Zith'ila
Commerce planet
Two weekens later

The sky was blue, the air fresh and the market place full of commotion and happy chatter. Not for the first time did Aeryn consider it a waste of her talents that she, for some reason that was yet unclear to her, had been elected chief supply runner. Whenever they ran out of food, and she was beginning to think that it was a little too often these days, she was the one asked to pick up more. That she usually dragged more or less the whole crew with her on such expeditions was beyond the point.

As Moya and her crew were about to head out into uninhabited space to get away from any lingering threat there might be to John, they needed to stock plenty of food. And preferably things that would keep. Aeryn sighed heavily and made a face at the fact that her foot continued to be sore while she glanced around the market place. This was not the place to find such massive quantities of food. She needed to find a supplier, some type of food outlet where they could order large amounts of whatever kept the longest.

"Food cubes."

She glanced at John, who was standing beside her, watching the commotion with his arms crossed over his chest. "What?" she asked.

"Shouldn't we get some food cubes? They don't have an expiration date," he replied and glanced at her.

"Expiration date?" she asked with a frown.

"Yeah, you know. They can keep forever," he explained.

"So can you if I put you in a freezer," she replied. "That doesn't mean I want to eat you."

He gave her an overbearing look. "I was just making a suggestion," he defended his idea. "You want something that keeps. Heaven only knows how long we're going to be out there. Food cubes sounds like a good idea."

"A good idea, yes, but tell me honestly, John. Do you really want to be eating food cubes for perhaps a whole cycle?" she asked and barely prevented herself from smirking at the startled look he gave her. "I mean, I for one would love to avoid hunger pangs again, but food cubes ... they're almost as bad as those dentics you tried to fry once."

He made a face at the memory. "Well, at least I tried to come up with something," he grumbled. "So, what do you have in mind? What else is there apart from food cubes?"

"Synth-pressed food," she replied and sighed. "Very good and far too expensive for us. Unfortunately."

"Synth-pressed food?" he asked. "What is that?"

"Synthetic food pressed and dried. You add a little water, put it in the heater and have a delicious meal within microts. Nourishing, too. We just can't afford that. Not in the quantities we need it," she explained. "I suppose we'll have to stick with food cubes. It's better than nothing at least."

"You just had to go and tell me that, didn't you? You couldn't just say, hey, good idea, John, let's buy some food cubes. No, you just had to tell me that there's something better out there and then whisk it away again," he complained. "What can we afford, then? Enough to get us by for a cycle?"

"Barely. We have to be real careful about it if it's going to last that long," she replied, ever practical when it came to such issues. "We can't know how long we'll be out there. Not many travel beyond this point. These may be the uncharted territories, but what lies beyond ... it's outside of the galaxy, too. There might not even be any stars out there to navigate by."

"All I need is a tall ship and star to steer her by," John muttered. "Maybe we should just skip the idea and leave it be?" he then asked, turning toward her.

"Oh, that's a good idea, John. Maybe we'll run into some friendly Peacekeepers who'll show us the way home, then," Aeryn replied and made a face.

"Are you two fighting again?" D'Argo's voice boomed from behind them. They both turned to face him. "If you are, stop it. You're attracting attention," he added, nodding toward some nosy bystanders watching them.

"We are not fighting. We are have a discussion," Aeryn replied somewhat sharply. "Any luck?"

"Not yet. The only thing Chiana has come up with are crackers. I for one will live happily for the rest of my life if I never see another cracker again," D'Argo replied, looking around in search of something they could use.

"Me too," John agreed. "What about Jool? Has she found anything?" he asked on and glanced around for the elusive Interion female. "Where is she anyway?"

"Around," D'Argo growled and made a face. "I heard her screech at something a few microts ago."

John's expression darkened. "Did it ever occur to you that she might be in trouble?" he asked, a little annoyed that D'Argo would brush that off so easily.

"She wasn't in any trouble, John. She screeched because someone accidentally dumped some critter on her. You know what she's like. Any little thing and she's melting metal," the Luxan replied, annoyance in his voice.

"Oh, okay," John replied, a tad uncertain about that. Jool did have a tendency to scream at nothing, so he figured D'Argo was right. Especially since the Luxan had obviously witnessed it. "So, what now?"

