John caught a glimpse of Aeryn when the overseers dragged them both out of the building and toward a large enclosed area near the back of the estate. He tried to build up enough strength to fight them, but it made little to no difference. He was too exhausted from being zapped twice.

Aeryn saw him, but made no move to reach him. She glanced at him while two overgrown gorillas took her toward a different section of the estate. John figured that they kept males and females apart and that raised the first smoky fingers of panic in him. Having to face this ordeal alone was not his idea of fun. At least with Aeryn by his side, he stood a chance of getting through this in one piece.

The overseers dragged him into an enclosure and dropped him on the dusty ground and then left again. He pushed himself up on his hands and knees and glanced back at the heavy gate as it fell into lock. "Shit," he muttered and struggled weakly back to his feet.

He closed his eyes for a moment to regain his equilibrium and then finally glanced around. There were about twenty-odd men sitting around under a roof that rimmed three walls of the enclosure, all of them watching him. A few were aliens of some kind, but most were at least Sebacean-looking. John wondered briefly if any of them were ex-Peacekeepers, but figured it made no difference. The majority of them looked haggard and worn, some were downright skinny, and none of them looked like they were willing to put up much of a fight.

With a halfhearted sigh, he walked over to a free spot under the roof. He settled down on the ground with his back to the wall, pulled his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. This was, in every sense, the worst that could have happened. And if Aeryn was pissed at him, he didn't blame her. With a light sigh, he rested his chin on his knees and closed his eyes.

"You a Peacekeeper?"

John jerked, raised his head and glanced at his neighbor, a big lug of a man who looked like he could singlehandedly drill his way out of here just by using his fists. "No," he said.

The guy nodded once and frowned lightly. "It's just ... you look familiar," he said.

Alarm bells went off in the back of John's mind immediately. The last thing he needed right now was to be recognized. Being infamous had its definite drawbacks. "I've just got one of those faces," he replied and hoped his tone was standoffish enough to make the guy back off.

Fortunately, that seemed to be the case because the big guy had nothing further to add. He looked away and went back to minding his own business. John didn't allow himself to sigh, but instead settled himself more comfortably and closed his eyes again. He needed to regain his strength before he did anything further.

***

In the neighboring enclosure, Aeryn stood in the middle of the miniature arena and glanced around at the females held there while she rubbed her left wrist pensively. Most of the females gave her a brief glance and then returned to their doings, which appeared to consist mainly of sitting around and doing nothing with a look of despair on their faces.

Aeryn was ticked off enough as it were and didn't feel like being subjected to the added aggravation it was to have to deal with incompetent females. She noted that one part of the wall under the roof was clear and headed straight for it and settled down on three blankets that seemed to belong to nobody. Across the way by the other wall, one of the females had a male with her. He was lying on the ground, his head resting in her lap, and he seemed to have trouble breathing. He was painfully thin and Aeryn assumed he didn't have long to live.

"Not much for company, are you?"

That voice came out of nowhere and Aeryn attributed it to her suppressed upbringing that she did not jump. She turned her head and eyed the elderly female who had snuck up to her. "No, I'm not," she countered angrily and shifted sideways away from the female, who didn't get the point. She followed.

"Being alone in a place like this is not desirable," she said, her eyes on the gates to the enclosure.

Aeryn glanced at her with a frown. "Frell off," she finally said and pushed back against the wall. "I don't frelling care how long you've been here. I make my own experiences and I don't need frelling advice from someone like you."

The woman eyed her for a moment and then grinned. "Ex-Peacekeeper, eh?" she asked and chuckled. "I can hear the resentment in your voice. Think you're better than us, do you?" She pulled back a little, obviously weary of a backlash, but kept on smiling even though her smile had turned a little sour now. "Well, you're one of us now, Miss high and mighty Peacekeeper. You better get used to that."

Aeryn bared her teeth in a feral display, her eyes narrowed. "Watch what you say around me, tralk. I'm in no mood for your dren."

Intimidation, it seemed, worked well around here. The old female pulled back and returned to her place. But she scowled at Aeryn all the time.

Aeryn made a face and returned her attention to the empty center of the enclosure. "I should have fought harder," she muttered under her breath and felt like kicking something.

***

The following day

John woke up with a start because the collar zapped him. It was a very brief activation, but it was definitely not his favorite way of waking up. Grumbling under his breath, he rolled onto his back away from the wall and stopped short. The memories of the previous day's ordeal washed over him and he sat up with a start and sent a look around. For the briefest of moments, he had thought it had all been a horrible nightmare. As it turned out, he was living the nightmare.

