as a Peacekeeper. The position of Prowler pilot might be a coveted and honored one, but that didn't mean you had much space or privacy when you started out as a lowly grunt. The sense of too many people in a too small space that was never quite ventilated enough, with a constant background hum of people talking and arguing and recreating, was all too familiar.
"Most of the station personnel, especially the support staff, don't live here permanently," Wuornos explained as they made their way along the deck. "Their families are down on the planet and they come here to work and make good money and send it home, and go home to their families once a year. After ten years, most of them have saved enough to set themselves up down on the planet and get a job in one of the factories or farms down there. Our guy's one of those."
"But you grew up on the station?" There was something about the instinctive ease with which Wuornos negotiated the place as they headed down increasingly narrow side passages—even Parker was regularly checking the junction markings that showed where they were—that meant Aeryn didn't really need an answer.
"Uh-huh. My dad was security here chief before me." Wuornos halted in front of a door that looked much like all the other doors. "This is it." He pushed through it. Aeryn, with Parker bringing up the rear, followed him and found herself in an inner hall lined with small cells. A couple of doors were standing half open, showing there was room in each cell for a cot and a chair and a chest for a few personal belongings. At the far end, the hall opened out into a communal kitchen and eating area. Aeryn guessed some of the doors at that end must lead to washrooms.
Wuornos ambled down the hallway until he reached the door he was looking for. There was no reply when he rapped it, but Aeryn could here a clatter from inside, as if someone had dropped something, and then a weird, cautious silence, as if whoever was in there was holding their breath.
Seemed Wuornos sensed it too. He knocked again and this time didn't wait for a reply but turned the handle and opened the door. "Harrison Kerr? I'm Chief Wuornos and this is—."
He didn't get to finish the introductions, because suddenly the world was tipped upside down. Aeryn caught a glimpse of a face pale with fright as she fell toward ceiling that was now floor. Wuornos and Kerr were falling with her, while Parker vainly reached for Aeryn's coat in an attempt to hold on to her.
Old half-forgotten memories surfaced in Aeryn's mind: a training exercise from cycles ago in a simulation environment with variable gravity. Mostly it was used to train cadets for combat on planets where gravity was higher or lower than planetary standard, but a few times, the instructors had pulled dren like this on them. Even as Wuornos crashed heavily down onto what was now the floor, the breath knocked out of him with an audible whoosh, Aeryn instinctively tucked, rolled and came up on her feet, her boot knife in her hand.
Kerr had also taken the fall well—less surprised, Aeryn guessed—and was scuttling past Wuornos on all fours, out of reach of Parker, who was still anchored to the old—the real—floor.
"Oh, no, you don't!" Aeryn flung herself after Kerr and tackled him, rolling and twisting until she came out on top, straddled across his chest and holding him in place with her knees. She gripped his neck with one hand and pointed the knife at him with the other.
"Easy there," Wuornos wheezed. He struggled to his knees. "We want to help the guy, not disembowel him." An irritated look settled on his face. "And how the hezmana did you get that knife on board?"
"You need better security." Aeryn cautiously eased back, letting Kerr sit up.
He watched her anxiously as she sheathed the knife, before drawing up his knees and wrapping his arms around them and burying his face in his arms. She thought he was muttering they're dead, they're dead, they're dead, over and over.
Aeryn glanced helplessly across at Wuornos and then down at Parker above—below—them. "Now what?"
"We wait until it wears off?" Wuornos was examining his hands and arms for damage.
"Or we talk? Figure out his problems and help him handle them?" Parker suggested. She reached up and gently put her hand on Kerr's head. "Hey, no matter what's happened, no matter how bad it is, we can help. Even against Hueena. I promise you that."
Worried about Aeryn. Duke hadn't missed the way they'd greeted each other, though when he'd casually asked Crichton how long he and Aeryn had been together, Crichton had snapped that they weren't. They were just crewmates.
Pity. Aeryn was more than a little terrifying, as befitted a former peacekeeper commando—and also entirely fascinating. The wanted beacons hadn't done her justice. Duke might have only known her for an arn, but he was already wondering what he could do with a woman like that at his side.
Not Aeryn, though: a frustrated grumble from Crichton, shuffling papers again, reminded Duke there would be no joy there, for all Crichton's earlier denials.
Duke let his gaze slide on, over the red-haired chick, Sikozu, who was slumped in a chair, her head propped up on one hand and her eyes fixed unseeingly on some point in the distance. He wasn't in the mood to bring her out of her thoughts; he'd never enjoyed being looked at as if he was a Kever beetle.
But Chiana, now….
She'd settled her backside on the table after Nathan and Audrey had left, with her feet defiantly planted on a chair seat, and been throwing out the occasional remark to Crichton as he circled the room. Mostly demanding to know how long they were going to be stuck in this pleebing place.
Duke was wondering the same thing, but he wasn't inclined to try and leave just yet. For one thing, his ship was still parked in the leviathan's hangar. For another, he was still looking to get paid. For all Aeryn might have given him a hard time, he expected her to honor the bargain D'Argo and the others had made once her friends were safe. Though how a chance to turn a quick and simple profit had ended up with him in this kind of mess, Duke didn't quite know.
Uncrossing his arms and pushing away from the wall, he settled himself next to Chiana. She gave him a wary look.
"You like being part of this crew?" Duke jerked his head in Crichton's direction.
"Maybe." Chiana put her head on one side. "But I'm open to offers. You were about to say you had a proposition for me. Back in the marketplace."
"Maybe." It had been Chiana, out of all of them, who'd caught Duke's attention when he'd been sitting outside his bar on the upper gallery watching the arrivals and departures through the immigration hall. Sebaceans were two a penny, and Luxans and Kalish and even Hynerians weren't so rare, but the last time he'd run into a Nebari had been several cycles back and a couple of star systems over. A half dozen Nebari, at that, on a mission to arrest some renegades, who'd boarded and searched the Nebula with barely a by-your-leave or a please. They hadn't found anything, of course. Not that Duke'd had passengers on board, but they might have objected to some of the cargo he was carrying. It was good to learn that their famed intelligence and ruthlessness hadn't extended to discovering any of the several compartments that were concealed in various parts of the Nebula's bulkheads.
This Nebari, looking around at the marketplace with an eager expression, was nothing like the Nebari who'd boarded the Nebula. But—Duke's gaze had tracked back over the rest of her group—very like the Nebari on those Peacekeeper wanted beacons that had been circulating recently. He'd sipped thoughtfully at his drink as he'd watched the group stop for a brief discussion and then split up.
Nathan wouldn't thank him for bringing some of his bounty hunter acquaintances to the station, but maybe he could get a tip fee. On the other hand, Duke kinda admired anyone who could cock a snook at the Peacekeeper High Command, the Nebari Establishment and anyone else who wanted to impose control and order and taxes and tribute. He wasn't sure he could rightly enjoy any reward he gained for turning them in.
He'd still been debating what to do when he'd seen the Nebari return to the marketplace—alone. Seen her begin to browse along the stalls in a quite unmistakable way. Putting down his drink, Duke had headed down to the floor below and trailed after her, watching without being watched. She had the skills, all right, though she needed a less distinctive look, or a partner to distract her mark—or to aim higher than a vendor of tourist tat. But before he'd had a chance to speak to her, the janitor had gotten in her way and then—.
Well, and now here they were, re-opening negotiations.
He shrugged. "I might have a position for someone with your talents in my organization."
"Organization?" She looked him up and down, taking in the battered coat and scuffed boots. "What kind of organization?"
Before he could give her an answer, the door was flung open and Aeryn stomped inside. Nathan stuck his head around the door after her and quickly checked that everyone he'd left inside was still there, before he pulled the door shut again.
Crichton hurried around the table toward Aeryn, who'd stopped a few paces inside the room. She had her arms crossed and an irritated expression on her face. Maybe it was one Crichton knew well, because he slowed down and then stopped short while he waited for her reply.
"We found your janitor." Aeryn dipped her head in Chiana's direction. "Who dumped us on the ceiling." That likely explained the pissed-off look. "Well, except for Parker. Apparently she's immune to this Troubles dren. But she managed to talk us all down."
"So, case closed? We're free to go?" Chiana hopped off the table. Even Sikozu came out of her bored trance and sat up straighter at the prospect.
Aeryn shook her head. "Not yet. We're all under protective custody until further notice. For our own safety—and everyone else's. The guy's calm enough now, but if he flips out again…."
"We're all back on the ceiling?" Crichton ran his thumb over his lower lip for a few microts, clearly thinking through the options, before he looked back up at Aeryn. "You should go back to Moya."
"Oh, you haven't heard the best bit." Aeryn pulled out a chair and dropped into it, her elbows on the table. "I'm in protective custody, too. Wuornos thinks I'm another 'potential center of disruption' now, because I helped them track the guy down and stopped him escaping."
"Well, I should—." Duke levered himself away from the table and began to edge towards the door.
"I wouldn't bother." Aeryn raised her gaze to him, her expression now darkly amused. "Wuornos said you were in protective custody, too. He wasn't exactly clear about why. Just something about it being for the general good of the station."
Duke rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in despair.
"So just how long are we going to have to stay in this primitive backwater?" Sikozu demanded. She looked from Aeryn to Crichton and then on to Duke.
Duke shrugged. "Until Audrey can figure out how to switch off the Trouble or help the guy get it under control. Which… may not be any time soon. Not if Hueena's involved." He took the chair next to Aeryn and rested his chin on his hand, leaning in a little. "Did the guy tell you what she threatened him with?"
"Uh-huh." Aeryn pulled herself upright and turned to face him, her expression suggesting she could smell something rancid. "He says she's demanding he pay her the equivalent of half a cycle's wages to 'replace' her shoes—by tomorrow. If he can't pay, she'll kindly lend him the money, at an interest rate that'd make even a Saltici banker blush. And if he can't keep up with the repayments, then she's going to find his family and take one of his children and sell him to the slavers. But it's all right, because he'll get to pick which kid she takes."
"So he's screwed unless he comes up with the money?" Duke was again wondering how what had looked like a profitable morning's work had turned into an afternoon where he might need to fork over a large sum of money—which would ultimately end up with Hueena—to extricate himself from the situation.
Aeryn nodded. "Apparently he asked his boss for a loan and the guy couldn't or wouldn't help. Having met him…."
"Yeah. I know what you mean." He wasn't someone Duke would trust in a crisis either. He smiled at Aeryn, ignoring the glower being directed at him by Crichton, who'd slipped into the chair on the other side of Aeryn with a protective air while they'd been speaking. Either Aeryn hadn't noticed the move—unlikely—or was choosing to ignore him.
Now she looked past Duke toward Chiana and added, "Parker thinks that's when things went haywire the second time, out there." She jerked her head toward the door and the main office. "He got mad at you again and everything around you got affected."
"Me." Chiana bridled a little. "Why blame me? I'm not the psycho hazmot with the borinium shoes."
"No, you're just the thieving malik who screwed over the guy's life."