"We continue to look for a place where we can get big quantities of durable food. And I suggest we split up to do so," Aeryn replied. "The sooner we get off this rock, the better."

"Agreed," D'Argo consented.

"Let's meet back here in an arn. That should be time enough to take a look around," Aeryn said and then turned her attention solely to John. "And you. Stay out of trouble."

"What? I haven't done anything," he said with a dismissive shrug.

"No, not yet. If you see anything that might make you want take the high road, as you say, get out of here. Get back to the pod and stay there. You hear me?" she admonished him.

John made a face, then nodded. "Sure, baby," he replied.

They split up then and wandered in separate directions. John tapped his com to make sure he was still in touch with the others. "Aeryn?"

"What?" came her immediate reply.

"Just making sure you can hear me," he replied with a grin.

"When can I not?" she asked, a smile in her voice. "Stay in touch."

"Will do. Later, baby," he said and grinned again when he heard the rather irritated sigh from D'Argo's end.

Strolling on, he looked around with just enough zeal to pretend to be interested. He'd had a bad night, one that Aeryn for once hadn't noticed, and he couldn't for the life of him understand why he was obsessing about Scorpius and the prize on his head when nobody had made a move on him for a bit. Well, he did have a general idea about why Scorpius might want him back, but he still couldn't fit all the pieces together. And that, in and off itself, annoyed him.

He stopped briefly to inspect something which had caught his attention, but moved on again after only a few microts, in search of something other than food. He couldn't really decipher what it might be, though. It was just a constant buzzing in the back of his head, an annoying sound just low enough to not be heard but felt instead.

"John."

He sighed heavily and continued walking, attempting to ignore that voice in his head. "Not a good time, Harv," he muttered.

"With you, there never is a good time, is there, John?" Harvey asked.

John could virtually hear him chuckle at this little joke of his and he sneered, more annoyed than ever over this remnant still buzzing in his brain. 'Get lost. Take a hike. Take a long walk of a short pier. Just leave me alone. I'm not in the mood, Harv,' he thought, not wanting to seem more crazy than normal by talking out loud to someone who wasn't there. 'I'm gonna force you back into that dumpster again if you don't leave me alone right now,' he added and grinned at his own thoughts.

"Oh, John. Don't be so childish. For once, I might have something interesting to say. Care to hear it?" Harvey asked.

'Nope,' John thought back at him, starting to feel a little strained.

"Of course you do," Harvey argued. "You know you haven't slept well the past many nights. I know you haven't. Care to know why?"

'Because you're bugging me all the time. Scram, leatherboy. I'm not interested,' John thought and made a face. This was beginning to become a real strain. He didn't seem able to control the neural clone as well as he had before. Probably because he was tired. 'Correct that,' he thought to himself. 'I'm exhausted. Not much concentration left. Takes more than this to keep him subdued.'

"That's right, Johnny. You're exhausted. You don't sleep well because you keep dreaming of Scorpius and what he might do to you, don't you? Because you know that he will get you in the end. That it doesn't matter how far outside the galaxy you and your friends go, he will still find you," Harvey said.

"Shut up," he hissed, then quickly glanced around to see if anyone had noticed. One of the shop keepers gave him a curious look and he decided to take this mental disturbance elsewhere. Ducking into an alley, he walked briskly away from the market place, searching for an undisturbed corner where he could focus on putting Harvey to bed for the day.

Rounding another corner, he came to a stop, glanced either way and found himself in a deserted corner of the city they were in. Leaning back against the wall of one of the buildings, he closed his eyes and tried to pull himself together. It wasn't a good idea if he cracked up now. Not while they were in a possibly hostile environment. He would have to wait until he got back on Moya.

Considering his options, he wondered if he shouldn't ask D'Argo to knock him out. Or ask Jool to find something among Zhaan's leftover herbs which would put him to sleep for a few days. At least he would be rested when he woke up again.

"And you really believe that forced sleep would shut me up?" Harvey asked and chuckled again.

