Four cycles earlier

Weak and without hope, Aeryn took her time to get better. As long as the embryo inside her was still in stasis, it was protected from her body's weakness. She was not so much worried about the child she carried as she was about her own state of mind. It was hard for her to find anything to hold onto apart from that tiny seed within her.

The guilt was eating her alive, but she would never confess to it nor think about it in any conscious way. She knew it was there, but she had neither the stamina nor the wish to deal with it. Most of her recovery she spent focusing inward on the memories of touches, kisses, a certain laugh, a smile here, a quirky remark there. What it came down to in the end was that life felt unbearable without him. She had grown used to his difference and the fact that he was there whenever she needed him. Hezmana, she missed him.

In a sense she hoped the child she carried was male and looked like its father. It would not be the same, but it would be a consolation, to be able to look into those unfathomable eyes and feel him near her.

Three monans it had taken her to regain her composure and her strength, but during that time her determination to have the pregnancy released never wavered. D'Argo was concerned, but also understood. Chiana was looking forward to the child, but missed its father terribly. Rygel was the same as always. Pilot and Moya were looking forward to new life on board and Zitta had promised to help.

Aeryn sat quietly in the galley, her elbows resting on the table top, her hands covering her face, while she tried to block out sounds and feelings with little success.

"Are you certain you want to do this?" D'Argo sounded as concerned as the first time he had asked this question and considering that he had asked it about a thousand times by now, that was a bit of an accomplishment.

Aeryn spread her fingers and looked at him across the table. "Yes, D'Argo," she said into her palms. "I am as certain now as I was when you first asked me."

He nodded, as he had done all the other times she had replied in the affirmative, and the look of concern remained. "Aeryn ..." he tried, but she stopped him by letting her hands drop.

"No, D'Argo," she said and rose. "I do not wish to discuss this further. I have made up my mind. I want to have the pregnancy released. Right now. So either you take me there like you promised or I will go alone."

He rose abruptly and Aeryn had no doubt that the bench would have tipped over if it hadn't been anchored to the floor. "No, I promised I would take you there and I will. I just want you to be certain."

"You have asked me countless times, D'Argo, and I have responded the same ... countless times. How many times do you need to hear the same answer before you believe me?" she demanded, then stopped herself before she could say something that might damage their friendship.

"I do believe you, Aeryn. That's not the point. And I do understand why you would choose this. But think about it for a microt. This really is not the time and place to have a young one," he said, having stated this same reason before.

"I know that, D'Argo. But this," she said and placed a hand on her perfectly flat belly, "is the only thing I have left of the male I love. I want this child like I have wanted nothing else in my life. I need to know that he lives on in this life I'm carrying."

D'Argo eyed her for a moment and then sighed heavily, finally admitting defeat. "All right," he agreed. "I'll go heat up the pod. We leave in half an arn," he added, turned around and strode out.

Aeryn watched him go for a moment and then settled back down on the bench.

"He may not be gone, you know."

With a frown, Aeryn glanced over at the door and saw Zitta standing there, her arms crossed over her chest, her head leaning a little to the left. "What?" she asked.

"John Crichton," Zitta said. She was one of the few onboard who actually mentioned him by name these days. "He may not be dead," she repeated, walked over to the table and settled down on the bench across from Aeryn.

Her statement made Aeryn experience sensations she had never had in combination before. She felt hot and cold, elated and scared to death at the same time. "What are you talking about?" she asked a little brusquely.

Zitta shrugged lightly. "Think about it. Veeton had started having the visions. He said he saw horrible things. But they disappeared again after we left the carrier. And the marauder? It was dead when we left the carrier, but revived after it was away from the carrier's influence."

The implications of Zitta's words made Aeryn consider options she hadn't thought of before, but then she shook her head in denial. "No, that's not possible," she said, dismissing the idea before it could take root.

"I'm just suggesting options," Zitta said with a vague smile. "You better go join D'Argo if you want to go through with this pregnancy. Just rest assured that I will be at your disposal at any time. I owe you my freedom and I adore children."

Aeryn managed a tired smile. "You've said so before," she confirmed, "and I appreciate it." With that she rose, stepped over the bench and headed toward the door. Almost there, she hesitated and glanced back at the green Delvian. "I'm happy you're here, Zitta. You keep my hope alive," she added.