Though the words were harsh, there wasn't a great deal of heat in the way Aeryn spoke. Duke wasn't much surprised when Chiana flung back, also with little venom, like it was an long-standing routine, "Well, at least I didn't used to be a fekking Peacekeeper."
"Enough!" It sounded like it was a routine that Sikozu was tired of. "How do we get of this place?"
"Fix what's bothering the guy?" Crichton suggested. "I mean, it won't solve his gravity… jujitsu… Trouble… thing. But it will stop him being mad at us in particular. Then there's no reason to keep us here—."
"Oh, Nathan can always find a reason," Duke muttered to himself.
Aeryn had half turned, so she could just see Crichton out of the corner of her eye, almost as if she didn't want to look at him fully. "You're saying we should pay off this Hueena?"
"It's an option." Crichton put his hand on the table next to Aeryn's and then quickly took it away. "I'm not sure we've got any others."
Relief washed over Duke. Praise the gods! Someone else was going to be stumping up the cash to make this thing go away.
His relief was short-lived.
"Frell, no." Chiana threw herself into a chair next to Sikozu. "Why should that fekking driblocks get all our money?"
"I do not like it either, but do you have any other suggestions?" Sikozu tilted her head and fixed Chiana with a withering glare.
"Screw the bitch!" Chiana sat back and threw up her hands. "She's got everyone in this fekking place dancing to her tune. Make her dance for once."
Duke liked Chiana's style, but he was with Sikozu when she asked, "And how do you propose we do that?" Her tone was murderously quiet.
"I dunno. You guys are the smart ones." Chiana opened her hands wide, throwing the compliment out to the rest of the group.
"You know, Chiana has a point." Crichton spoke as quietly as Sikozu had, but thoughtfully, as if he was seriously considering the idea. "We may just be passing through, but this mess is our mess now. And if someone doesn't stand up to this Hueena, she's never going to stop."
"You are insane!" Sikozu pushed back from the table and strode off as far as she could—which wasn't far, but emphasized her words sufficiently.
"John, we can't afford to get mixed up in this." Aeryn had turned to look at Crichton properly. "We need to be done and gone. Out of Grayza's reach. And anyone else…."
"We're already mixed up in it." Crichton tapped his fingers restlessly on the table. "This Hueena may not be Grayza or Scorpius, but she's screwing over these people as much as any Peacekeeper bully-boy. And we were the ones to set off the janitor's Trouble, and a lot more people could get hurt because of that. We can't just walk away knowing—."
He stopped as the door opened to reveal Nathan, with Audrey behind him. Nathan scanned the room, narrowing his eyes at the sight of the conclave around the table, all of them—except for Sikozu, glowering from the corner—leaning in as they discussed Hueena.
Not wanting Nathan to get the wrong idea, Duke shot to his feet. "Finally! Can I go now? As you don't need m—."
"No!" The answer came in unison from Nathan and Audrey. Nathan stepped inside and Audrey followed, closing the door behind her. Duke sighed and sat down again.
Nathan took another survey of the room. "We've got our janitor friend in a secure area for the moment. Only Parker and I know where he is. I trust my team here, but you never know who Hueena's gotten her hooks into. We've promised him we'll get his family to safety, too, and Parker's got a call in to an old friend in the GSA to arrange that. So, with any luck, he won't have reason to get scared or angry enough to start warping local space-time again."
"And how are you planning to deal with Hueena, when she can't find him and can't get her money, and when she can't find his family either? Someone's gonna tell her station security got involved." Duke folded his arms and smirked at Nathan.
Nathan stepped up to the table and began gathering the papers spread across it. "Not if you're still locked up here."
"Me? I'm not going to tell her!" Duke couldn't believe Nathan would think that. "Last thing I want to do is to help her make life even more difficult for honest traders like myself."
Nathan snorted and rolled his eyes, but didn't comment.
Audrey joined Nathan at the table. "Duke's got a point, though. Hueena's not gonna take this lying down."
Nathan shrugged. "What's she going to do? Put in a missing persons report?"
"No, but…." Audrey bit her lip. "A few words in the right ears and you could find yourself out of a job. We've faked a lot of reports the past couple of cycles because of the Troubles. If that came out, do you think the government would back you? And whoever replaced you, I'm pretty sure they'd be a lot more friendly towards Hueena and her ilk…."
"Worst case scenario. Not gonna happen." Nathan didn't sound entirely sure about that, and Duke shared his lack of confidence. And for all that Nathan gave Duke a hard time, Duke would rather he was in charge than someone who was in Hueena's pocket. "We'll just have to—."
"What would it take to stop her?" Crichton leaned back in his chair and caught and held Nathan's gaze. "You said that every time you've tried to go after her, she's found a way out of it. So what would it take? To get past the corrupt judges and court officials and terrified witnesses? I mean, putting our Troubled janitor friend on the stand clearly isn't going to work."
Nathan regarded Crichton with narrowed his eyes. "Realistically? Catching her red-handed—with full surveillance records of the whole thing—doing something that's so much of a threat to planetary security that the politicians and judges on her payroll can't simply handwave it away. You got any suggestions? Because even mass murder or ripping off the planetary Treasury probably aren't going to cut it."
John ran his thumb across his lips, evidently thinking. "How about trying to buy a couple of Plokavian seismic disruptors? And some heavy-duty Peacekeeper weapons? Frag cannons, that kind of thing. Would that do it?"
"It might." Nathan cocked his head. "You have a plan?"
Aeryn put her hand to her forehead and muttered what sounded to Duke like, "Frell. He's got a plan…."
Chiana, far less quietly, pushed back from the table the table and exclaimed, "Crichton's got a plan? We're frelled."
Sikozu turned her gaze toward the ceiling and said, softly but clearly, "This is not good."
Nathan's expression turned wry. "Your crewmates don't seem to have much confidence in you."
"Well, I'm sure they'll add a few embellishments." Crichton gave Nathan a humorless grin. "But we have destroyed a secret Gammak base and a Command Carrier, escaped from the Zenetan Flax and robbed a Shadow Depository. Maybe we can help you handle your problem with this woman. If we do, will you let us go?"
Nathan regarded him thoughtfully. "It should end the janitor's Trouble. And our ongoing issue with Hueena. But I'd prefer it if you didn't blow anything up. Especially not the station."
Audrey leaned close and murmured, "Are you sure about this?"
Nathan shook his head. "No. But if it all goes horribly wrong, it'll be a lot easier if we have outsiders to blame."
Aeryn cleared her throat. "We need to discuss this with the others." She gave Crichton a pointed look.
"Ah, yes." Nathan smirked at her. "The rest of your crew who are now conveniently back on your ship, thanks to Crocker helping them to illegally exit the station…."
Duke quietly cursed to himself. He'd hoped Nathan had forgotten about that.
"You know," Crichton leaned forward so he could look past Aeryn at Duke, "it would be helpful to have Crocker on board with the plan as well. Sounds like he could make the necessary introductions to Hueena."
"No way!" Duke threw up his hands, palms out. "Count me out."
Crichton held Duke's gaze and beneath his loud and amiable exterior, Duke saw something darker and harder. Something a little unsettling. Crichton said carefully, "I'm sure Chief Wuornos could overlook any infractions if Crocker played a part in dealing with Hueena."
"I'm sure he could." A glance showed Duke that Nathan was grinning mirthlessly at him now.
Throwing himself back in his chair, Duke raised his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay. Frell. No wonder the Peacekeepers have a price on your heads if this is how you carry on."
"So we'll be off to Moya to talk over the plan with our friends." Crichton pushed to his feet and Aeryn quickly followed suit, indicating with a wave of her hand that Chiana and Sikozu should look lively and copy them.
"Oh, no." Nathan stepped in front of the door to block the way. "One of you stays here. As surety."
"You don't trust us?" Chiana stepped up close to Nathan, drawing in a deep breath through her nose like a predator scenting its prey, and running a hand lightly up his arm. Evidently expecting her personal charms to sway his mind—or other parts of his anatomy. Nathan clearly wasn't the first self-important Sebacean male in a position of authority she'd run into.
Nathan was Nathan, of course. He laughed. "Not a motra." He swept his gaze over the rest of the group, quickly dismissing Sikozu but lingering on first Crichton and then Aeryn. "You." He pointed at Crichton, though his attention was still fixed on Aeryn. "Crichton stays. I think that should ensure the co-operation of the rest of your crew."
It had almost felt like old times to John as he'd set his module down next to the Prowler in one of the space station's secured bays and seen Aeryn waiting for him. They'd always made a good team, the two of them, right from the start, from the moment he'd stolen that fork for her so she could break them out Moya's cells. Since then, they'd found themselves in the middle of danger, and gotten themselves out of it, more times than he could remember, and they'd learned to trust each other, and had each other's backs, and—.
And then everything had gotten frelled up. Sighing, John had pushed away the memories and, checking everything on the module was shut down correctly, had climbed out and followed Aeryn out through the security checkpoint.
The next two days had passed in a blur of planning and preparation. Now John found himself lounging on the semi-circular couch in the main cabin on the Red Nebula and doing his best to look relaxed. Puffing out a breath, he ran a finger round his collar, trying to ease it a little. It had been a while since he'd played dress-up as a Peacekeeper Captain and he didn't think the red suited him. Nor did whatever Chiana had used to turn his hair black. "You don't want that fekking hazmot recognizing you from the beacons the moment she sets eyes on you," she'd pointed out as she dunked his head back in the sink and rinsed off the excess. At least it had stopped itching. He just hoped the damn stuff would wash out once they were done.
Still trying to settle the collar of his Peacekeeper captain's uniform more comfortably, John took another look around the Red Nebula's interior. He hadn't been much surprised, when he'd finally seen the ship, to discover the inside was nothing like the battered exterior. They were all wolves in sheep's clothing. And while John wouldn't trade Moya for the world, he'd happily spend a week or two aboard a vessel like this. It sure beat being stuck on Elack for the best part of half a cycle.
Duke—they'd gotten on first name terms while working out the fine details of the plan—was currently up on the bridge, running through final system checks. He was going to be taking them to the rendezvous he'd set up with Hueena. D'Argo would be shadowing them in Lo'La, her deception shield activated, in case they ran into difficulties.
The main difficulty was likely to be John fluffing his lines. Aeryn had spent the day drilling him in the variety of weapons they were using to tempt Hueena into taking the meeting. Most of which they didn't have on board Moya—but Hueena didn't know that, and Pilot had been able to produce schematics for almost everything Duke had suggested they include on their "manifest". He'd put out some feelers among his business associates and discovered Hueena was trying to acquire a few special items that were proving difficult to get hold of—not least because they were prohibited for use on any but Peacekeeper ships—so they'd added those to the list.
John fervently hoped he could keep his mark 7 frag cannons straight from his mark 2 sonic ascendancy cannons and remember what caliber of ammo went in pulse blasters and what went in pistols. It wouldn't do much for his cover as a renegade captain from the Peacekeeper Armaments Division who was trying to hawk a leviathan full of weapons stolen in transit from the manufactory if he got the details muddled. His confidence hadn't exactly been bolstered by Aeryn muttering every once in a while that this would be so much easier if the damn captain's uniform had only fitted her. And his concentration hadn't been helped by having to spend so much time with his head bent close enough to her that he could smell whatever she'd used to wash her hair. Could smell her….