"Leave me alone, Harvey. I don't care what you think is so important. Just leave me the hell alone. I don't need your help to crack up. I'm doing just fine all on my own," he snapped and rubbed his brow with the heel of one hand in utter frustration. "Get back where you belong. Shoo fly, you bother me," he added and grinned helplessly at the metaphor. "That's really all you are, Harv. A gnat. A damned little bloodsucker, buzzing around in my brain. One of these days, I'm gonna get you. And when I do, I'm gonna slap you silly and bury you for good."

"Bury me? You can't kill me. I'm a part of you," Harvey claimed, not sounding overtly concerned about that threat.

"No, you are not," John disagreed, not failing to see the crazy humor in the fact that he was talking to himself. He chuckled joylessly. "You are not a part of me. I'm me and you're you. That's the way it's always been and that is the way it will always stay. Now, frell off before I make you." With one hand covering his burning eyes, he dropped his head and tried to relax, to regain his composure so he could go back to the others.

Static suddenly erupted from his comlink. "John?"

He didn't raise his head, just merely stood there and tried to get his act back together before answering. Then he tapped the comlink, activating it. "Yeah, baby, what's up?"

"Where are you?"

Aeryn's voice sounded tense. She was worried about something. "In an alley. I'm on my way back," he replied.

"Stay where you are," Aeryn replied. "There are Peacekeepers all over the place. Can you get back to the pod from where you are without coming back to the market place?"

John glanced either way, not really sure of where exactly he was in relation to the pod, then nodded. "Yeah, I think so," he said and pushed away from the wall. "I'll meet you there in a few," he added and turned to continue down the alley he had slipped into.

Before he could take even one step, though, he froze to the spot. Five Peacekeepers, their weapons drawn, were coming toward him. They had just entered the alley at the furthest end and were about a hundred metras away from him. "Damn," he hissed and started to turn to head back the way he'd come. But that way was blocked as well by four more Peacekeepers, who had just rounded the corner, effectively cutting him off.

Looking either way, he tried desperately to come up with a plan, to find a way out of this, but realized he was totally and utterly stuck. There wasn't a door in sight and the buildings were far too tall for him to even consider an ascent. Besides, they were made of some type of smooth, metallic material, which would give him nothing to hold onto. "Aeryn, I've got a problem," he said.

"What is it?" Aeryn's voice sounded from the comlink.

"I'm sort of cornered here," he replied, nervous like hell now.

"Where are you? We're coming for you," the reply came instantly, a new tinge to her voice that he recognized as fear.

"No, baby, don't. You won't stand a chance," he replied, suddenly totally calm. "D'Argo, get her out of here. Now," he added and reached for his pulse pistol.

"We're coming," the Luxan's voice sounded. "Can you keep them away from you for a few more microts?"

John glanced either way again, his sudden calmness a little disturbing even to him. "No, I can't. Get out of here," he then replied.

"Drop your weapon," one of the Peacekeepers yelled. "You've got nowhere to go. Drop it."

Making a face, John leaned back against the wall again. "Frell you," he replied and drew his gun. Before he had even had a chance to bring it up, the Peacekeeper had fired and the shot hit his shoulder, knocking him down. The funny thing about that shot was that it didn't hurt. It paralyzed him instantly, spilling him to the ground with a thud. He was fully aware of what happened for another few microts before the lights went out. And the last thing he heard was Aeryn yelling his name through the comlink.

***

Aeryn rounded the corner, gun drawn, ready to shoot anything that moved, and found yet another empty alley. "FRELL," she snapped and started running down that alley toward the next intersection, dragging her still sore foot. The injury was hampering her, slowing her down, and she hissed in aggravation, remembering that John had repeatedly told her to stay off it to let it heal. She had ignored his advice and only now realized for real what it meant. "JOHN?" she yelled, then came to a skittering halt as her eyes caught on something on the ground. Taking a step back, she raised her own gun to her shoulder and stared down at the pulse pistol lying there.

Slowly, she squatted down and picked it up. It gave her an electric shock, weak enough to not hurt, but strong enough to make her hand jerk. "Stun rifles," she muttered and rose again, her eyes never leaving the weapon. "They didn't kill him."

Turning her attention back toward the alley ahead of her, she frowned darkly. Then she holstered his gun and moved on, searching for signs, knowing she wouldn't find him. She was too late, hampered by an injury that wouldn't heal because she hadn't allowed it to. An injury she could thank Rygel for.