Zitta merely smiled a reassuring smile and Aeryn was briefly reminded of Zhaan. Oh, how she missed her. But Zitta's presence was a comfort in these trying times and Aeryn had meant what she said. Zitta's words, however odd they might be sometimes, kept her hope that things would get better alive.


The Present

With her daughter on her lap and nothing but silence surrounding them, Aeryn sat and thought of the past, of the decisions she had made, the promises she had kept and those she had broken, and felt the unending need to cry her eyes out. Ayla had been a dear addition to her everyday existence for the main reason that she had generally saved her mother's life just by being born.

Aeryn held her tight and pressed her lips against the girl's hair while inhaling the clear, clean scent of a child. How any Sebacean could live without this was beyond her. Peacekeepers had to be insane to deprive others of this undiluted pleasure of holding your own flesh and blood in your arms like this.

But she also understood why soldiers could not have their children around. She lived in constant terror of something bad happening to this little being in her arms. She had distanced herself from Ayla to a certain point because she was afraid of losing her heart if anything should ever happen to her daughter. But she had also learned that no matter how much she distanced herself, no matter how much she relied on her former training to subdue her emotions, she would never stop loving her daughter and fearing that harm may come to her.

After a while, she put Ayla down again and gently caressed her face. "Go find Zitta or Chiana, Ayla. And promise me you'll stay away from the lower levels," she said and rose. "D'Argo and I have to go for supplies now."

Ayla nodded once and remained while Aeryn got the few things together she felt she needed to bring. She bent down and pecked Ayla on the cheek, looked deeply into her eyes for a moment and then left.


Ayla watched her mother go with the general turmoil she always felt when she did not have her mother's undivided attention. Promises were made easily. Her mother was not going to be around for a few arns and both auntie Chiana and Zitta were both busy with other things.

Ayla sighed as only children could and pressed her lips together into a thin line. For a moment she was undecided about her next course of action, but then she decided to go in search of her doll and find something to do that did not disturb the others.

She hurried to her quarters, found the doll uncle D'Argo had brought her from one supply trip and with it firmly hugged to her chest, she started walking, fiddling with the doll's stringy hair. Ayla liked to walk when she had nothing else to do and there were lots of places and long corridors to go to on momma Moya. She smiled wistfully to herself and reached a hand out to touch the walls. Pilot had told her all about Moya, about what she was and how much she loved all her children and Ayla felt comforted and secure in the belly of this giant mother who watched over her.

When her own mother had little sense for her because she was so sad, Ayla went for long walks or went to see Pilot, who always welcomed her and asked her to stay. Pilot always had time for her. But today her feet carried her in other directions and before she knew where she was heading, she found herself on the lower levels where she had explicitly been told not to go.

Ayla stopped and glanced around the corridor. It was leading toward the rear to a cluster of cells, the last on this level. Her eyes caught on a little yellow shadow hiding between two of the ribs and knew that both Pilot and Moya knew she was here. But they wouldn't tell the others. They never told on her.

With another glance toward the DRD following her, Ayla continued along the corridor, curious and a little afraid of this being that had hurt her mother. She rounded the corner and the cells came into view. Although she did not spot him immediately, she could smell him at this distance and wrinkled her nose in distaste.

But she continued onward and stopped at the latticework to peer into the cell. He was curled up on the floor in the far corner, arms around himself, head turned so he was facing the wall. Ayla tilted her head to the right and watched him thoughtfully for awhile. He didn't move, just sat there, and Ayla figured he either didn't or couldn't talk.

She pursed her lips in contemplation and glanced around the cell. It was bare and cold and it worried her a little. Why had he not been given a blanket at least? He looked like he was cold, the way he was huddled up. She glanced over at the cell across the way and saw the folded up blanket lying on the bed there. Perhaps she should just go in and give it to him?

The decision made, she propped her doll on the floor against the latticework and hurried into the opposite cell to get the blanket. But the door of the occupied cell would not open when she tried the controls. With her brow knitted in concentration, she tried to think of what to do and then decided that she would just have to give it to him through the bars.

"Hello?" she tried. He made no move to reply or even look at her. "Are you cold?" she asked and circled around the cell to where her doll was. She picked it up on the way and continued along the wall until she was as close to him as she could get. "I have a blanket for you," she said and held it up for him to see. But he still did not respond or move.

Ayla considered what to do and then sighed. Instead of trying to talk to him more, she sat down on the floor and started braiding her doll's hair. She liked to try different hairdos on it like aunty Chiana sometimes did on her. Engrossed in what she was doing, she began to hum a little song Chiana had taught her. The Nebari had made her promise that she would not sing the words, but only hum the tune when she was around others. It was a special song that only she and Chiana shared.