He was dragged back to the present by the clatter as Duke slid down the ladder from the bridge.
"We're all set." Duke wiped his hands against each other. "Just need to get clearance from control once we know the cargo's secure."
"It's done. All tied down"
Both John and Duke swung their heads round at the sound of Aeryn's voice. John swallowed hard as she made her way up the short corridor into the main cabin. A glance across at Duke showed John that she was having the same effect on him. "That's great," he managed to croak out, while looking at everywhere but at her. Because she was a wolf in sheep's clothing, too.
She was playing the role of his non-reg server. Chiana had wanted the part again, but Aeryn had overruled her, pointing out that a Nebari was too visible and could too easily tie them to the wanted beacon, and that she was better trained for close protection if anything went wrong. Chiana had grumbled a little and then, with a sigh, remarked that if Aeryn was going to do the job, she'd better not look like a freaking Prowler pilot. Despite Aeryn's protests, she'd dragged her off a couple of arns before they were due to set off in Duke's ship. When the two of them came back….
The strange thing was, Aeryn was showing less skin than she often did. It was just where she was showing it. Chiana had poured her into a tight-fitting bodysuit whose panels were connected by criss-cross lacing, allowing it to be let out to accommodate Aeryn's larger frame. Which meant there were so many tantalizing glimpses of strips of skin, so many tied-off bows that begged to be pulled loose…. John had curled his hands into fists, fighting the urge to reach out and slip a fingertip under one of those crossed laces so he could caress Aeryn's skin. Chiana had done something with Aeryn's hair, too: piling it on top of her head to show off her long neck, except for one loose lock that hung down and curled against her bared collarbone, calling to John to brush it aside and press his lips to the same spot.
Frell! He was going to need a hell of a lot more Lakah to get through this. Clearing his throat, he'd asked, "Can you, uh, fight okay in that?"
"Surprisingly, yes." Aeryn had flexed her shoulders. "Though I'm still going to kill Chiana when we're done. I feel like a Trelkez trussed up for a Hynerian Gorging Feast."
Duke had also done a bit of a double-take when he'd greeted them as they'd pushed a crate of sample weapons up the loading ramp into the Red Nebula. He'd opened his mouth to say something, but Aeryn's expression had been enough to make him quickly close it again. Aeryn had nodded to John. "You should go familiarize yourself with the place while I make sure this is secured."
Now, as she stepped further into the Red Nebula's main cabin, she ignored the two men and scanned her surroundings. Her gaze lingered long enough in certain areas that John suspected she wasn't admiring the decor but evaluating the layout and her options if things went badly. His guess was confirmed when she stepped forward and put a hand on the edge of the table—and then reached a little further underneath and casually pulled out a pulse pistol that John had completely failed to notice.
"Nice." She turned the pistol over in her hands, pulling out the clip and testing it, before snapping it back into place and then sliding the gun back into its hiding place. She looked across at Duke. "One under the galley counter, one hidden beside the ladder to the bridge and—" She turned around and briefly scanned the doorway through which she'd entered and the wall around it "—one tucked up under the base of the fire suppressor."
"Very impressive." Duke inclined his head in appreciation as she swung back to face him. "Remind me not to tangle with any Peacekeeper commandos any time soon." He gave himself a little shake. "So. Are we ready?"
Three arns later, as they passed out of Haven space, John stood on the bridge and watched Hueena's main ship grow larger on the Red Nebula's navigation screens. They'd checked in with D'Argo, covertly following them, half an arn before, while they were still far enough away that their transmissions wouldn't be picked up by Hueena's ship. Once Duke had closed down the comms channel with D'Argo, he'd stared at the screens in front of him, which showed absolutely nothing for a couple of hundred metras in all directions, and shaken his head. "That ship is quite something. Don't suppose your friend would be willing to part with it?"
John had laughed. "You can try asking, but I think the answer's no. Besides, it's keyed to Luxan DNA. You do not want to know what the rest of us have to do if we need to fly the thing."
It was his turn to shake his head and whistle silently to himself as he recognized the shape of Hueena's ship. "She's gotten herself a Vigilante?"
"Uh-huh." Duke did something at the controls. "Never would tell me how she came by it, but I know the Peacekeepers don't willingly put those things on the aftermarket. She's got a swanky little planet-hopper, too, that she mostly uses to visit the station, unless she's doing a deal and brings a cargo hauler along. But I hear there's a dozen or more attack ships of various kinds in her hangars."
"But we can't finalize the deal and make the trade out here, right? I need to get her into Haven space for that?" It was only half a question. John was simply confirming the instructions he'd gotten from Wuornos when they'd been putting together the sting.
"That's right. Out here, she can buy and sell whatever dren she likes. Twenty metras that way," Duke jerked his thumb over his shoulder, "Nathan can slap the cuffs on her."
John gave Duke a sideways glance. "You don't have a mothership of your own out here?"
The corner of Duke's mouth twitched up. "No. Just the Nebula. And I own a bar back on the station. Though there might be the odd asteroid or two hereabouts with a convenient cave…." He poked at the controls again and then gestured for John to head back down the ladder into the main cabin. "Okay, we're parked up and I've told them we're ready for them to come aboard."
When John reached the main cabin, he found Aeryn sitting at the dining table with a soldier's alert patience. "We've arrived?"
He nodded. "Showtime."
She stood and started to reach out a hand to him, before letting it fall back. "Don't screw up the ammo. Remember, it's a size three or four cartridge for the pistol and a size six for the rifle and—."
"I know," he said softly, holding her gaze for a moment. "We'll be fine."
Her mouth curved into a wintry smile. "Yes, sir." She folded her hands in front of him and gave him a little bow, the way Chiana had taught her. Make them feel as if they're the only person in the room, the only person who's ever mattered to you or ever will matter. John, accidentally eavesdropping, had needed to walk away. There'd been a time when they hadn't needed faked smiles and carefully learned gestures, when they'd only needed to be themselves—.
Duke pointedly cleared his throat and John forced away the past and turned and hurried after him and down into the cargo bay.
A series of dull thuds and clunks marked the progress of Hueena's transport pod docking with the Red Nebula. When the door to the airlock began to slowly swing open, John straightened his spine, pulled his shoulders back and ensured his features were arranged in a suitably haughty expression.
Duke stepped forward and made a half bow to Hueena as she stepped into the cargo bay, her two Tavlek bodyguards at her shoulders. "A pleasure to welcome you aboard."
"Really?" Hueena arched one brow at him. "I thought after our last meeting, you never wanted to see me again."
Duke gave her a smile that was more of a grimace. "Simply a regrettable series of unfortunate misunderstandings. And it would be a pity to pass up the finder's fee on a deal that isn't something I can handle myself."
"Ah, yes." Hueena's gaze went past Duke to John. She swept forward a few paces, her bodyguards close behind.
Duke hastily turned and hurried along beside her. "Hueena, may I present Captain Larraq. Captain, this is Hueena Areggi Kitto Natsheh."
John silently inclined his head a fraction. Hueena did the same in return, before letting her gaze run slowly down his body and up and back down again. She finally brought her attention back to his face. He half expected her to inspect his teeth and peer into his ears. And he had the distinct feeling that if he hadn't been wearing a long coat, she would have been checking out other parts of his anatomy. Duke had warned him that she liked to flirt with her business partners, and sometimes looked to seal a contract with sex, though the deal was never conditional on that.
Completing her inspection, Hueena held out her hand for John to take. He lifted it to his lips and lightly kissed her fingers. Oddly enough, as well as having an orange tint to her skin, she smelt a little of oranges, too. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, ma'am."
"Yours too, Captain. So nice to meet a true Sebacean at last." Drawing her fingers out of his, she stalked past him toward the Red Nebula's main cabin. "Let's make ourselves comfortable while we talk business."
Following behind her, John saw her check at the entrance to the cabin as she caught sight of Aeryn waiting in the galley. "My server, Fenra," he said hastily.
Aeryn put her hands together and bowed. "At your service, ma'am. How may I please you?" Duke had helped Aeryn familiarize herself with the contents of his drinks cabinet during the journey to Hueena's ship.
Hueena stayed where she was for long enough that John thought for a moment that she'd already seen through their ruse, before she swept forward to the semi-circular couch. "For now? Some prowser fruit brandy. I know Duke keeps a stock on board."
"Yes, ma'am." Aeryn bowed again, briefly meeting John's gaze as she straightened, before glancing at Duke for confirmation of the order.
Out of the corner of his eye, John saw Duke raise three fingers to indicate he and John would join Hueena, though neither of them would do more than sip at their drinks.
As John and Duke followed Hueena to the couch, her two goons took up position on either side of the door back out to the cargo bay, their expressions wary.
Hueena was still observing Aeryn as she poured the drinks. "You surprise me, Captain. A non-regulation server? Though I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. You are, after all, here to offer me a stolen Leviathan full of weapons."
"Just the weapons," John corrected quickly, while trying not to sound too confrontational. "The Leviathan is not for sale."
"Oh, I believe everything is for sale, at the right price." Hueena was continuing to watch Aeryn as she brought the drinks across and set them down in front of each of them with a quiet flourish that was entirely unlike the way she usually banged food down on the table when it was her turn to cook on Moya. "Like your loyalty to the Peacekeepers…."
"There's not much loyalty to be given when lesser men are promoted over better ones." John tried to give an edge of bitterness to the words. That was the excuse they'd come up with for 'Larraq' to have absconded from Peacekeeper space with a full shipment from a Peacekeeper weapons manufactory.
Aeryn had finished with the drinks. She put her hands together and bowed again. Before she could straighten and step back, Hueena reached out and caught hold of her chin, tipping Aeryn's face up so that her eyes met Hueena's. Aeryn stiffened and, for an instant, John thought she was about to go all Bruce Lee. Then she drew in a deep breath, quashing her reflexes, though she was still was visibly tense.
"Yes, you really are quite delightful," Hueena remarked in a light tone. "Do you… please your Captain?"
Aeryn shot a quick, startled glance in John's direction, having evidently caught the double meaning behind Hueena's words as clearly as John had, before she turned her attention back to Hueena. Lowering her lashes, she said carefully, "You'll have to ask him that, ma'am." She drew away a little and Hueena let her go, though she carried on watching as Aeryn backed up. John noticed that once Aeryn reached the galley, she positioned herself in the best spot to be able to easily reach underneath the counter for the pulse pistol Duke had stashed there.
"You could have warned us Hueena's into girls," John muttered from the corner of his mouth.
Duke's arm brushed against John's as he shrugged. "She's into a lot of things…." He lifted his drink and cleared his throat. "To business!" he declared more loudly.
John grabbed his own drink. Hueena finally tore her gaze away from Aeryn—was she really that interested in her?—and picked up her own glass. Acknowledging the toast, she knocked back half the contents. John did nothing more than wet his lips before setting his glass down again.