Peacekeeper efficiency had taken John away from her and she hated them even more than she had before. Making a silent vow that she would damned well hunt Scorpius down and kill him herself, she decided to go back and find D'Argo, Chiana and the others so they could get back to Moya and take up pursuit. There was no way she would leave John in Peacekeeper hands for any longer than absolutely necessary. Cholok only knew what they would do to him this time around.

On her way back, she ran into D'Argo. "Where are they?" he demanded.

"Gone," Aeryn replied darkly and held up John's pulse pistol. "And they got him too," she added, a sinister look in her eyes.

"Are you certain? He might just have dropped it in an effort to get away," D'Argo tried, sounding almost hopeful.

"You know how attached he is to this frelling pulse pistol," she replied almost angrily. "John doesn't go anywhere without Winona. They've got him. I was too slow. My frelling foot slowed me down. We have to get back to the pod and take up pursuit."

D'Argo's expression had darkened considerably. "And how do you suggest we do that, Aeryn?" he asked. "Moya can't keep up with a Command Carrier."

"She's going to have to try. I will not lose him, no matter what," she snarled and walked briskly back to where the pod was waiting for them, not caring that she was hurting herself with every step she took. The pain kept her alert, on her toes. She needed the distraction to keep from thinking about what might be happening to her lover at this very moment.

***

Scorpius' Command Carrier
Above Zith'ila

Lt. Braca stood tall, his hands clasped behind his back, a satisfied expression on his face, when his men brought back John Crichton. The two soldiers dragging the stunned human came to a stop in front of him and Braca just stared at him for a moment.

"Well, Crichton. It seems our paths cross again," he said and couldn't help smiling a little. "Scorpius will be pleased."

John laboriously raised his head, finding it almost impossible to move, and gave Braca what could pass for an angry look. "I bet he will be," he agreed, his voice a little slurred from the aftereffects of the stun-shot. "What does he want from me now?"

Braca didn't as much as blink. "What he wants with you is his business and his alone," he replied.

"Always the good little soldier, eh, Braca? Ever consider thinking for yourself?" John asked and grinned weakly when Braca's expression turned tense.

"I do as I'm told," Braca said, sounding annoyed. "If you had done that too, you might have been able to avoid all this. Obstinance is futile." Waving at the guards, Braca took a step back. "Put him in a cell. One of the less crowded ones."

The only thing that was futile in John's opinion, was talking to the likes of Braca. The man would not see reason. The only thing that mattered to him was reaching the top of Peacekeeper ranks.

The soldiers dragged him into the detention area of the Command Carrier and tossed him into a cell, slamming the door on him.

John hit the floor and barely avoided slamming his face against it too. That stun-shot had drained his strength completely. All he felt was a tingling sensation in all his limbs and a fatigue which made him feel almost sick to his stomach. For a long moment, he stayed where he was, not moving, his brow resting against his hands. Then he slowly raised his head to take a look around the cell. Braca had said they should put him in one of the less crowded ones, which meant he wasn't alone.

The only other occupant was a young female sitting against the far wall, watching him. She looked Sebacean expect for her eyes, which were sulphur yellow with star-shaped pupils, which expanded and contracted constantly. He stared at her for a second, then struggled up on his hands and knees and dragged himself away from the door. Huddling into the opposite corner from her, he managed to sit up, braced by the two walls. There was one good thing about all this, he figured. At least the others had gotten away.

"Braca is a frelling idiot, isn't he?"

He looked up to stare at his female cell mate and blinked sluggishly. "Yeah," he agreed with a slight sigh. "You could say that."

She remained where she was, watching him intently. "You're not Sebacean, are you?" she asked after a moment.

"What does it matter?" he wanted to know, leaned his head back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Neither are you."

"Well, I'm half, anyway," she replied and chuckled. "What's your name?"

"John," he muttered, wishing she would stop talking to him. He wanted to sleep, wanted to regain some of his composure before he met Scorpius. If he knew that half-breed right, he would need all his strength for the encounter.

"What does Scorpius want with you?" she asked on.