So she hummed it while playing with her doll.


Hell had many faces, many scenes to confuse the weary mind, and John was not falling for any of them. He had seen them all, felt them all, and his soul ached with the agony of each and every one of them.

He had long since passed the line where he wanted to die. Death was not an option when you were in Hell. With his eyes closed and his arms wrapped around his head, he tried to block out the sounds which would turn dangerous and painful after a while. He had heard Aeryn's voice so many times and so many times she had turned into the burned bitch, cackling at him like a mad crone while she hurt him, flayed him, ripped his mind apart.

His terror-riddled mind was slow to realize that there was a difference here, but slowly, oh-so-slowly, something pushed its way through the terror and made him stop dead in his mental tracks. Someone was singing. It was a racy song, but the tone and voice were innocent. Innocense did not fit in Hell. There was no innocense in Hell.

Blinking sluggishly, afraid to move, he managed to raise his head a little and shifted his arm away from his ear. The sound came through more clearly. Someone was definitely singing, the voice of a child; a young child.

Slowly, he turned his head and raised it a little more. This place looked familiar, but familiar scenes were the most dangerous ones. They lulled him into the belief that he was free, that he was safe, and then they tore him apart with talons and teeth.

It slowly registered on him that this scene had remained sedate for longer than he would have expected. Time had no meaning, of course, but every scene eventually turned ugly. Yet this had not.

With a slight frown that caused him sudden and excruciating pain, he scanned the area slowly, meticulously, in search of the source of the sound. He was scared to death at finding out what lay behind that seemingly innocent voice singing a racy song, but he needed to know. Something in him forced him to search for the source even though it may be a demon with the voice of a child.

His gaze caught on the shape sitting on the other side of the latticework, unmoving except for the steady movement of hands braiding a doll's off-colored hair. He watched in mute fascination while his vision and mind became clearer.

A child? There were no children in Hell. There were demons with child voices, but no children. And that was a child, a little girl, not that old from what he could tell. And she was singing and playing with a doll. Would she be doing that if this was Hell?

He glanced around the area again, his movements sluggish, his mind spinning with possibilities. He moved his lips, chapped and broken, but could not make a sound. With an inhuman effort, he shifted around, got up on his hands and knees and slowly made his way toward the latticework where the child kept on singing and playing with her doll.

She couldn't be real. He would not accept her reality. But her voice was so soothing, her innocense like a beacon in a pitch black night. She was an angel among demons and he felt drawn to her like nothing he had ever felt before. Laboriously, he made his way over to her and settled stiffly against the latticework so he could see her. He leaned the side of his head against the bars and closed his eyes so he could listen to her sing. Her voice was balm on an open wound and all he wanted to do was just sit there and drift away on the dulcet tones of this little angel.


Ayla suddenly became aware that the male in the cell had moved and she stopped singing the song auntie Chiana had taught her and looked in at him. She eyed him for a moment as he sat there on the other side of the bars, his head resting against the latticework, his eyes closed.

When she stopped singing, his lids opened and he stared out at her for a moment as if he expected her to do something bad. Ayla frowned at him and then wrinkled her nose. He didn't smell much better this close up. But her initial concern for whether he was cold or not was at the forefront of her mind.

"Are you cold?" she asked. He just stared at her. Ayla pursed her lips, glanced down at the blanket she had retrieved, and then back up at him. Then she grabbed the blanket, unfolded it and started feeding it through the latticework.

He hesitated, didn't move for a moment, but then he grabbed the blanket with a slightly shivering hand and started pulling at it. Ayla released it and smiled vaguely when he continued to pull it in. Awkwardly, he pulled it up over one shoulder and shuddered.

Since he didn't seem to want to talk, Ayla decided to ignore him for now and returned her attention to her doll with its half-finished hairdo. She contemplated what to do, then undid the braid she had started and tried something new. After a moment, she resumed her singing too.


On the transport pod

Aeryn sat quietly on her seat and stared ahead of herself. She and D'Argo had found and bought what they needed in record time and were on their way back to Moya within half a solarday of leaving. They had spoken little because whenever they spoke, they ended up having a verbal fight about whether John should be put out of his misery or not.

Aeryn did not want to discuss it and D'Argo would not let it go. So they mostly remained silent. At least until D'Argo felt he had to have his say once again.