"So," he said, splaying his hand flat on the table next to the glass, hoping to steady his nerves a little, "what kind of weapons, exactly, are you looking to purchase?"
Nearly three arns later, they were close to a deal, having discussed what Hueena was looking for and what 'Larraq' could offer. John was careful not to make the lists match too closely, though they both knew Hueena was really interested in the seismic disruptors and the frag cannons. Pulse weapons and chakan oil were easy to pick up—if not in the quantities or at such a keen price as John was promising.
Once they'd discussed his stock, John had taken her back into the cargo bay and showed her the merchandise they'd brought along: a full range of pulse weapons, some mines and grenades, and a few other interesting bits and pieces they'd picked up along the way. Aeryn had quickly stepped up to take the weapons out of the crate and hand them to John, mouthing the names at him as she passed them over, after he'd hauled out the first item by himself and promptly misidentified it.
Fortunately, Hueena had still been distracted enough by Aeryn's presence at that point that John didn't think she'd noticed, but he was glad of Aeryn's silent coaching as Hueena's interest in the weapons grew sharper as the display went on. It was a still a lot to remember, all the technical details and specs, and to declaim with the assurance of an expert, but as he handed the last gun back for Aeryn to replace in the crate, she gave him a quick nod and a hint of a smile that told him he'd done all right in the end.
Then it was back into the main cabin, and more prowser fruit brandy, as they hammered out quantities and a price, with Duke noting down each item as it was agreed.
"And the arrangements for delivery?" Hueena had arched an eyebrow at John as she picked up her glass and prepared to down the last of her drink.
"You'll have to come collect the goods from my Leviathan before we leave the station." John tried to sound as casual as possible, though this was the heart of the thing. Despite every word they'd spoken having been recorded, there was nothing Wuornos or Parker could do with a deal struck outside Haven space.
Hueena set her glass down again with the last dregs of the brandy untouched. "You want to do the handover at the station? That could be a problem for me."
John shrugged a shoulder, feigning indifference. He picked up his own drink, hefting it as if about to throw back the entire contents. "It'll be a problem for you if you can't. My girl's laid up with a bunch of techs making some mods before we head into Tormented Space. Soon as they're done, I'm outta there. No time for side-trips or stops once we starburst away. But if you're not interested, I can't imagine I'll have too much trouble finding another buyer once I'm out of the Uncharted Territories." He tipped his glass up sharply against his lips, taking care not to swallow more than a few drops. He set the glass down on the table, his fist covering it to hide that it was still mostly full.
Hueena tapped her long fingers on the table, regarding him with narrowed eyes. "Do Station Security know what cargo you're carrying."
"Those numpties?" John laughed. "Not a clue. They think I'm out here on official business, doing field tests to see how Leviathans hold up in extreme conditions and discussing possible supply deals with a couple of local manufacturers of electrostatic scrubbers."
Hueena's expression grew more suspicious. "I would have thought the famed Peacekeeper technicians would have wanted to design and manufacture their own."
John smirked. "Why bother wasting all that time and effort figuring them out by ourselves when we can just buy a few from the experts and reverse engineer them? So, do we have a deal?"
Hueena turned her attention to Duke for a moment, apparently trying to assess whether he believed John was telling the truth, before facing John again. He tried not to squirm under her scrutiny and to return her gaze coolly. It seemed like an eternity before she inclined her head. "I will need to make a full inspection of the entire shipment with my own technicians before taking delivery. Especially the seismic disruptors."
"Sounds good to me." John raised his glass to her. "It'll give me time to count all that lovely cash you'll be bringing with you. When?"
"Tomorrow." Her reply was immediate. "Ten o'clock, Station time."
"Agreed." He toasted her with the drink again, before downing it whole, figuring they were close enough to done that she'd be gone before it took effect, and started to get to his feet.
She reached out and put a hand on his wrist to stop him. "One other item of interest to me." He could feel the tension in her light grip. "What price to buy out the contract for your server?"
John instinctively turned to look at Aeryn, holding herself stiffly in the galley. More than precious than rubies…. She met his gaze, and the expression in her eyes told him that not for one microt did she think he'd give Hueena a price—and yet there was a question there all the same.
Something caught in the back of his throat. More precious than wormholes. He'd thought he was still angry at her for all her betrayals: for not trusting him enough to tell him about the baby; for letting the other John come between them; for bringing Scorpius back into their lives and extracting that promise to let him live. All of her acts had hurt in their different ways and he hadn't known which was the worst. But that wasn't why he was angry at her. He was angry at her for making him vulnerable. For being the key to unlocking what was inside his head.
Stalling for time while he tried to calm the sudden turmoil inside him, he rubbed his thumb across his lower lip as if thinking. At last, when he reckoned he had his voice under control again, he said slowly, "She does… please me a great deal. I'll have to consider her value to me. Tonight. I'll let you know my price tomorrow."
"Very well. Until tomorrow." Hueena rose and gave him a small bow. "Good doing business with you, Captain."
"Likewise." John watched with relief as she swept out of the cabin with her bodyguards at her heels and Duke behind her to see her off the ship.
When the door to the cargo bay had fallen closed behind them, Aeryn let out the snort she'd obviously been holding in for a while. "You even think of putting a price on me, you'll be the one up for sale in a slave auction."
"Wouldn't dream of it," John muttered. He wondered how much prowser wine brandy Duke had left and how drunk he could get on it on the way back to Moya. And he'd better talk to Noranti as soon as they arrived and make sure she was brewing him another batch of Lakah. Double strength.
She also still wasn't sure she completely trusted these outsiders, though Crichton seemed to have a good heart. And if anyone could pull it off, they could: their exploits might have been exaggerated as news of them spread, but the plain facts were impressive enough. The chance to put Hueena away once and for all was too good to miss.
Not to mention it might be the only way to put a stop to the abrupt gravity reversals that were still happening every time Kerr, the janitor, got stressed. There'd been at least four more in the two days since Crichton had first proposed his plan. Luckily for most the station's residents, three of the incidents, centered on Chiana or Sun, had taken place over on Moya. The fourth, likely targeting Nathan, had only affected the room in which he'd been working, where he'd been going over some of the finer details of the plan with Duke and Crichton.
Even so, Audrey had been quite relieved when the Luxan, D'Argo, speaking on behalf of Moya's crew, had suggested transferring Kerr over to Moya, as the safest place to stash him until the situation was resolved. No chance of any of station personnel in Hueena's pay being able to get to him, even if they did discover where he was.
The second bout of switched gravity, over on Moya, had taken place just before Hueena was due back on the station to claim her "compensation". She'd been quietly furious when her goons had reported to her that they hadn't been able to find Kerr and hadn't been able to get anything useful out of the maintenance supervisor either. After that, she'd sent some of her minions back to her ship, from where they'd transmitted an encrypted message down to the planet. Presumably instructions to their associates on the surface to find Kerr's family. Audrey's planet-side contacts had beaten them to it by about six arns, and his wife, children and parents were now hidden in a safe house three states over from where they'd been living.
Hueena had still been sitting in her preferred bar, with a face like she'd smelled a dead Billean yard rat in the air vents, when Duke had gotten the barman to deliver a complimentary drink and a note informing her that the captain of the Peacekeeper Leviathan weapons transport currently parked outside the station would like to meet her for a mutually beneficial discussion. "Remember Herso Prime," the note had ended; Audrey hadn't known what the reference meant, but evidently Hueena had. She'd raised her gaze to where Duke was leaning on the balcony of his bar looking down at her, smiled thinly, and sent back a reply asking him when and where she could meet this Captain Larraq.
Now, after a day of frantic preparations, everything had slowed to a crawl, and all Audrey could do was wait for the Red Nebula's return from the meeting.
She took another couple of turns along the length of the dock, wishing she'd forced Duke to take a tracer beacon with him. Not that he would've agreed if she'd suggested it, but—.
Her comms unit chirped, making her jump. She pulled it from her belt with fingers made clumsy by fear and haste. "Nathan, give me good news."
"The Nebula's just passed the outer beacons and is on her way in." Nathan sounded almost as relieved as she felt. He might have muttered something at one point during the planning about it doing Haven a service if Hueena and Duke took each other out, but she suspected he didn't really mean it. He and Duke went back a long way.
"Thanks, Nathan. I'll let you know once they've arrived and I've had a chance to talk to them." Audrey stayed where she was, flipping her comms unit over and over in her hand, while wondering what came next and trying not to jinx things by thinking about how close they might be to putting Hueena away for good.
It was the best part of another half arn before the Nebula was docked and secured and the cargo ramp swung down to reveal Duke sauntering out as if he'd just made a run to pick up a couple of crates of that special brew of fellip nectar he liked.
"Well?" Audrey demanded.
"Hueena took the bait." Duke grinned smugly at her. "She'll be docking with the Leviathan at ten o'clock tomorrow."
"Damn." Audrey was caught between admiration that they'd managed to pull off the first stage of the plan and concern about whether they had enough time to be able to deliver on the second part. She ran a hand through her hair. "Not long to finish setting things up."
She peered past Duke, to where Crichton and Sun were maneuvering the crate of weapons samples out of the far end of the Nebula's cargo bay. Well, Sun was manhandling it. Crichton was unfastening his long, red and black captain's coat and saying, "You wanna borrow this?"
"No!" The crate shuddered and swung a little as Sun pushed at it. "I'm going to load this onto the transport pod and fly back to Moya. I'll send one of the others over to pick you up when you've finished talking to those guys."
"Aeryn—." Crichton reached toward her, but she jerked away, holding up one hand to fend him off.
"Don't!" she snarled, giving the crate an extra hard shove so it clattered and bounced over the end of the Nebula's tailgate. "Just… don't."
Audrey leaned closer to Duke and asked softly. "Problems?"
Duke shook his head. "No more than usual, I think. Just a bit freaked out by getting up close and personal with Hueena." When Audrey arched an eyebrow at him, he added, "She was quite taken by the lovely Officer Sun. Wanted to make her contract part of the deal. To be honest, I think she was more interested in Aeryn than the seismic disruptors."
"Really?" Audrey couldn't keep the surprise out of her voice. Sun was a good-looking woman, but Hueena didn't seem the type to get distracted by a pretty face.
"Hey, I'd buy her myself if I could." Duke, watching Sun push the crate down the dock toward the transport pod with an appreciative expression, winced as Audrey thwacked him on the arm. He turned back to face Audrey. "Anyway, Aeryn seemed pretty pissed at Hueena once she'd left, and even more pissed at Crichton for being bothered about it. Speak of the devil…." Duke plastered a welcoming grin on his face as Crichton approached.
The next few arns passed in a whirl of debriefing and fresh preparations. Audrey, Nathan and a handpicked team of trusted agents made their way over to the leviathan to figure out positions and sightlines and to ensure the equipment was in place to make the necessary recordings to take Hueena to trial.
Audrey had never been on a leviathan before, but the whole experience felt oddly familiar. She seemed to have an instinctive sense of where everything would be and how all of Moya's systems worked, and walking into the area occupied by the Pilot gave her the strangest sense of déja vu. Yet this was the first leviathan seen in Haven space for more than fifty cycles.
