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Once upon a time there was a boy named John.

And John was an astronaut.

Not that he thought of himself that way anymore. When he remembered to think at all he saw himself as a father, or a husband or a friend. Sometimes, in his mind, he was a monster; the mythical kind who swallowed worlds.

And John doesn't want to live in a story.

Right now, John was thinking of his stomach and the huge bowling ball that sat in the pit of it refusing to budge. He hadn't slept and that was nothing to do with the toddler taking up all the space in his bunk every damn night. It was mainly to do with the fact that today, soon... in the next few arns... Aeryn was coming home.

"Pilot?" he called out as he headed toward the central chamber with little D'Argo balanced on his hip, "any news yet?"

"No, commander." came the weary reply, "there has been no communication from Officer Sun since you last asked. Perhaps you should wait more than 500 microts between inquiries?"

John hated being separated from Aeryn; it was like missing a limb and, while he would never admit it even to himself, he found it hard to shake the deep, deep fear she would never come back. Most of the time he kept a lid on it, but now she was due home his ability to control the rolling boil of separation anxiety was failing. Badly.

"You must relax, Crichton," Noranti bustled around the galley as he entered, tending to big black bubbling pots of witches brew. John settled the baby into his DRD constructed highchair, sat at the counter and leant on his elbows; balled up fist pressed against his eyes.

"Yeah, yeah, I know," he mumbled, "I'm just... not good at relaxing."

"Aeryn shouldn’t have to come home to you clinging to her like moss on the mountain; it's not fair on her," she paused, giving him a kindly smile and hooking a wrinkled finger in his direction, "and you must teach your child good lessons too."

John didn't respond; there wasn't really any point. The old woman's advice was always annoying; mainly because it usually had a kernel of truth in it.

Noranti danced away across the room, picking up a jars of things and throwing handfuls of stuff into a cauldron of something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike chicken broth. John took a deep breath and shook his head, trying to shake away some of the tension, and turned to the gurning baby at his side.

"Hey little buddy," he said, tying on a big cloth bib, "are you looking forward to seeing your Momma? We missed her didn't we?"

The boy grinned and smacked his lips, more interested in the food that the bib represented than the less immediate and practical promise of Mommy.

"Where is everyone?"

"They've already eaten. Here," Noranti plonked a big bowl of not-chicken soup in front of them both and handed John two spoons, "eat this... it will ease your tension and leave you refreshed and regenerated for when Aeryn comes home."

John smiled a small grateful smile and began to eat. D'Argo cheerfully used his spoon to smear the yellow liquid everywhere; occasionally some went into his mouth.

"Actually," John said around a mouthful of slightly sour and celery-salty broth, "this isn't completely disgusting!"

"My food is never disgusting," protested the old woman, "you simply lack the sophisticated palette to appreciate it."

John rolled his eyes, but continued to eat with a grin. He felt himself relax; the food warmed from the inside and the hearty nourishing fare lifted his spirits just enough to loosen the knot in his stomach. But as he ate an uneasy feeling stole over him. Something wasn't quite right; a familiarity he couldn't place. The taste and smell of the broth made him think, for some strange reason, of Louisiana.

"What's in this anyway," he asked, daring to ask what most of Moya's inhabitants had learnt to avoid over the cycles, "it tastes kinda familiar."

"Ah, well, I am particularly proud of this one. I made it especially for this occasion; I used a good dash of Traxan light flower for resilience and its extraordinary regenerative properties--it doesn't look too impressive here." She indicated a potted plant with wide leaves like a banana tree, "but it can grow to vast sizes in the vacuum of space you know. Most remarkable. My people use it to preserve fruit and vegetables for years."

"Impressive." said John, impressed.

"And, of course," Noranti continued, "a healthy handful of onlux for its calming effects."

"Onlux. Onlux?" John said rolling the word around his mouth, trying to identify its familiar tang, "wait...clorium! You brought clorium onto a Leviathan!"

"Oh do relax Crichton. It is a restorative herb you have nothing to worry about." Noranti waved an airy hand at him.

John stood up and wagged an accusatory finger, "you don't decide what I worry about!"

"Of course!" Noranti smiled beatifically and wiped the baby before picking him up and handing him to John, "the little one needs his nap and you should rest and await the return of your beautiful bride."

John frowned at her; he wanted to agree and strangle the wicked old witch at the same time. Situation normal. D'Argo yawned, rubbed a small fist against his eye and John yawned in sympathy.

"I'm gonna put D down for his nap," he said as he headed for the doorway, "this isn't over. You cannot bring bring clor--"

"Yes, yes! You do what you need to do," Noranti patted his arm and wandered away; he heard her muttering, "you always do."

Once inside his quarters John laid little D'Argo, already half asleep, on their bunk and lay down next to him. He curled his body around the little boy in a warm embrace that never failed to send him off to sleep. John eyes drooped and pretty soon the soft sound of snoring filled the chamber.
 

 

***


Back in the galley Noranti bustled about the kitchen tidying up. She tipped the remaining soup from the pot into Moya's waste funnel and sat at the counter with a wide yawn.