"Aeryn," he started.

"I don't want to discuss it," she cut him off.

"We need to discuss this," he insisted.

"No, we don't," she disagreed. "There's nothing to discuss. I am giving him four monans and if he doesn't come around before then, you're free to do whatever you want. But for now, he remains where he is. He deserves a chance. You cannot expect him to heal from one day to the next."

"I do not expect him to," D'Argo said sadly. "But, Aeryn, even if he is no longer ... a zombie, as you call it, he is dangerous, which he has proven by attacking you. His mind must have been damaged. How will he ever become even remotely normal again after having spent four frelling cycles on that carrier?"

"How will he ever be able to overcome this if you don't give him the chance?" she shot back, angry now. "Just leave him be for now. Forget he's there. Leave him to me."

"It's cruel, Aeryn. John would not want to live like this," D'Argo argued.

She turned towards him, livid with unresolved tension. "I know that you cannot reconcile yourself with what he has gone through, D'Argo," she snapped, "but John is mentally strong. If he wasn't, he would have cracked in the Aurora Chair cycles ago. But he did not. He did not crack under that frelling neural tracer chip either. He survived. That's what he does. He's a survivor. He will return to me."

To her immediate surprise, D'Argo did not look angry or upset. He eyed her with sadness and pity and it made her stop anything further she wanted to say. "Don't you understand why you are doing this?" he asked. "Aeryn, I know what you feel. I know the guilt that is eating you. I felt the same when Lo'Lann died. If I could have brought her back in any way, I would have. But it would have been wrong. And it would have hurt me more than her death did." He reached a hand out and placed it lightly on her arm. "Don't you see what this is doing to you, Aeryn? You're not keeping him alive for his sake. You're keeping him alive for yours. You cannot forgive yourself for leaving him behind and you believe that keeping him alive with absolve your guilt. But you are only intensifying your pain and you are being cruel to him."

For the longest of moments all she could do was stare at him. Then the truth of his words slowly seeped through to her and she felt her eyes well up with tears. Abruptly, she turned her face away to hide the treacherous tears and pressed the back of one hand against her lips to stifle the overwhelming flood of emotions washing through her.

"You know I'm right, Aeryn," D'Argo said, having seen her final understanding. "You have to let him go. There is nothing you can do for him anymore."

"I can't," she rasped and clapped her palm over her mouth to stop her need to scream.

"Yes, you can. You're strong, Aeryn, and you have a very powerful reminder of John with you at all times. You have his child. Let that be enough and let him go. Be kind to him one last time. Let him find peace in your hands," D'Argo said, his tone compassionate and kind.

For another few heartbeats, Aeryn tried to deny the inevitable, but then finally nodded. She let her hand drop away and inhaled deeply. "You're right," she consented.

"It's for the best, Aeryn," D'Argo agreed. "I'm sure Zitta can come up with something that will make it quick and painless."

Aeryn nodded again and closed her eyes. "I'm sure she can," she agreed and then glanced at the Luxan. "I needed him to be there so much, D'Argo," she added, admitting to her weakness. "I need him still."

"I know," D'Argo agreed. "And you will feel like that for awhile to come. Just remember him at his best and see him live through his child. That is all you can do."

She swallowed hard and smoothed both hands over her hair, pressing it flat against her skull. "I know," she sighed. "I know. I just ... need some time. Just a little more time."


Back on Moya

The view from the terrace was spectacular in every sense. A dirt-brown moon hung lifeless and cold in space so near, Aeryn felt she could reach out and touch it. The habitable world of this system hung further back, more blue than any other world she had seen so far. She watched the system expand before her and tried to put her thoughts in order. Although her mind was made up, the implementation of the inevitable task was what caused her severe doubt and heartache.

With her arms folded over her chest and the stunning vista of this system before her, she thought of all the reasons why she should not go down there right now, press the muzzle of her pulse pistol against the back of his head, and pull the frelling trigger. There were thousands of reasons for not doing it and only one reason she could think of that would justify this action. And that one reason overruled all the others, because in the end D'Argo was right. It was cruel to keep the formerly vibrant and levelheaded human alive this way.

She pursed her lips in deep concentration and tried to make herself move. It struck her as slightly ironic that she would have done this for him in a heartbeat seven cycles ago, but now she could not bring herself to bestow this mercy on him. D'Argo had suggested that he do it instead, that he should take this burden off her already weighed-down shoulders, but Aeryn had refused him. It was her ineffectiveness that had brought John to this and so she would be the one to end it as well.