She did rather like the warm, dimly-lit curves of Moya's interior, smelling to her a little like freshly-baked plava bread—so different from the cold, hard lines of the space station, where the fans stirred recycled air that always carried a hint of too many people in too small a space. When she'd remarked on it to Crichton, he'd laughed and said she was lucky not to be around when Moya had caught a virus—and that it was just as well they didn't need a trip down to the bottom of Pilot's Den.
Making her way back to the Command Tier from the far end of the hamman-side hangar, where Hueena would be docking and where she and her team would be positioned during the 'handover', Audrey was joined by the old woman who'd been part of the trio that Duke had smuggled back to the ship. "Utu-Noranti Pralatong," the old woman explained in kindly tones. "Traskan."
"Utu? That's a healer, right?" Audrey tried to smile brightly while not breathing in too deeply. Clearly Moya's systems did a really great job if they could scrub the air to ensure Noranti's personal atmosphere didn't permeate the whole place. But Noranti was evidently wise according to the lights of her own people, as well as ancient, and Audrey respected that.
"Yes, indeed. Only the most skilled may use the title." Noranti bobbed her head. "Though I have been trained in many disciplines. Chef, mediator, alchemist, botanist…. And you?" She put her hand on Audrey's arm and swung Audrey around so she could examine her critically. The third eye on her forehead opened for a half microt, glowing faintly, before it closed again "Yes, yes, you have held many roles, too, I see."
"Uh…." Audrey was about to deny it, but the words died on her lips. She'd met the real Audrey, the one whose memories and skills and past she'd somehow acquired. They'd compared histories and her memories had split off from the real Audrey's not long before she'd come to Haven. Before that—well, she didn't know exactly how old she was, but she seemed to be around the real Audrey's age. Unless she had actually sprung fully formed, like Atana from Dyeus's head, into the world, she must have had another life before this one.
"Yes, yes…." Again, Noranti's third eye flickered. "You were a healer, too! On a great ship like this one." She lifted her hands to indicate Moya around them.
"I was a Peacekeeper?" The words came out in a squeak. Of all the pasts Audrey had imagined for herself, that had never been one of them. Though it would explain why the leviathan felt oddly familiar.
"Perhaps, perhaps…." Noranti blinked and the sharp-eyed look was gone, replaced by an unfocused but beatific smile. She patted Audrey on the shoulder. "Or some other large ship…. So many lives, so many voices…."
Audrey's comms unit chirruped, breaking the spell of Noranti's voice. Audrey pulled the device from her belt. "Parker here."
"Parker?" Nathan's voice crackled over the link. "We need you in the cargo bay."
"On my way." Audrey stuck the comms unit back in its pouch and turned back to Noranti, hoping the old woman would walk with her and tell her more about the voices—but she'd vanished. She must have taken advantage of Audrey's distraction to slip away. Or simply wandered off forgetfully, not remembering they'd been talking….
Shaking her head, Audrey directed her feet toward the cargo bay, where the exchange would be taking place. A couple of security technicians were working on wiring in the surveillance equipment. Pilot had offered Moya's services, but Nathan had shaken his head and said anything recorded by Moya risked being challenged in court as too easily faked. Only their only devices, with their built-in tamper-proofing, would be enough.
Nathan was standing with several members of Moya's crew in the middle of the half of the cargo bay that wasn't yet filled with crates and barrels. Chiana, a smudge of dirt across her forehead, was saying, "Isn't this enough frelling cargo already?"
"No." Crichton consulted the list he was holding. "I'm betting Hueena has a pretty good idea of what the manifest should look like and, apart from the barrels, we're still at least fifty crates short. Pilot? DRDs found anything else we can use yet?" He lifted his head, clearly addressing his question over the comms system.
"Yes, Commander. They report a number of crates on the treblin side of Tier Fifteen. I believe they originally contained food cubes."
"Thanks, Pilot." Crichton waited, but when no one moved, he dipped his head at Chiana. "You heard the big guy."
"I don't see why we're the ones hauling the frelling crates about while you get to stand around up here holding your shivvies." Chiana planted her feet more firmly and crossed her arms.
"Because I was hauling crates for two arns this morning before you even got your lazy ass out of bed," Crichton shot back. "As were Aeryn and D'Argo."
"Why can't that lot help?" Chiana jerked her head toward the Haven technicians, turning her head to include Nathan in her suggestion.
"Because they are busy doing tasks we cannot do." Sikozu's tone was crushing.
"Then get some more of them! I didn't sign up—." Chiana was still protesting loudly as Sikozu, with a weary sigh and a roll of the eyes, grabbed her arm and tugged her toward the cargo bay door.
As they passed Audrey, Sikozu was hissing, "No, they cannot 'just get more of them'. They do not trust their own people."
If only they could, Audrey thought as she made her way across to Nathan. Neither of them liked the fact they were going to be making the arrest with only a half dozen officers in total—the only ones they could trust absolutely. If anyone but Hueena had been involved, they would have flooded the place. As it was—.
Her attention was caught by Rygel, also part of the group surrounding Nathan—Audrey didn't know where D'Argo and Sun were right now; Sun, she guessed, absolutely anywhere Crichton wasn't—who had sniffed ostentatiously once the sound of Chiana's and Sikozu's bickering had died away.
"I still say you should have taken me along to negotiate the deal." Rygel piloted his hoversled over to an open crate that looked to be filled with pulse rifles, though Audrey knew the illusion went no more than a couple of layers deep, and poked at one of the guns. "I could have gotten you a much better price."
"Rygel, that wasn't the point." Crichton puffed out a frustrated breath and strode after Rygel, who was leaning over a crate supposedly full of grenades. He grabbed the back of Rygel's sled and maneuvered him round. "Get outta here, Sparky. Best way you can help is by staying out of the way."
Rygel bridled. "Very well. I know when I'm not wanted." He propelled himself toward the door.
"You can find Grandma and keep her out of the way, too," Crichton called after him.
Watching Rygel leave, Audrey couldn't help wondering yet again how this bunch of quarreling misfits had ever managed to pull off even one of the feats for which they'd become notorious. No one seemed to be the one calling the shots—oh, D'Argo might have the title of captain, but Crichton and Sun seemed to give the orders as often as not—and yet somehow they wove around each other, with each of them bringing their skills and strengths, and the thing got done.
Nathan, spotting Audrey, waved her closer, and she shook herself out of her thoughts. "What do you need me for?" she asked, as she joined Nathan and Crichton.
"We're short twenty barrels for the chakan oil order." Crichton gestured at the neat rows of barrels standing halfway down the cargo bay. "Pilot thinks there's almost no chance of us finding any more on Moya, based on his records of what's been brought aboard. We should be okay for crates, if we can locate them, but…."
Audrey nodded in understanding. "We should ask Duke."
"What?" Nathan sounded outraged. "Why—?"
Audrey didn't let him finish. "He knows the stevedores and hauliers. If anyone can ask to borrow twenty empty barrels, no questions asked, it's Duke."
"Useful man to have around." Crichton smiled at her.
Audrey ignored Nathan's snort. "He is." She surveyed the cargo bay again. "Where is he, anyway?" Last time she'd seen him, he'd been tagging along behind Nathan providing a running commentary under his breath on Nathan's efforts.
Nathan snorted again. "Still sitting in D'Argo's ship. Drooling."
That explained where D'Argo was; Audrey couldn't imagine he'd leave Duke alone in his ship.
"He said he wanted to familiarize himself with her." Crichton rolled his eyes, whether at Duke's excuse or the fact Duke had somehow talked all of them—even D'Argo—into letting him ride along while D'Argo invisibly patrolled the space around Moya. "I think he's hoping he'll find the secret override switch for the Luxan DNA."
"There isn't one, right?" Nathan suddenly looked very worried. "D'Argo said—."
"Relax. Luxan DNA definitely required." Crichton gestured toward the door. "Come on, let's go ask Duke about the barrels. And then we'll get everyone together on Command to go over the whole thing one last time."
The movement reminded her—as if she needed much reminding—that she was once more trussed up in the pleebing outfit Chiana had chosen for her. She hated the feel of the material against her skin. She hated that it offered none of the protection in a fight that she could expect from the leather she normally wore. She hated that it didn't allow her to carry a weapon, apart from a knife concealed in her right boot, which was why she'd had to stash a half dozen pulse pistols in various places along the route that Hueena would take.
Most of all, she hated the way it made John look at her, and not look at her. She could understand that he had his reasons to be angry with her—for leaving, for coming back, for the way she'd come back—even if she didn't think much of most of them. But at least he'd been angry; he'd cared; and she'd hoped they could work it out, in time. But then he'd seemed to stop caring, the lights going out like someone had pulled the power cables from a Prowler instrument panel.
That she didn't understand. Even when they'd first met, even when they'd barely liked each other, even when the neural clone had been frelling with his brain, there'd been something between them: chemistry, compatibility, a spark. But now the spark was gone, and much of the time there was a blankness at the heart of him. Except when he'd seen her tricked out in this frelling get-up. There'd been a flash of something then; and again when Duke had openly—if surprisingly respectfully—shown he admired her; and then when Hueena had started paying her attention.
Did John prefer her to dress like this? Did he like it when she acted like a servant? Was this who he wanted her to be now? She'd thought he'd wanted her—loved her—for who she was, in all her complicated, messed-up self. The other John—.
She squashed down on the thought, shaking her head. The other John was gone, and it was this John who mattered. This John that she wanted to look at her again the way he used to. But not like this. She couldn't be this person, this Fenra, that he saw when she was dressed and behaving this way. She was Aeryn, and if he didn't love Aeryn Sun, then—.
Pilot's voice over comms jerked her from her thoughts. "Commander Crichton, Officer Sun. Hueena's cargo transport is on approach."
"Understood." John's reply came loud and clear. "Aeryn, meet me at the hangar entrance. Everyone else, stay with Pilot and stay the hell out of sight. Wuornos? Parker?"
"In position." Their answer came almost in unison.
Aeryn made a final check on each of the other concealed pulse pistols that she passed on her way down the tier to the hangar. By the time she got there, John was already waiting, dressed again as a Peacekeeper captain.
"Ready?" she asked, as she swung into place at his side.
"I am now." He'd kept his gaze fixed on the hangar doors as she'd joined him, but a glance sideways showed her that he was smiling, the way she remembered him smiling in the past when they went into action together. Whatever divisions and hurts lay between them, they still made one hell of a team.
Beyond the hangar doors, they could hear the sounds of Hueena's ship docking and the atmospheric seal being reestablished. When the doors opened, they found themselves looking at a ship that was several times the size of Moya's transport pods and even more beat up than the Red Nebula. She was, however, festooned with a large number of guns that all looked to be in excellent condition.