Opening his eyes, he stared ahead of himself for second, then glanced over at her. "I don't know. What does he want with anyone?" he replied. "Look, would you mind shutting up? I'm exhausted."

She merely stared back at him and said nothing at all.

He took that as a consent and closed his eyes again, wishing himself away. Whatever Scorpius had in mind, he was certain he wouldn't get through it without pain. He figured he could take a lot of abuse, but if Scorpius insisted on sticking him in that chair again, he would do what he could to make one of those guards slip up and kill him. Anything would be better than having to go through that inhumane torment again.

The sudden sense of a hand on his brow made him jerk. Since he had cornered himself, though, he couldn't jerk away from it. Opening his eyes, he stared in surprise at his female cell mate, who had managed to settle down beside him and even touch him without him noticing it. "Jeez, don't do that," he exclaimed weakly. "You're gonna give me a heart attack."

"Sorry," she replied, a small smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. "You don't look so good. Did they hit you with a stun pistol?" she asked.

For a moment, he wasn't sure he could trust her, but then he figured it didn't matter a whole lot if he could or couldn't. He didn't really have anything to hide when it came down to it. "I don't know. I guess so. They shot me," he replied.

"Stun rifle, then," she said with a nod. "They sure know how to deplete people, don't they?" she asked and made a face. "And all in the name of that disgusting half-breed. I thought Scarrans were bad. But Scorpius makes my teeth hurt."

That actually made him grin. It was good to share this blasted cell with someone who wasn't afraid to make fun of Scorpius. "Yeah, he's a mouthful, isn't he?" he agreed.

That made her frown. "A mouthful?" she asked, then shook her head. "No matter. One of these days, he will meet his destiny. I'd be happy to be the one to bestow it on him."

"Na-ah," John said. "He's mine."

That made her smile. Her lips parted a little, exposing pointed teeth behind them. "We'll share," she suggested.

He wasn't entirely certain what race she was supposed to be, but he couldn't help liking her. There was something about her that gave him hope. Maybe it was her total lack of respect for their captor, he thought. "Okay. I'll go with that," he agreed. "So, how long will it take before we get where we're going?"

"A few arns. No more than that. This bucket has been modified to suit Scorpius' impatient nature," she replied. "Scarrans aren't known for patience, you know. And Scorpius is half Scarran. Big disadvantage there."

"Well, he apparently thinks it isn't," he replied and closed his eyes again. He felt bad already and he didn't want to know how he would feel after Scorpius had put him through the wringer.

"Shows you how much he knows. Which is squat. That little twit would never have been able to worm his way into Peacekeeper ranks if it hadn't been for the fact that he could supply information about a Scarran dreadnaught heading into Peacekeeper territories," she said, a thoughtful look on her face. "One of these days," she added, then glanced at her cell mate. "You'd better get some rest. If Scorpius is as eager to get his hands on you as it seems, you need your strength." She regarded him thoughtfully. "You can't rest while sitting up," she continued and moved aside a little, grabbed his shoulder and pulled him down on her lap. "There. That's better," she said.

Under normal circumstance, he would have opposed this, but he just didn't feel up to it. He felt incredibly weak and knew that any rest was better than none. And she was right. He could relax more easily while lying down. Instead of replying, he closed his eyes and allowed himself to drift off.

***

He awoke with a start when his cell mate shook him awake. "Time to get up, John. We're there," she said quietly.

He sat up, finding that however long he had slept had given him back some mobility. "Thanks for the warning," he replied, turning his attention to the door when it opened.

For some reason, the female scurried away from him, virtually slamming into the opposite corner, a strange look in her eyes. She didn't look scared, more annoyed.

Scorpius stepped in, glancing at her. "Kia. What an unexpected surprise," he said, his expression neither friendly nor hostile. He seemed rather indifferent to her.

"Frell you," she replied heatedly. "You're in over your head this time, half-breed."

Scorpius sighed and shook his head with what appeared to be a sad expression on his face. "You have so much potential and you just insist on squandering it away, don't you?" he asked. "Too bad, really. Your mother will pick you up soon. We have already sent a message to her where you are."

"Good. At least I won't have to look at your ugly face any more," Kia spat, pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around them. "Why don't you go play in a galactic intersection? With a little luck, you'd get hit by a Scarran dreadnaught," she added viciously.