"Clorium," she thought as she nodded off, "whoever heard of such nonsense?"
 

 

***


Slowly, like water drawn through a flower stem, the dregs of soup were drawn through Moya's system. Its enhanced herbal properties spreading through the great ship's metabolism like premium grade heroin. Soon there was silence across the ship as her crew fell into the deep sleep of the undead. The DRDs ceased their busy scuttle and Pilot's ever moving, never resting arms fell still.

Moya, utterly alone for the first time in a long time, panicked. And in her panic she did the only thing she knew...

She Starburst.

And then sleep took her too.
 

 

***


Once upon a time there was a girl named Aeryn.

And Aeryn was a soldier.

That's what she was born to be and, when everything around her failed, that's where she retreated to survive.
 

 

***


Sibtain the eighth, Deputy Chief of Hynerian Royal Security, smirked to himself as he entered Dominar Rygel's audience chamber. He hurried toward the dais where Dominar Rygel the 16th sat in his throne sled talking expansively to the Peacekeeper Female who, in contrast to her usual stern expression, spoke back with a small smile and a look of faint amusement.

Insolent woman.

Sibtain despised the Peacekeeper, who had served as the Dominar's Chief of security for almost fifty cycles. Her lack of submission, failure to pay the proper respects to his excellency and her casual disregard of the forms and rules of Hynerian Society were insufferable. But no matter, today's ceremony confirming the Dominar's succession was the most important in a generation and today he had the chance prove her to be the unreliable traitor he knew she was.

"Your eminence!" called Sibtain as he approached, sweeping into a deep grovelling brow. The Dominar peered at him and smiled in gratification at his subject's show of submission.

"Ah, Sibtain, good to see you... I was just telling Officer Sun about our--"

"Excuse me sir," Sibtain said, interrupting at his peril, "I have important news."

"Yes yes," Dominar Rygel waved an airy hand, "deliver your news."

"A leviathan has been spotted in the Corisan sector... our scout reports it is drifting in space." Sibtain glanced at the PK and was gratified by the sight of her sudden sharp interest.

"A leviathan," she breathed and Sibtain nodded to her.

"I know you were once searching for such a beast so I thought I should bring to your attention soonest." Sibtain smiled as he continued, "our intelligence says it is mostly likely female. Bronze colouring."

"I could be them," the woman whispered.

"It's such a shame," Sibtain said in an oozing voice, "with the great ceremony coming up we can't afford to have our chief of security away from the empire."

"I'll have to prepare the prowler."

"The security of your Royal person must of course take precedence to any foolish quests."

"How long will it take?" asked the Dominar.

"I can leave within the next solar day."

It dawned on Sibtain that no-one was listening to him, “is anybody listening? You can’t leave. The empire is relying on you. Have you no loyalty?”

Two heads swiveled toward him and graced him with the blankest of looks for several long microts and then, without a word, turned back toward each other.

“It’s probably not them,” she said.

“But it could be.”

“Yes.”

“Go. If it’s them; bring them home.”

The woman nodded once and stalked out of the room without a backward glance.

“Your eminence… you cannot seriously let—”

“Sibtain...” The Dominar cut him off, “shut up.”
 

 

***


For most of her long journey to the Corisan sector Aeryn told herself it was another false alarm. Another call to a dead or abandoned or just plain free levaithan. There had been dozens over the cycles. However, even though she knew her hopes would most likely be shattered, she flew with her heart in her mouth at the thought that this time, maybe, it might be Moya.

When the ship came into view she held her breath, eyes scanning the body of the drifting ship. Not willing to believe. Not willing to dismiss. She noted the telltale piercing scars around the hull; this Leviathan had once worn a control collar, that meant nothing, but when she flew close the sight of a wide black scar marring the belly of the ship dew an involuntary noise from Aeryn's lips.

This was Moya.

She stared for a long time, unthinking, at the ship as it drifted before her.

This was Moya.

And now she would have to find out what happened to her family.

A seed of terror germinated in her belly as she flew into the hanger. She’d never given up hope that one day she would see John and D’Argo again, but she’d never acknowledged what that would actually mean after all these cycles.

The automated docking guides were offline so she maneuvered her prowler to the docking bay and set down next to John's module. Her ship rang excited warnings at her of the low, barely life sustaining, atmosphere outside until she pulled on her EV helmet and fastened it to her flight suit. She climbed out and walked to the module. It looked the same as it always did; a battle scarred bucket of dren. Obviously it hadn’t been used for a very, very long time; a light layer of greasy fudge had accumulated over the surface that John had always kept shiny and clean.

The hanger door didn’t open automatically so Aeryn overrode the control panel and stood back as the door drew open. She gasped in surprise.

Winding vegetation covered the entire chamber; wide luxurious green-blue leaves grew from thick rope-like branches draped from ceiling struts and spiraling suckers snaked across the floor. Aeryn took a deep breath, pulled her combat knife from her boot and began to cut her way through the jungle; heading towards the door of the maintenance bay.