Her heart felt heavy in her chest as she gazed out at the stunning vista and contemplated the death of her lover. Essentially, he had died over four cycles ago, hadn't he? His mind was a mess now, his sense gone. And why? Because he had wandered around a freezing ghost of a comand carrier for four cycles? How did that make sense? If the mind had vacated the body, would it not mean that the body could not sustain itself? Shouldn't he have died on his own then? She had watched him eat while his eyes had still been white. So whatever it was that he had become, it knew enough to sustain itself. Did that not mean that there had to be some kind of activity going on behind his bruised and injured brow?

Was she kidding herself into believing that he could become normal again? Was there normal after this obvious Hezmana he had experienced for the past four cycles? Would he ever be able to forgive her for leaving him behind?

She almost laughed out loud at those thoughts. They were far-fetched at best, wishful thinking, dreams that would never come true. D'Argo was right. This was no way for John to live.

Her right hand slipped down onto the butt of her pulse pistol and she closed her eyes briefly. 'Do it now, you silly female, before your regret can get the better of you', she scolded herself mentally.

Determined to do things right, she swirled around and strode back into Moya to find her lover and put an end to his suffering. She loved him too much to allow him to go on living like this.


Ayla wrinkled her nose in distaste and glanced it at the male in the cell. "You smell," she stated. He blinked sluggishly, but did not reply. She scrunched up her face for a microt, but then remembered that there was a supply cabinet on each cell level. She glanced in at the male again and pursed her lips while a plan took shape inside her head. If he would not do something about that smell, she would have to.

Without further ado she rose, then hesitated as she looked down at her doll for a moment. Then she held it out to him, holding it so that its head poked through the bars. "Here. You can hold it until I get back,'" she told him firmly.

His eyes shifted to the doll and then back to her face. Then he grabbed the doll and pulled it into the cell.

Ayla hurried over to the supply cabinet and retrieved some towels and a bowl. With a bit of an effort, she carried it all back to where she had just been sitting and dropped the towels there before moving on to the water dispenser at the rear of the corridor.

She filled the bowl halfway with water and precariously carried it back to the male. Some of the water sloshed over the side, but most of it was still in the bowl when she finally managed to set it down on the floor.

With a heartfelt sigh, she sat down close to the latticework and eyed the bowl for a moment before turning her attention back to the male in the cell. He was holding her doll loosely in one hand. She grabbed one towel, dipped one end in the water and wrung it out as best she could. Then she reached through the bars, intent on starting on his face, which was covered with muck.

The microt the wet towel touched his face, he jerked and grabbed her lower arm, pulling her hand away from his face. Ayla frowned at him. His response didn't scare her, but it did make her a little impatient. "Don't be silly," she said sternly. "It's only water."

His eyes shifted from her face to the towel and back again, but then he released her arm and allowed her to start wiping the muck off his face. Ayla did this the same way she did everything. She was meticulous and careful while she rubbed on his cheeks and his nose, and she was pleased with the result.

The towel ended up being too dirty, so she discarded it and picked up a fresh one. The water in the bowl was beginning to look a little murky by that time, but Ayla didn't pay any attention to that. Instead, she got up on her knees to reach further and started cleaning his neck.

As the muck came away, she became aware of that some of it covered wounds. He had cuts in his skin, some of them ragged, some of them clean, and Ayla's overactive intelligence started drawing parallels to other wounds she had seen. Uncle D'Argo had cut his hand once on a ragged piece of metal and the wound had looked like some of the ones on this male; those with the ragged edges.

"You're hurt," she stated and then focused on his brow. There was a deep gash in the skin. She wasn't sure what she was supposed to do with that. She remembered aunty Chi telling her that open wounds should never be cleaned with water, but with a cleaning solution they had in the med bay.

She made a mental note of finding out which one the cleaning solution was so she could bring it down here and help this male feel better. She sat down again and eyed him thoughtfully, then reached a hand out. "Give me your hand," she ordered in a non-nonsense tone of voice.

He stared at her for a moment, then very slowly stuck his hand out through the bars. Her doll now lay forgotten on the floor between his legs. Ayla started cleaning his hand, meticulously wiping muck off his skin. She scrubbed vigorously on his fingernails, but couldn't clean them completely and gave up on them to continue her cleaning operation on the other hand and all the way up to his elbows, discarding used towels in-between and starting over with fresh ones.