John found it almost impossible not to smirk at her obvious lack of respect. That was rare indeed. But the smile faded the second Scorpius turned his attention to him.

"John," he said, hands clasped in front of him. "I am pleased to see you again."

"The pleasure is all yours," John replied. He didn't bother to get up. Mainly because he felt that his legs were yet too unsteady to carry his weight, but also because he couldn't be bothered.

"Well, there is no time like the present," Scorpius said and stepped aside to let two guards enter. "Bring him," he told them.

They grabbed John and hauled him to his feet, finding him rather unresponsive. He was not going to go willingly, no matter what they did or said to him.

Braca stood outside, a content look in his eyes. "Good luck, Crichton. You'll need it," he said with an indication of a smile, then turned his attention to Scorpius when the guards dragged John away. "What about her?" he wanted to know, nodding back toward the cell.

"Bring her too," Scorpius replied and waved a dismissive hand at his second in command before following the guards.

***

Somewhat surprised, John was deposited in a cell rather than taken somewhere to be interrogated immediately. What surprised him even more was that they deposited Kia in the same cell. She spent the first half hour muttering and walking along the walls, kicking them on occasion, before she settled down right next to him. She had very little sense of personal space, he figured.

"What's going on?" he asked after a moment of silence had passed between them.

"Who knows?" Kia replied with a shrug and leaned closer to him, their shoulders touching. "I don't think anybody around here understands how that half-breed thinks," she added just as the door opened once again to admit Scorpius.

"Enough of the pleasantries, Kia. I see you have become friendly with John. That is good. He may need some assistance a little later in the day," Scorpius said to her, then turned his attention to John. "I am sorry that I did not have time to speak to you right away, John. I have a rather pressing schedule."

"Don't rush on my account," John replied sarcastically. "I'd be happy to wait for a few arns ... or more."

For some reason, Scorpius was inclined to smile at that. "Of course you would, John, but alas there is no time."

"So, what the hell do you want from me now?" It wasn't easy for him to maintain a sarcastic and indifferent behavior to this, but he tried. He didn't want Scorpius to know just how scared he really was.

"We have run into a bit of a problem, John. You see, the information we extracted from you – although complete – has a heavily encrypted section. And, for some reason that continues to elude me, we are not able to break through the encryption. That's why you're here. I need you to break the encryption for me," Scorpius said.

For the longest moment, John just stared at him, unable to fathom that the half Sebacean-half Scarran would actually think that he would do anything to help him, let alone unlock the secret of wormhole technology for him. The idea was actually quite funny and he started chuckling halfheartedly. "You don't really expect me to agree to that, do you?" he asked and started laughing. It quickly tapered off again, though. "If you think I'm going to help you decipher it, you've got another thing coming, Scorpy. I may be stupid by your standards, but I'm no idiot."

"Oh, but I do not consider you stupid at all, John. The power of your mind is actually quite remarkable in so many ways. I have never met a Sebacean I had trouble controlling, yet you put up quite a fight," Scorpius replied. "So, I take it you would know how to extract the information? It's not something we will have to unlock first?"

Suddenly, the whole situation was far from being comical. John swallowed hard, realizing that he had apparently given Scorpius the impression that he knew how to unlock the data. "No," he hastened to say. "I have no clue how to unlock that data. You're just gonna have to do it yourself, Scorpy."

Scorpius' eyes narrowed. "Hm," he said. "You might be telling the truth. And then again you might not. There is really only one way to find out what you have learned since we last met." He stepped aside to let the guards in.

John knew exactly what Scorpius was talking about and realized his worst nightmares were about to come true. When the guards hauled him off the floor, he began a futile struggle, somehow hoping that they would shoot him in the process. But he underestimated their fear of Scorpius. When he punched one of them in the face, knocking him back against the wall, the other one zapped him with what appeared to be a smaller version of the stun rifle. It knocked his legs out from beneath him and rendered his arms almost useless, making it impossible for him to fight back.

Kia had wisely scurried out of the way, obviously aware that there was nothing she could do to help him. She merely sat in a corner and watched them drag him out of the cell. Scorpius glanced at her, sighed heavily and followed.

***