"Shit," he muttered. The other males were in motion, all of them getting up and moving out into the center of the estate.

The big guy who had spoken to him the day before glanced his way and motioned for him to follow suit. When he made no move to do that, the guy glanced fearfully toward the gates and moved closer to John. "You have to get up. If you're not out here when they come to get us, you're in for a lot of pain," he said quietly.

John eyed him, made a face and stayed put. "No way am I jumping when they snap their fingers," he growled, pulled his knees up and folded his arms on top of them.

Just then, the gates swung open and six overseers came in. They spread out and seemed to inspect the slaves. Then one of them focused on John. "Get up," he said, his tone almost bored.

"Screw you," John countered and refused to move.

The overseer sighed, raised a small box and pushed the button. The effect was instantaneous. The electricity ripped through him with enough force to make his teeth creak with the pressure of his cramping jaw muscles while the attack spilled him onto the ground in a full-blown cramp.

The onslaught lasted a brief second, but it was long enough to make him gasp for breath once it stopped again. With some effort, he managed to get up on his hands and knees and groaned halfheartedly.

"Get up," the overseer repeated.

John raised his head and spat on the ground before looking up at the man. "Get stuffed," he rasped.

The overseer made a face and pushed the button again, which sent John sprawling in the dust once more. He couldn't even voice his pain, though. Every single muscle in his body seemed to contract at the same time and he knew that if this kept up, he would break something.

And then the attack stopped again. Gasping for breath once more, John remained on the ground for a few heartbeats while he tried to regain some of his composure before he laboriously pushed himself up on his hands and knees again. It took strength he wasn't sure he had, but he was not going to give in. They would have to kill him first.

Defiantly, he raised his head again and gave the overseer an angry glare.

"Get up," the overseer repeated in the same dull tone of voice.

"Make me," John countered hoarsely.

The overseer eyed him for a moment and turned the box toward the other slaves. "Get up or they will suffer for your obstinacy."

John glanced at the group of men who were huddled together like frightened children. That threat put a different spin on things. He was most inclined to continue opposing the overseer's command, but he wasn't happy about getting others in trouble just to prove a point.

Assuming that he would have plenty of time to show these bastards what he was made of, he climbed to his feet and held shaky hands up. "All right already," he grumbled.

On legs that fell like Jell-O, he made his way over to the group, but refrained from looking at any of them. Fate would have it that he ended up next to the big guy, who gave him a grateful nod.

"Thanks. They're not kidding, you know," he whispered.

John made a face. "Neither am I," he replied and drew in a deep breath. "So, what happens now?" He figured he could use a friend in this dump and this guy, even though he appeared to be severely intimidated, would probably be his best bet if he was going to try and break out. John glanced at him and took in a few of his characteristics, like the fact that he had hands like dinner plates and his pecks looked like they belonged on Popeye. Mentally, he dubbed him Popeye for the time being.

"The mines," Popeye said as they started walking toward the gates in a cluster. "We mine for theeben gas pockets in the mountains."

John glanced toward the distant mountains with a frown. "That sounds dangerous," he replied and sent a cautious glance toward the gates of the other enclosure Aeryn had been taken to when they cleared the gates.

"It is," Popeye admitted. "But it doesn't matter to them. We're expendable. We're only males. The ones that get sold off to potential buyers are the females. Unless a female buyer turns up. It happens, but rarely."

"The females get sold?" John asked before he could think about what he was saying. That was what it meant to be a slave, wasn't it? He felt a little panicky at the idea, though. What if these bastards managed to sell Aeryn off before he could get to her? Or she to him, for that matter.

"Of course. They're the fertile ones," Popeye said. "Exposed long enough to theeben gas and you'll lose your virility. In the long run, it kills you. It gets into your lungs, makes it hard to breathe."

"Yeah, okay, fine, I get the point, Popeye," John counted a little aggressively. He didn't want to know what the long-term effects of this crap was going to be because he didn't intend to stay that long.

Popeye frowned a little, but said nothing further. John trudged along and thought of a million ways he could get out of there. But none of them would do, because he wasn't going to leave without Aeryn. With a glance back at the enclosure, he sighed quietly. 'Hang in there, babe. We'll find a way out,' he thought.