A loading ramp at the rear of the ship was slowly being lowered, revealing a cluster of heavies of various shapes and species, all packing sidearms and rifles, and wearing heavy body armor. Aeryn automatically tensed, wondering whether they'd been set up and if it was a raid rather than an exchange—and wondering why her nearest concealed pulse pistol was a whole frelling motra away from where she was standing. Then she caught a glimpse of Hueena at the rear, even as there was a general lessening of tension in Hueena's crew. They must have been wondering if it was a trap as well and, having scanned the reception party, concluded it wasn't.
Four of the heavies at the front moved down and fanned out, letting Hueena step between them. Another four at the rear had slung their rifles across their backs and were wheeling forward two large crates—presumably the payment for the deal. That made eight, but Aeryn suspected there were others lurking out of sight: the pilot, at least, would have stayed in the cockpit, ready to get them out of there quickly if the need arose.
While Aeryn had been assessing the threat, Hueena had reached the bottom of the ramp. John took a pace forward and inclined his head. "A please to welcome you aboard, ma'am."
"The pleasure is all mine." Hueena held out her hand for John to take, but her gaze turned toward Aeryn, moving slowly and appreciatively over her. "I'm so glad that Fenra could join us as well."
"Fenra goes where I go." John gave Hueena's hand back to her. A wry expression settled on his face as he added, "And will continue to do so. I find her services too essential to my… comfort to dispense with her contract at this time."
"That is regrettable." Hueena gave him a thin-lipped smile. "Perhaps you may allow me to briefly avail myself of her services while I am here. But I appreciate you settling the matter at the outset. Now," she gestured with both hands, "may I inspect those items you are permitting me to purchase."
"Of course. This way." John gestured for Hueena to walk beside him. Two of the heavies—Aeryn thought they were the two tavleks who'd accompanied her to the Red Nebula—took up position behind, followed by the four bodyguards with the crates. The remaining two stayed behind at the bottom of the ramp to guard the ship.
Aeryn tagged along at the rear of the procession, half wishing she was closer to John in case things suddenly turned sour, while knowing she was in the best place to deal with the fallout if they did. Just not in the best place to prevent John from getting shot in the back.
They reached the cargo bay. John strode ahead and threw open the lid of one of the tricked-out crates of merchandise. Hueena followed more slowly, while her goons pushed the crates with the payment into the open space that had been deliberately left for them. Aeryn had spent a couple of arns with Wuornos and two of his security officers the previous evening going over the exact placement of everything in the cargo bay, shifting various crates to make it as easy as possible for the Haven security team to control the situation once they moved in for the arrest, and explaining to John once they were done exactly how he should try to direct Hueena and her crew.
Trying not to attract attention, Aeryn moved into place, itching to reach for the pistols she'd hidden.
John waved Hueena forward. "Pulse rifles." He threw open a second crate and then a third. "Grenades. Limpet Mines." Another crate. "Pulse pistols."
Hueena stepped forward and swept her gaze over the rifles, before moving on to the next crate and picking up a grenade. She turned it over in her hand to examine it, before gently placing it back into its layer of packing. She moved her hand over the crate in a way that suggested she was counting the number of grenades in a layer and estimating how many layers deep the grenades were stacked, before lifting her head and confirming there were four more crates stacked behind the open one.
John had moved on to the barrels. He unscrewed the cap on the nearest one and dipped a rod into it to coat the end with chakan oil. He swiped some of the oil off with a finger and put it to his lips to prove it was safe to taste, before holding the rod out to Hueena.
She followed suit, sniffing the oil on her finger before tasting it. She inclined her head and smiled thinly at John. "Good quality. "
"Naturally." Aeryn could tell John was struggling not to sound too surprised that Hueena could determine the charge strength from the taste. Of course, most of John's senses were inferior.
Hueena took the cloth he offered her and cleaned her fingers. "And the seismic disruptors?"
He grinned at her mirthlessly. "I think it's time for you to provide a demonstration of good faith. I'd like to check the quality of what you're offering." He gestured toward the two crates she'd brought on board.
A mildly irritated expression flitted across Hueena's face, before she shrugged. "Of course." She moved across to the nearest crate and punched a code into the lock. The lid sprang open a little and one of her guards pulled it fully open to reveal the neatly packed borinium ingots inside.
John stepped forward and picked up one of the ingots, twisting it in his fingers to examine both sides. Then he cast it back into the crate and began pulling out more ingots, reaching down into the hole he'd made to grab a random ingot from several layers down. Again, he turned it between his fingers to examine it, before carrying it over to where he'd earlier laid out the handheld purity tester they'd borrowed from Duke. Slotting the ingot into the device, he pressed the button to start the analysis.
"While we're waiting—" He turned back to Hueena, who wasn't bothering to hide her disdain at this performance. "—perhaps we should confirm your exact order?" He waved a data tablet he'd picked up in her direction.
"Very well." She knew as well as he did that the purity tester would take a few hundred microts to spit out its answer.
"So, pulse rifles: five hundred?"
When Hueena merely inclined her head to silently confirm the number, John hesitated, apparently at a loss. Wuornos and Parker had made it very clear they needed Hueena confirming clearly and on the record that she was purchasing the frag cannons and the seismic disruptors.
He coughed apologetically. "You know, I'd really appreciate a definite yes or no." He lifted the data pad and waggled it. "Some cultures, they nod when they mean yes. Other cultures, that means no. I'd hate for us to get at cross-purposes here." He gave Hueena a wide, though clearly insincere, smile.
Hueena rolled her eyes. "Very well. Yes. Five hundred pulse rifles."
"Pulse pistols: eight hundred and fifty?"
Hueena folded her arms, tapping her long fingers impatiently against her upper arm. "Yes."
John went on down the list, Hueena agreeing to each item. Aeryn could hear the growing tension in his voice as he got close to the items that really mattered. "Frag cannons: twenty?"
"Yes." Hueena was sounding very irritated. The ingot tester had bleeped to indicate it was ready during the previous item and she clearly felt John was wasting time.
He raised the data pad in Hueena's direction in an ironic salute, before dropping the pad next to the ingot. "And finally, Plokavian seismic disruptors: two?"
"Yes. And now—."
Hueena started to step forward, but John held up his hand. "Just one more thing…."
A new voice came from the shadows between the lines of chakan oil barrels. "Hueena Arregi Kitto Natsheh, you are under arrest for dealing in prohibited goods in Haven territory." Wuornos stepped out into the open, waving forward two of his security officers from where they'd been concealed behind the crates of pulse rifles. Aeryn restrained herself from glancing up to check on the other two: they'd been crouched behind some of the higher crates, from where they'd have a clear view down into the open part of the bay.
Hueena gawped at Wuornos, her skin turning the color of amnexus fluid. Then she recovered her composure a little, tossing her head. "You'll never—."
"Yes, we will." Wuornos took another step forward. "Got the whole thing on tape. Buying seismic disruptors in Haven space? I don't care how many judges you've got on your payroll. You're not going to walk away from this one."
"No, I'm not." Hueena inclined her head as if acquiescing, but Aeryn saw in the same instant that she was reaching for a weapon, while her other hand flicked a signal to her guards.
"Gun," Aeryn yelled, going for her own pulse pistols. Wuornos was already diving for cover—but he wasn't Hueena's target. She'd swung back round to point her pistol at John, yelling something at him that Aeryn's translator microbes couldn't catch completely but whose meaning was clear enough.
John flung himself sideways as Hueena fired, landing with an undignified slide that took him mostly behind a row of barrels. Hueena took aim again, while four of her guards closed in to shield her, their rifles raised.
It was the guards that saved Hueena from Aeryn's response. A dozen blasts from her pulse pistols deflected off their armored shoulders and chests before they turned their weapons on her and she was forced to take cover herself behind the crates.
From somewhere opposite, she could hear Wuornos calling orders into his comms device, telling Parker to secure Hueena's ship. The rest of his party had already moved to set up crossfire on Hueena's group, diverting the thugs' fire away from Aeryn. Risking a cautious look around the edge of the crate, Aeryn heard Hueena snarl "Leave them!" at the other two guards, who'd each been trying to manhandle one of the crates of borinium ingots out of the cargo bay. Abandoning the effort, they joined the knot of heavies shielding Hueena, the group backing up step by step toward the door while indiscriminately raking the crates and barrels with their pulse rifles.
Aeryn added her own fire back into the mix. Wuornos had his sidearm out, too, and had joined his security officers in firing on Hueena's group, but Aeryn couldn't hear anything from John's direction. Couldn't see where he'd thrown himself, either, from where she was.
"Hey, John!" She fired another half dozen shots at Hueena. "You still with us?"
It seemed like an eternity before she got an answer, though it could only have been a couple of microts, but it came at last. "Yeah, I'm still here." He sounded winded. A moment later, he added Winona's firepower to the fray.
Hueena's group was almost at the door now. One of the guards went down—the cumulative weight of pistol fire or a lucky shot?—and the knot of bodies tightened around Hueena. Then they were out of the door and the sound of weapons fire became one-sided.
"Cease fire!" Wuornos called, but Aeryn was already round the crate she'd used for cover and racing across the cargo bay toward the door even as the words left his mouth. There was no way that orange bitch was getting away, after all she'd done.
Reaching the doorway, Aeryn checked her pace, before quickly stepping out and aiming a couple of blasts down the hallway. She ducked back when Hueena's group returned fire almost immediately, but she'd had enough time to confirm they were still moving as a group, shielding Hueena in their center. Sticking an arm around the door, Aeryn fired blindly down the hallway, reckoning it would help slow them down a little.
She felt Wuornos at her shoulder. "Parker's trying to secure Hueena's ship. Disable it, if she can."
Aeryn nodded. She could hear the sounds of a second firefight in the far distance, in between the intermittent blasts of pulse fire that were zipping toward them as Hueena's rearguard did what they could to keep Aeryn and the rest of them pinned in the cargo bay.
"Just don't blow the damn thing up inside Moya." That was John, close behind Aeryn on her other side. He still sounded a little out of breath.
Wuornos snorted. "Just you don't kill Hueena, okay? I want her alive."
"We may not have much choice." The pulse pistol Aeryn was using ran out of chakan oil and she dropped it and switched the second one across from her other hand and started firing again. Without thinking, she reached her free hand back toward John. A little to her surprise, he caught it and squeezed it briefly—I'm still here—before he let go.
"I need to get my guys over to the treblin side." Wuornos was waving his team up to join him. "Get ahead of Hueena and her crew."
"We'll cover you." Aeryn had already reached up for the spare pistol stashed near the door. "Ready?"
"Ready," Wuornos confirmed.
Aeryn stepped out into the hallway, firing rapidly with both pistols as she moved. She sensed the Haven team passing behind her as she continued to move sideways. Then John joined her, standing shoulder to shoulder and adding his firepower to hers, before enough blasts started zapping the other way that they both dived for cover, pressing themselves back against the walls on opposite sides of the hallway, shielded by Moya's ribs.
Aeryn was automatically pulling the cartridges out of her pulse pistols to check how much charge was left, but her gaze was on John. He looked a little disheveled and there was a bruise forming on his forehead, but otherwise he seemed none the worse for wear. She slammed the second cartridge back into the gun. "I'm nearly out."