Once in Moya’s passageway she had to decide. Her heart willed her towards her quarters, but most likely she would find nothing there. It was clear that no one had been along these passageways for cycles.

John and D’Argo were gone. It was what it was.

With a firm nod to herself Aeryn cut her way towards Pilot’s den. If Pilot was alive she would find out what happened and if he wasn’t she knew the commands that would pull the information from Moya. One way or another at least she would know.

 

***


The door to Pilot’s den swung open and Aeryn was relieved to see that the strange plant hadn’t colonised the vast chamber. The walkway was clear of vegetation and looking down into the abyss Aeryn saw only a few thick vines swinging from the levels below. The pathway looked well worn and covered in thin DRD tracks, un-obscured by the lack of bipedal footfall.

Pilot was enthroned in his nest; his large carapace dipped, body slumped against the console and his arms lying still across the controls. In the well below him thick winding vines wrapped tight around Pilot’s body.

“Pilot?” Aeryn said, running a gentle hand over the great head of her old friend, “Pilot, can you hear me?”

There was no response. She climbed into the nest, careful not to disturb Pilot, and surveyed the controls. Old memories slid into place and Aeryn pressed a sequence she’d seen pilot do a hundred times before; bringing the ship's life support back up to the correct level for her passengers. When the atmospheric levels reached a comfortable level Aeryn removed her helmet and took a deep breath.

It didn’t smell like Moya, there was a sharp sweet tang to the air, like the chewy-gun John had tried to get her to eat on Earth. Aeryn didn’t like that and she didn't like this.

She climbed down into the well below Pilot and began to pull at the tendrils, destroying their stranglehold on her friend.

Movement startled her.

Aeryn looked upward at the den above where Pilot stirred groggily. She grinned with relief and climbed up to him.

“Pilot?” she said softly, “are you all right?”

“Officer Sun?” came the reply in a thin and shaky voice, “I did not see you arrive. Welcome home. How was your trip?”

“How… was… my…” Aeryn repeated in incredulity.

“Trip...” finished Pilot, confusion clouding his words.

“How long do you think I have been gone?”

“You trip was scheduled for three weekens, but extended for another two. Commander Crichton was most aggrieved!”

“Five weekens? Pilot, it has been fifty cycles.” Aeryn’s voice cracked, “I returned and you were gone. You were all gone.”

The Pilot frowned and shook his head. He checked his console with heavy limbs, as if it unused to the movement's, “this, this makes no sense.”

“Where is my family?” Aeryn snapped, she was losing her patience, “What happened to John and D’Argo?”

“My last report they were heading to their quarters for little D’Argos nap time.”

“Nap time?” Aeryn whispered and looked around, eyes wide with disbelief.

Little lights on the walkway caught her eye. Aeryn peered down to find the little red, white and blue body of 1812 staring, such as a DRD could, at her.

She climbed out of Pilot's nest and walked toward the DRD.

“Take me to them,” she said.
 

 

***


The journey to their quarters was easier than the journey to the den. The vines hadn’t colonised the route the DRD led her on except in a few places. Aeryn hacked through whenever she needed, but the vines were easily pulled away in most areas. She wasn't quite prepared, therefore, when only a very short while later they arrived at her quarters.

The familiarity of it hit her like a pulse blast to the heart. The vines wound around the perimeter of the room, filling it with its overly sweet scent, but had encroached little further.

A path about the width of a DRD led to their sleeping platform. 1812 beeped and scurried toward the bed, clearing any vines that came close. Aeryn suspected the little DRD had been doing this for cycles because on the bed, lying together in peaceful vine-free slumber, were her boys.

She approached with slow steps. Breathless, unwilling to believe what she was seeing.

D’Argo was wrapped in a gold thermal blanket, a chunk of it balled in his little fist, which he’d pulled to his mouth to chew. John lay next to him, dressed in his usual t-shirt and leathers, curled around their son in a protective embrace. He still had his boots on. They looked just as they did the last time she saw them.

Aeryn knelt beside the bed reached out with a shaking hand, but she drew back; terrified to touch. Instead she watched them for a long time until, biting down hard on her bottom lip, she decided there was only one thing to do.

It would be either hello or goodbye.

She leant forward and pressed soft kisses first to D'Argo's forehead and then to John's lips.

“Ngghghgh!” came the response.

“John!” Aeryn squealed with quiet urgency, “John, you're alive!”

“Yeah, I'm alive. And I’m trying to nap here.” John said and swung his arm up to rub at his forehead, “damn, feel like I’ve been sleeping forever.”

“Yes," said Aeryn, “I think you have.”

She crawled on to the bed and pulled her son into her arms. He stirred and mewled and Aeryn's eyes stung as they filled with water.

“Hey, you’re back… how was you trip? Tell me everything."

"There's a lot to tell."

"Then let me go to the bathroom first," John bent down for a kiss, "you were gone too long you know?”

“I was,” said Aeryn, “I really was.”



And they lived happily ever after.


Except for the old woman... who very nearly got shoved out of an airlock.


THE END