They were loaded into a vehicle that allowed no view of the outside and were shipped off to the mines. This little joke had lost its novelty very quickly and it was slowly beginning to sink in that maybe, just maybe, they were in more shit than they could handle. Whatever the outcome, John vowed he would do his utmost to remedy this situation. After all, he was the one who had facilitated their rather abrupt change in lifestyle.

***

Aeryn's first day at the slavers estate was sedate and mind-numbingly boring. She spent the first part of the day trailing around the enclosure, inspecting the walls and the gates, while she scowled at anyone who dared to come near her.

She was in no mood to be sociable. All she did was look for a way out. And frell them if they thought they could keep her here. One thing she would have to do was build up a resistance to the collar's influence. She had yet to be subjected to its particular brand of torture, but she remembered only too well how the Nebari collar had worked.

If she could build up a resistance to what she considered to be an electrically charged collar, she would be in business. If they couldn't hurt her, they couldn't stop her. Determined to do just that, she turned her attention to her fellow inmates. Try as she might, she could not bring herself to think of herself as a slave. Inmate was better. Inmate was less demeaning.

She spent another few arns studying the females surrounding her. The one with the dying male continued to ignore everybody else and tended to the failing creature on her lap as best she could. Aeryn hunkered down close to the gates and watched her. There was nothing else to do.

As the sun climbed higher in the sky, the temperatures rose uncomfortably and Aeryn withdrew to the shelter of the roof, where she hunkered down with her back to the wall. She continued to watch the enclosure, the females around her, and she listened to the sounds from outside, what little there was of that.

She wished she was back on Moya, away from this drenheap of a world, and could not wrap her mind around why John would yearn for a world like this, all while a small voice in the back of her head kept insisting that this wasn't John's dream. He was always talking about green fields, blue sky and metras of water. With a sneer, she glanced toward the opposite wall, which was one of the things that kept them apart at the moment, and briefly allowed herself to think of how he might be doing. There were no sounds from over there, not a single one, and she found it hard to believe that John had avoided antagonizing anyone yet. For some reason, his still gentle nature always brought out the worst in people.

With a shake of the head, she returned her attention to her immediate surroundings. John could fend for himself. But, for the love of Cholok, if they hurt him she was going to take them all apart with her bare hands.

***

In the mines

The mine had turned out to be one big cliché. At first, John thought that the fact that he was standing in a mine shaft, a shackle around his right ankle, a collar around his neck, while he was hacking away at a stone wall with a pickaxe of all things was rather hilarious. There was something so utterly unreal about this situation that he had stopped short and uttered a mumbled 'You have got to be kidding me' when he had first laid eyes on the mine entrance. But at the end of the day, the fun had gone out of it.

If it hadn't been for the overly hairy male standing a little further along in the same situation, John would have been able to believe that he was on Earth and had somehow been transported back in time. But he wasn't and he hadn't and something about that thought made him furious. Whether it was anger at himself for getting into this insanity in the first place or just general anger at the disregard for other people's rights and welfare he didn't know and it didn't really matter either. He was just plain furious.

The air in the shaft was horrible. It was thick with dust and after a while, breathing had started to become a problem. He felt like coughing all the time. To keep his mind off that as well as this predicament he had managed to get not only himself into, but Aeryn as well, he put his back into the work and generally managed to produce a rather hefty indent in the wall by the time a siren sounded.

He was sweating profusely and his pecks were shivering lightly when he lowered the pickaxe and glanced around with a frown.

"Work's over," the hairy dude rasped and dropped his tool.

John followed suit and after a moment of total stillness, one of the overseers came to release them of their bonds so they could all shuffle back to the transport that would ship them back to the slavers estate.

The outside air hit him like a blast when he stepped off the levelriser and the need to cough became stronger still. He cleared his throat a few times, then gave up on it and started coughing instead.

Several of the other males, including Popeye, were in the same situation, all of them coughing, all of them looking tired and worn. John watched them as they climbed aboard and briefly wondered if this was his fate if he didn't get out of here. But he squashed that thought immediately. The last thing he needed right now was to lose hope. Without hope, he had nothing and that was just not acceptable.

Fate had it that he ended up sitting beside Popeye, who looked like someone had tried to suck the life out of him with a straw. "You okay?" he asked and almost cringed inside. He just couldn't help worrying about others, even if he was in a similar situation himself.

Popeye gave him a tired glance and nodded. "I'm okay," he agreed hoarsely and eyed John for a moment. "Looks like you put a lot of effort into the work there."

"Yeah," John agreed and leaned back against the unyielding wall of the transport. "I've got a few issues to work through."
Popeye arched an eyebrow. "Did it help?" he asked.