"Here." John switched Winona into his other hand, scrabbled in a pocket and pulled out a spare cartridge. He lobbed it toward Aeryn without really looking, but accurately enough that she had time to shove one of her pulse pistols under her other elbow and easily pluck the cartridge out of the air.
She stood there for a moment wondering where the hell she was going to stash it until she was ready to use it, before shoving it down into the top of her boot. She retrieved the pulse pistol from under her arm. "Remind me next time we do this to get Chiana to dress me in something with frelling pockets."
The pulse blasts that had been zapping past them ceased. Peering cautiously around the rib, Aeryn saw that Hueena's group had disappeared around the curve of the hallway. She glanced across at John. He gave a nod and the two of them stepped out and scooted forward, weapons raised to fire again as soon as Hueena's group came into sight.
For the next five hundred microts, they harried Hueena and her bodyguards along the tier, repeatedly catching up with them long enough to get off a dozen shots each before her rearguard returned fire and they had to duck for cover again. Hueena was almost at the hangar entrance when they heard fresh weapons fire coming from ahead and from over on the treblin side: Wuornos' team.
Rounding the last curve, Aeryn saw Hueena was down to two bodyguards. One of them was already inside the hangar, firing past the ship to where Parker and the two officers with her must be advancing to secure the ship. The other was raking the hallway with pulse blasts, holding off Wuornos' team, as Hueena stepped backward through the hangar door. Taking cover behind a rib, Aeryn fired blindly for a few microts, hoping for a lucky shot.
She risked another look, her eyes widening in surprise as a new figure stepped forward beyond the hangar door. It lifted a hand and blew something into the face of the nearest bodyguard, who went down like he'd been hit on the back of the head with a Darkanian fighting stick.
There was a moment of stunned silence, everyone too shocked to go on firing, and then John yelled, "Granny!" Aeryn wasn't sure from his tone if he wanted to save Noranti or throttle her. She felt much the same way herself.
Noranti had bent forward, murmuring what sounded like, "There, there. Go to sleep," while she reached into the bag she was carrying for another handful of dust. Hueena was the first to recover her composure, stepping forward and grabbing Noranti around the neck, her pulse pistol pointed toward Noranti's head. Noranti let out a surprised, "Oh, my!" as Hueena dragged her a step backward.
Hueena waggled the gun a little and yelled in John's direction. "Let me leave or I'll kill your grandmother."
Another silence, while John and Aeryn exchanged blank looks. Then Aeryn realized that Hueena's translator microbes must have provided a very literal interpretation of John's shout. He'd clearly come to the same conclusion, because he barked a laugh and called back, "She's not my grandmother, you orange-arsed bitch. We're not even the same damn species."
"It's true. All true." That was Noranti. Aeryn risked another look and saw Noranti was bobbing her head up and down. "Alas, we are not related. I am merely a member of the crew, playing my own small part in—."
"Shut the frell up!" Hueena gave Noranti a shake and jammed her pistol more firmly against Noranti's forehead, dragging her backward toward her ship and shielding her own body with Noranti's.
Aeryn scurried forward to the entrance into the hangar, keeping Hueena and Noranti in sight as much as possible without making herself a target for either Hueena or her remaining bodyguard, who'd reached the ramp at the rear of Hueena's ship. He was calling to Hueena to hurry—Noranti was evidently doing her best to impede Hueena's progress, and still burbling nonsense at her—and Aeryn became aware that the fire from Parker's team had ceased as well, everything suddenly eerily quiet. Another of Hueena's guards, left behind in the hangar, or perhaps on the ship, was backing up along the side of the vessel to join the one at the foot of the ramp. He fired once, in the direction he'd come from, and Aeryn guessed he'd spotted one of Parker's team moving. Somewhere behind her, she could hear Wuornos quietly discussing with Parker over comms whether they could get someone close enough to stun Hueena with a stasis gun.
John had joined Aeryn at the entrance to the hangar. "You know," he suddenly bellowed in her ear, making her jump, "maybe we should just shoot the old woman and be done. Get ourselves a nice clear shot at Huey, Louie and Dewey in there."
Aeryn turned and boggled at him. What the frell? Then he waggled his eyebrows and jerked his head in Wuornos' direction and she caught on that he was playing for time. Giving him a nod, she raised her voice and called out, "Sounds good to me. Won't miss the old woman's cooking."
"Yeah, never could stand her roasted spider soup," John offered.
Another quick look around the edge of the door showed Aeryn that Hueena had faltered, apparently unsure whether to ditch Noranti and make a dash for the ship or continue to use her as a shield.
"It's true, you know," Noranti was telling Hueena, bobbing her head. "Quite true. Maybe I should adjust the spices? Do you think I should adjust the spices?"
"Shut up," Hueena hissed, resuming her backward shuffle. "They're not going to kill you. They're just bluffing."
"Oh, no, no, no." Noranti shook her head. "They never bluff. They kill people all the time, you know."
Hueena was almost at the bottom of the ramp and the ship's engines were powering up. Behind Aeryn, John turned and hissed, "Wuornos? It's now or never."
"I want her alive." Wuornos sounded equal parts frustrated and furious. He spoke into his comms unit. "Parker, are you close enough?"
Parker's equally irked-sounding reply crackled over the comms link. "Still too far away."
"Frell!" Aeryn muttered. Dropping one of the pulse pistols—it was almost out of ammo anyway—she gripped the other one in both hands, stepped around the door and targeted Hueena, aiming low and trusting she'd be able to hobble Hueena with a couple of shots to the leg.
She had enough time to see that Hueena, halfway up the ramp, had swung her pistol away from Noranti's head and looked like she was about to push the old woman away. She pulled Noranti closer again—even from this distance, Aeryn could see her wrinkling her nose in disgust—and brought the pistol round to bear on Aeryn. Then a shot from the bodyguard at the top of the ramp, zipping past too close for comfort, had Aeryn diving behind one of Moya's ribs.
Her heart pounding, Aeryn cursed her own impatience. Over the comms unit that Wuornos held, she heard Parker report, "They're in the ship. Closing the ramp."
"They still need to leave the hangar," John pointed out.
The noise from the ship's engines increased. It rose a little awkwardly off the floor into the air and hung there.
"Commander Crichton, Officer Sun." Pilot's voice came over their comms units. "Hueena's pilot is ordering me to open the outer hangar doors."
"No!" Wuornos had stepped forward, glaring at the ship. "I'm not letting her escape."
A new whine added itself to the sound of the engines, one Aeryn recognised all too well. "Pulse cannons," she hissed at John. "They're going to—."
She didn't get a chance to finish the sentence, or need to. Pilot spoke again, sounding even more agitated. "The pilot is saying if we don't open the hangar doors, he will blast his way through Moya's hull—"
"Pilot! Open the damn doors!" John yelled. When Wuornos opened his mouth to object, John turned and snarled, "She's not your frelling ship to hurt, asshole!"
The inner hangar doors began to slide together. Through the narrowing gap, Aeryn saw Hueena's ship shoot forward.
John was speaking into his comms again. "Pilot, patch me through to D'Argo on the secure channel."
"Yes, Commander." Pilot still sounded a little shaken. "Moya and I thank you—."
"No need, Pilot." John was still glaring at Wuornos. "Hey, D! You there? It's showtime. Hueena's making a break for it. And she's got Grandma on board."
"Understood." D'Argo sounded as if he was looking forward to stopping Hueena.
"We should get up to Command." Aeryn poked the guard who'd been downed by Noranti's powder with her toe. She looked up at Parker, who was hurrying through the hangar doors as they closed, the two security officers who'd been with her at her heels. As Parker pushed up the visor on the spacesuit she was wearing to protect her from exposure to space when the outer hangar doors were open, Aeryn asked, "Can your guys secure the tier? Make sure Hueena's crew are dead or handcuffed?"
"They can do that." Parker turned and nodded to the two guys behind her. One of them bent to cuff the drugged guard, while the other jogged back into the hangar. Parker swung back round and looked from Wuornos to John and back again. The two of them were still glaring at each other. Parker shifted her gaze to Aeryn, one eyebrow raised in question. Aeryn rolled her eyes in answer. Shaking her head, Parker holstered her pistol and said, "Let's go."
When they reached Command, they saw D'Argo had lowered Lo'La's deception shroud and positioned himself in the path of Hueena's ship. Energy from Hueena's pulse cannons was crackling over Lo'la's defense shield and her ship was still heading straight for Lo'La, even picking up speed.
"Yo, Pilot! What's happening?" John spread his hands over one of the command consoles, leaning forward and peering out at the scene outside.
Pilot appeared on the clamshell. "Hueena's ship is not responding to Ka D'Argo's request to surrender."
"Yeah, we can see that." John scrubbed his thumb across his eyebrow. Aeryn could see the anxious expression on his face from where she'd, instinctively, taken up station by the navigation console. "Can you patch us through to D'Argo again?"
"—back. I repeat, return to Moya or you will be fired on." D'Argo's voice boomed through Command.
The only response from Hueena's ship was a slight change in course that would allow it to pass by Lo'La instead of ramming her. D'Argo altered course too, blocking Hueena's path again. The ship carried on curving away, still trying to pass, and D'Argo fired a warning shot in front of it.
Relayed faintly through D'Argo's comms, Hueena could be heard asking, "Do you really care so little for the old woman's life?"
There was a long, heavy pause and then D'Argo said, sounding uncertain, "John?"
Aeryn had activated the navigation console without realizing it, while her mind was busy trying to figure out how Moya and Lo'La could, between them, corner Hueena. No corners in space, the other John had joked once, and had to explain the English word to her. Aeryn shook off the memory, but he'd had a point. Hard to trap someone when they could move in any direction. And if they did try to herd Hueena, Aeryn had no doubt the woman would use her pulse cannons.
John snapped his fingers, startling Aeryn out of her calculations. "Pilot, patch me through to Noranti."
"Yes, Commander." On the clamshell, Pilot dipped his head.
"Hey, grandma!" John called.
"Crichton. How wonderful to hear your voice. Isn't this exciting?" Noranti sounded like she was on a day visit to a pleasure vessel.
Aeryn caught John's eye and he lifted his eyes toward the ceiling, but said patiently, "You with Hueena or on your own?"
"Oh, alone. Quite alone." Noranti's tone was positively cheerful. "I'm in the cargo bay. Handcuffs. I haven't had this much fun since I was quite a young girl and I met that very daring young man who—."
"Okay, okay." John waved his hands, as if that would somehow stop Noranti talking, because none of them needed to hear that story right then—or ever. "You got the ingredients for your space survival goo on you?"
"I'm not sure if…." Over the comms, Aeryn could hear the sound of rummaging. "Why, yes. Yes I do."
"Okay, get busy and make some and take some." John leaned forward on the console. "D? Are you still with me?"
"Yes, John, I'm here." D'Argo sounded slightly distracted. Aeryn could see that he and Hueena were still maneuvering around each other: D'Argo trying to block her ship and turn her back toward Moya, and Hueena trying to evade him.