John thought about that for a moment, then shook his head lightly. "No. The only thing that'll help is if I get out of here," he replied and sighed.

"Not much chance of that, friend," Popeye countered sadly. "This is the end of the line for us. If the mines don't kill us, the overseers eventually will."

"That's a bright outlook on life," John replied sarcastically. "Why don't you guys stand up to them?" he asked and glanced around at the others. "It's not like they can do much if you all go at them at once. Get to the guy who has the control box and you're home free."

None of the others even glanced at him and Popeye merely sighed. "They all have control boxes," he said and slumped back against the wall himself. "Besides, I thought you'd realized by now that they can bring us down easily. Some of these males here," he continued and made a sweeping gesture toward the others, "won't survive another punishment and the rest of us are not too fond of the pain these collars inflict." He paused and smiled vaguely. "I used to be like you," he added. "I used to have hope. I used to think I could get out. But I couldn't."

"Not if you gave up trying, no," John agreed and was actually a little surprised by the aggressiveness in his own tone. "Look, you can't just give up. That's why these morons can enslave people in the first place. Because others are afraid of them."

Popeye's smile widened a little. "Give it up, friend. Even if you should manage to get out of the mine or off the estate, you still can't get rid of the collar. And it would bring you down instantly if you go outside the perimeter of the estate. There is no way out unless you get bought by someone. And for us males, that's highly unlikely," he said.

John took that under advisement and remained quiet for the rest of the trip. What could he, after all, say to that?

***

A few days later

The days passed and Aeryn's existence did not change much. They were all fed two foodcubes per day, one in the morning and one at night, and a maximum of four cups of water, which was hardly enough to sustain them.

How any of the females were still alive at this point was a mystery to her, but essentially she did not really care either. She knew that to survive, she would have to be tough and could not afford to make friends in this place. None of the females surrounding her had seemingly been Peacekeepers, which made her the toughest among them.

Knowing that she was the toughest did not make her life any easier, though. But what really annoyed her was that she was separated from John. First and foremost, she wasn't halfway done telling him what she thought of this stunt. Secondly, she knew how unhappy he was on his own.

"Fekkik," she grumbled under her breath and mostly felt like yelling it loud enough for him to hear her. But until she knew exactly where she stood with these drannits running this place, she wouldn't aggravate the situation by being foolish.

"Still not feeling sociable?"

She turned her head and scowled at the old female, who for some reason seemed set on making friends with her; or whatever the frell she was after. "No," she countered. "Go away," she added and returned to staring ahead of herself.

The old female lingered for a microt or two, then sighed audibly as if Aeryn was being an unreasonable child and scurried off again.

She scowled up at the roofs across from where she was sitting and wished herself away. Wishing wouldn't make it happen, though, so she had to come up with a plan.

Restless to the extreme, she fingered the collar around her neck, turning it dench by dench in a subconscious search for flaws. She stopped moving when her fingers found the spot where the collar had been welded shut. There was a crack in it. Whether it was there because the overseers hadn't welded it shut completely or because the welding hadn't taken properly she didn't know. Whatever it was, it gave her an idea. She would have to think carefully about how she did this, of course, but she felt much better now that she had an obvious plan.

***

In the mines

Mines! He could honestly say that after having been stuck up to his elbows in this shit for the past weeks that he did not, nor ever would understand the need for slave labor. These people out here, they were technology-savvy. What the hell did they need menial labor for?

Although exhaustion had already taken its toll on his arms, shoulders and neck, he swung the pickaxe like there was no tomorrow and hammered his way through the rock like a madman. He was paying the prize for his aggravation every morning when he woke up on the hard ground and could barely move, but once he got moving, he could not stop himself from going bonkers on the rocky wall he was being pushed to work on every day. It was his only means of letting off some steam. Anything else would earn him much more pain than he could stomach at the moment.

The first few days had worn his stamina thin. For every inch he had fought them, they had taken an inch out of his strength. By the fourth day, he'd barely been able to get up after they had zapped him. Granted, he had taken his obstinacy too far and the punishment had lasted far longer than the others, but still. He was appalled that he was not stronger than this.

With a grunt and a huff he came to a stop, sweat literally pouring off him by the buckets. He rested his trembling arms for a moment, then wiped the back of one hand over his brow and grimaced helplessly at the sensation of grit smearing over his skin.

"Get back to work!"

The overseer had turned up out of nowhere and as usual kept his distance so John couldn't get to him while holding up the control box for the collar. John made a face in anger and frustration, raised the pickaxe again and imagined driving it into the overseer's skull as he brought it down extra hard on the wall. A big chunk of rock chipped off and hit the ground in front of his feet.

The impact raised a billow of dust and John started coughing hard while the already faint light became fainter still as the Theeben dust rose around him. Although he could not control the already rattling cough this damned dust caused, he had learned one lesson very quickly. Once the dust rose, he had to remain absolutely still until it settled again. Otherwise it would choke him to death.

Fortunately the overseers knew and respected this as well, so he was not being punished for not getting back to work at once. As soon as the dust had settled again and John had regained control over his heaving lungs, he returned to the demeaning task of hacking away on the wall. The overseer had left the moment the dust had started rising. His throat and mouth felt coated with the dust and he worriedly thought about what this might be doing to him in the long run.

Over the course of the few weeks he had been in confinement, his voice had gone hoarse and he spoke only when he had to. Speaking was painful at the moment. Popeye, his big neighbor, claimed the pain would pass, that his throat would adjust to the dust, but he didn't want to adjust to it. He wanted out more than he'd ever wanted anything in his life. And he wanted to take Aeryn with him.

Despite his currently bad condition, he couldn't help grinning. The likelihood that Aeryn was the one freeing him was quite a bit higher. She was the tough one, after all; the soldier. He was just a scientist.

His anger at the situation rose another notch and he once again put his back into upping the quota of what he was supposed to be doing during the half day labor in the mines. By the time the siren sounded, he was past exhausted, but still he remained on his feet and did his best to ignore the burning in his muscles. He dropped the pickaxe and waited for the overseer to come and release him from the ankle-shackles, which were attached to the ground, so he could shuffle back to the transport with the others.

Popeye glanced at him as they walked side-by-side to the levelriser, but for once the big guy had nothing to say about John's obvious exhaustion. The others said nothing either, but John was already used to that. Popeye was the latest addition before John had been added to the mix. If the other males' condition and behavior was anything to go by, the future was not very bright. Not bright at all.

***

The slavers estate

When the tall gates to the enclosure opened, Aeryn looked up with a frown. The gates had not opened since she had been thrown in here and as she had no wish to communicate with any of the other females, she knew next to nothing about what went on in this place apart from the obvious.
Three overseers came in and stopped in the middle of the enclosure while looking around. Then they started pointing at individual females, who got up and shuffled out into the sunlight in a small huddle.

Aeryn watched with a frown until one of the overseers pointed at her. She knew she was supposed to follow suit, do as the others did, but she was not inclined to do so without a little prompting, so she remained hunkered down on the dusty ground and stared at the overseer with a dark look.

"Get up and join the others," the overseer demanded.

"Frell you," Aeryn countered indifferently and held his gaze without flinching.

He raised a little box. Aeryn eyed it for a microt, then looked him in the eye again. "Get up and join the others," he repeated.

Aeryn stared at him and did not feel the need to repeat her denial. He would get the idea when she didn't get up. She would probably pay for it too, but she was not going to go quietly.

The overseer zapped her just briefly enough for it to hurt like hezmana, but not long enough for her to lose her footing. She did not voice her pain and that obviously upset the overseer, who zapped her again, this time longer. The attack sent her sprawling and it did nothing to improve on her constantly hostile mood. Once the collar let off again, she pushed herself up on her hands and knees and rose back to her feet like an avenging spirit with fire in her eyes and the intention to give this overseer a taste of his own medicine.

But she didn't get very far. She had barely taken one step towards him before he pressed the button on the control box again and flattened her in a microt. It was only when one of the others stopped him that he released the button again.

"Fekkik. You're not supposed to kill the merchandise," the other overseer snapped and backhanded him across the face. His control box went flying and landed on the ground right in front of Aeryn.

With a trembling hand, she reached out for it and snatched it just before the second overseer turned toward her. "Can you walk?" he demanded. He did not ask because he was concerned about her. He probably asked because he was concerned about the head-overseer's opinion about this.

Aeryn pushed herself back up on her feet with the utmost resilience and nodded mutely and curtly in reply to his question.

"Good. Then join the others and stop making a fuss. One way or another, you will be introduced to this buyer. And we don't much care if you're on your feet or not," the overseer said.

Aeryn scowled at him, but walked over to the other females with as straight a back as she could muster. These frellniks were not going to get her down. Not now, not ever.