"Can you disable Hueena's ship without completely destroying it? Knock out the engines or depressurize it?" When Wuornos stepped forward to object, John shrugged a shoulder. "You can have either maybe-survives Hueena or let her escape. Which do you prefer?"
"I prefer alive and on trial," Wuornos said irritably, before heaving a sigh. "But dead is better than free." He gestured for John to proceed.
"What about Noranti?" D'Argo objected.
"In the cargo bay with her space goo. As long as you don't score a direct hit there, she'll be fine."
In the background on the channel to D'Argo, Aeryn thought she could hear Duke telling D'Argo that if he fired here and here, he'd knock out the port engine and the wiring that fed the starboard one, and depressurize the pilot's station.
"We're doing this?" D'Argo asked again. "You're sure."
John looked at Wuornos, who gave a reluctant nod. "Yeah, we're sure. Go ahead, D."
Aeryn watched as Lo'La swung around to target Hueena's ship and as her guns, silently blazing, ripped apart the port engines on Hueena's ship and blasted a hole in the hull. Hueena's ship began to execute a slow yaw as chunks of hull and engine were forced away by the blast. The starboard engines briefly fired, slowing the yaw, and then sputtered out, and the ship went on drifting drunkenly.
"Hueena's ship is venting atmosphere and has lost propulsion," Pilot confirmed, sounding very cheerful. There was a triumphant burst of 1812's favourite notes over the comms—he must be in Pilot's Den—and a "Frell, yeah!" from Chiana.
John grinned across at Aeryn. "Let's take a transport and get this cleaned up."
Aeryn nodded, holstering her pistol—and discovering she couldn't because she was still in the pleebing outfit Chiana had poured her into. "Yeah, just as soon as I'm out of these these frelling clothes and they're in the frelling waste recycler. I'll meet you at the pod in a quarter arn."
Not waiting for John's agreement, she strode out of Command. Because getting back into her own clothes now that they were done couldn't come soon enough.
Chiana was planning a little cleaning up of her own. She scooted across the open space in the cargo bay, pleased to see Hueena's crates were standing untouched, the lid of one still thrown open. The borinium ingots in the center of the top few layers were messed up, so maybe someone else had been there already. Not that it mattered: there were plenty enough left.
She picked up a loose ingot and held it up, grinning to herself.
"Looking for something?"
Chiana let out a small shriek as Rygel rose up from behind the lid of the crate on his throne sled. "Frell!" She put her hand to her chest, her heart pounding. "You scared the gris out of me. What are you doing pleeking around?"
Rygel smirked at her. "What are you doing pleeking around?" He looked pointedly at the ingot in her hand.
"Oh, just looking." Chiana dropped the ingot back into the crate. "It's a lot of money."
"And not yours." Rygel's tone was blighting. "Besides, we've all got more than enough money already. Maybe you should go and count your own."
"No harm in looking." Chiana sniffed. "Besides, you've no room to talk. You were creeping around in here, too."
Rygel gave her an appeasing smile. "Perhaps we can creep around together. And, uh, liberate some of the contents of this case before anyone returns to impound them." He leaned forward and scooped a handful of ingots into his lap.
"Deal." Chiana grabbed a handful of ingots as well, but even as she was wondering what to carry them in, she heard voices outside in the hallway. Hastily, she stuffed the ingots down the front of her pants.
Swinging round, she saw the voices belonged to Crichton and Wuornos, turning into the cargo bay, one of the Haven security officers behind them. All three men checked slightly at the sight of her and Rygel and the ingots suddenly felt extra cold against her skin. Then Rygel exclaimed in a loud voice, "Just making sure everything's secure." He nudged the lid of the container with his thronesled, slamming it shut.
"Yeah, secure," Chiana echoed, wriggling her shoulders and trying not to look too guilty.
Crichton gave her a look that suggested he wasn't fooled for a moment, but Wuornos didn't seem to notice. He waved the security officer forward and the two of them wheeled the crate Rygel had just closed out of the cargo bay.
Chiana couldn't help murmuring regretfully, as the crate disappeared out of sight, "All that money…."
Rygel sighed heavily, clearly in agreement.
"You've already got plenty of money," Crichton remarked, joining them.
Rygel heaved another sigh. "Yes, but you can never have too much." He scooted his thronesled forward a little and Chiana wondered if Crichton also caught the faint clinking sound made by the ingots hidden in the folds of his robe.
"Yeah, well, we're all gonna have a bit more than we thought we would." Crichton leaned back against the other crate of ingots and folded his arms. "The Haven authorities are going to give us the provisions we need as a gesture of thanks for our help in getting the evidence against Hueena."
"Drad!" Chiana felt a momentary twinge of guilt about the ingots she'd just filched, but then she dismissed it. What they didn't know wouldn't hurt them, right?
"Can we get janeray syrup?" Rygel's eyes had lit up. "And krawldar. And—."
"Don't push it, Sparky." Crichton reached out and biffed Rygel lightly on the shoulder. "The bad news is that we're not going to be able to get all the engineering parts we wanted before we head into Tormented Space. They don't have them in stock on the station and D'Argo and I are agreed we shouldn't hang around here any longer."
"Whyever not?" Rygel was pointedly rubbing his shoulder, as if Crichton had damaged more than his pride. "These Havenites, or whatever they call themselves, don't care about the Peacekeepers or the Scarrans or the wanted beacons."
"No, but other people do, numbnock." Chiana punched Rygel on the other shoulder. "I've been talking to Duke and he says there's all sorts come through the station—plenty of bounty hunters and slavers and those kinds of people."
"Chiana's right." Crichton pushed away from the crate. "We've already spent long enough in one place for word to get out. We need to keep moving."
Wuornos, with the security officer at his heels, had returned for the second crate and had evidently overheard the end of the conversation. "I can't say I'll be entirely sorry to see you go," he remarked, as he rounded the crate. "You've got a knack for creating trouble and we've enough of our own."
"Talking of which," Chiana peered around, "where's Audrey?"
"Gone to give our friend the janitor the good news that Hueena's in custody and is going to stay that way, and making arrangements for him to join his family at the safe house." Wuornos' own satisfaction was evident. "She's hoping that being able to reassure him that he and his family are no longer in danger will switch his Trouble off—or keep it dormant, at least, until the current cycle of Troubles ends."
"Yeah, that'd be good." Chiana glared up at the ceiling, reminding it to stay that way.
"Well, need to get these off the station and secured." Wuornos gestured at the crate and, with a nod to the security officer to join him, began to push it out of the cargo bay.
Chiana trailed along behind, with a feeling she needed to stay with the ingots until they were truly out of reach, just in case. Rygel came too, perhaps driven by the same impulse, and Crichton brought up the rear.
In the hangar, they found Aeryn and D'Argo talking to Duke. Duke followed the crate with his eyes as it was pushed into the station transport, as if he also hoped there might be some way to spirit it out from under Wuornos' watchful eye, before bringing his attention back to Aeryn.
Chiana caught the end of what Aeryn was saying. "—very tempting offer, but my place is here." Aeryn held up her hands in apology.
"What offer?" Crichton, picking up on Aeryn's words as well, stepped up to join the group.
Duke gave a small, regretful shrug. "I was offering Officer Sun a position in my organization. I could always use a good pilot who's handy with a pulse pistol if things turn ugly." His lips twitched in a wry smile and he made a half-bow in Crichton's direction. "I will, of course, buy out her contract from you, if necessary."
Crichton turned his head, as if intending to meet Aeryn's gaze, before he stopped short. Chiana could sense the tension in him, his body stiff and, she saw, his hands curled into fists at his sides. There was a long moment of silence, and then he said slowly and carefully, "Aeryn's her own woman. No contracts. No strings attached."
Duke looked between them and muttered quietly, "Yeah, I can see that."
Chiana shared Duke's cynicism. She had the strong urge to step forward and bang Crichton's and Aeryn's heads together. Why was Crichton being such a drannit about the whole thing? Sure, Aeryn had messed up a little, but who hadn't? And Crichton was evidently still crazy about her.
But whatever Chiana did, she'd likely only make things worse. She was good at that; after all, if she hadn't let slip about the baby, then maybe….
Giving herself a shake, she seized on the first alternative thought that came to mind. "So, you hiring anyone else?" she asked Duke.
He raised his eyebrows in mild surprise and then chuckled. "You? I think you'd find life on Haven very dull after life here." He gestured around at Moya. Not giving her a chance to argue, he turned to D'Argo. "And I'd make you an offer for Lo'La, but I know she's not for sale. And there's a one-man ship if ever I saw one." His glanced back at Aeryn, including her in the remark, before adding, "But I'm sure going to be keeping an eye out for something like that, now I know it exists."
"And I'm going to be keeping an eye on you to make sure you don't get it." Wuornos, the crates of ingots stowed away, had returned and was giving Duke an irritated look. "In fact, I'm going to be spending the next six months combing the statute books to determine exactly why it's illegal for you to own one. And if it isn't, I'm going to make damn sure someone passes a law so that it is."
"Really?" Duke gave Wuornos an innocent look. "What could I possibly do with it that you could object to."
Wuornos opened his mouth, and then immediately clamped it shut again. He folded his arms. "I'm not giving you any ideas."
A few moments later, he was headed to the transport, with a promise to say goodbye formally once Moya's supplies were loaded. Duke and D'Argo had returned to the cargo bay to round up the barrels Duke had helped them borrow.
Crichton lingered behind, casting a sideways glance at Aeryn. "Good to see you back in your own clothes again."
Aeryn pulled herself straighter, squaring her shoulders and tipping up her chin. "I thought you liked my disguise."
"I did." Crichton was looking everywhere but at Aeryn. "It looked good on you. But—you should be true to who you really are. We all should. That's what matters, in the long run. If we're going to be happy. If…" He stuttered to a stop.
"Is that what you want?" Aeryn could have been angry or afraid; it was hard to tell which.
Crichton lifted his gaze to meet hers, looking directly at her for, Chiana realized, the first time in days. Weeks, maybe. There was so much need on his face that it hurt to see it.
Then the comms coughed into life, Pilot's voice breaking the silence. "Commander Crichton. Officer Sun. Scorpius is asking if he can now leave the lower tiers."
Neither of them moved or answered for a long moment, and then Crichton shook himself. "Not yet. We've still got visitors on board. Tell him they should be gone in a couple of arns and he can have the run of the ship then."
"Very well, Commander."
Aeryn was still looking at Crichton. "Is that what you want?" she repeated.
He looked back at her, his expression now bitter. "It doesn't matter what I want." Quite deliberately, he put his hands behind his back, as if not trusting himself to keep them under control, before he wheeled around and strode away.
Aeryn turned and watched him go. Chiana didn't think Aeryn knew how to cry, but she looked as close to tears as Chiana had ever seen her.
Chiana stepped up close and touched her arm. "He'll come around. Trust me. I may have frelled up my own love life, but I know men. Whatever's gotten his shivvies in a twist, there's no power in the universe is gonna keep him away from you in the end. Sure as up is up and down is down. Well," she shot a doubtful look at the ceiling and laughed, "when there aren't any Troubled people around…."