He had fairly little concept of time in the tight enclosure of the utility room and it seemed to him as if they had been locked away from the surging madness outside for days on end. Aeryn alternated between standing with her ear pressed against the door to listen to the cries of the hordes out there B the horrible moaning, the gurgling sounds of someone drowning, the tortured screams further away B and standing close to him.

All the sounds out there made his skin crawl and some part of him wanted nothing more than to cover his ears, squeeze his eyes shut and cry like a damned baby. But there was Aeryn to consider ... not that she showed any signs of fear. As a matter of fact, anything she showed was closer to anger or annoyance than it was to fear. In essence she seemed pretty ticked off that the evil out there had forced them to retreat to this hole.

"How long have we been here?" he whispered. Until this point, he had been afraid to speak, scared stiff that his voice would carry and give away their location, but there was just so much he could do to keep quiet and if there was one thing in this universe that made him want to talk like a maniac, then it was fear. And he felt plenty of that right now.

Aeryn held up a hand, her ear pressed against the door, while she frowned lightly. "About an arn," she claimed quietly, then leaned back and eyed the door as if it had offended her in some way. "I would really like to know what the frell is going on out there."

John glanced around the closet, grabbed a nearby box and sat down on it. "Me, I can do without the nightmare images the moaning and screaming out there is going to leave me with," he stated tiredly. "One arn," he added, then looked up at her. "Are you sure? It feels like we've been in here for ages."

"Well, we haven't," Aeryn countered and shook her head. "So, those sounds out there. These a goosts?"

"Ghosts," he corrected her and wondered if she did it on purpose to make him think of something else. "I don't know. I've never seen a ghost. I didn't even believe they existed until this."

Aeryn sighed, grabbed another box and settled down next to him. "I'd be frelled if I will ever understand what ghosts are," she muttered and shook her head. "It just sounds like a lot of noise made to scare us. If there really was something out there, it would most likely have found us by now and ... well, killed us, probably."

John stared at the door, trying to block out the sounds without physically doing anything about it. Then he glanced at Aeryn. "Are you scared?"

She considered that one for a moment, her expression curiously relaxed. "No," she finally said, proving him right. "Not scared. More worried. I don't understand the purpose of all this. It makes no sense. There's no tactical advantage to scaring someone to death."

She always had to think in combat terms, John mused and couldn't help a small smile. "I wouldn't attribute thought‑out strategy to this scenario. Whatever the hell is behind all this, I don't get the feeling that it's overtly concerned about tactical advantages."

"Could be," Aeryn agreed hesitantly, then glanced at him. "I suppose I don't need to ask you if you're scared, do I?" The look in her eyes was anything but condemning and he wondered if she had finally gotten used to the idea that he wasn't a soldier and hence didn't respond like one in situations like this.

"Nope, you don't," he confirmed. "I'm scared shitless," he added and held up a lightly shivering hand. "It's not that I ..." he tried, but trailed off and eyed the door with a frown while balling his shivering hand into a fist. "The sounds are gone," he added.

Aeryn turned her attention back to the facility beyond the door and listened intently for a moment. Then she nodded. "Seems like it," she agreed and rose. She grabbed the portable floor plan and eyed it for a moment. "All activity has ceased," she confirmed, but then a frown furrowed her brow. "Only ... there's only one dot left," she said and glanced over at John.

He was still seated, leaning against the wall behind him. "What?" he asked with slight concern. "Which one of us isn't showing up?" he asked.

Aeryn paced around the tight enclosure for a moment, then stopped again and eyed him. "You," she said. "Get up," she added.

"Aeryn, just because I'm not showing up on the damned plan doesn't mean there's something wrong with me," he protested weakly.

"I'm not suggesting that," she said irritably. "Just get the frell up."

For a moment he merely eyed her, then he rose and took a step toward her. "There! I'm up. Happy?" he asked.

For some reason either his words or his actions made her smile while she kept staring at the plan. "Yes," she confirmed. "If you're inactive for a while, your dot disappears," she said and looked up. "The microt you rose and started to move, it turned up again."

"Oh goody. So I'm on standby when I sit down, eh?" he asked sarcastically. Aeryn gave him a dark look, which he chose to ignore. "What does that mean then? That hoards of the moaning undead out there are taking five and cooling their heels for a while until they've stored up enough energy to come after us again?" He knew that most of this came from his own fear; that he was nervous and uncomfortable and scared out of his mind. "What is this? A retirement home for tired old ghouls?"

Aeryn watched him, her expression somewhat bland, and it took him a second to realize that she either didn't understand what he was saying or was wondering when he'd hit his head. "What the frell are gools?"

"Another variety of the undead," he countered and dropped back down on the box. "Jeez, I'm losing it," he added and brushed all ten fingers through his hair.

"You're not losing it, John. I assume that what you heard down there on the sub‑level was the same as what we heard now?" she asked.

"No, it was different. Sounded like a bear. A big‑assed bear with a bit of werewolf mixed in," he countered. "Something big came from around the bend in that corridor. It roared and pounded on the walls and stopped to sniff the door. And it was huge. And it was trying to get in. And then you turned up and you hadn't seen anything or heard anything. Of course I'm losing it, Aeryn. I'm a damned basketcase. I need to be locked up in a padded cell and sedated out of my head." He snorted halfheartedly and gave her a crooked grin. "It may be my vivid imagination that's causing all this crap. Who knows?"

Aeryn put the plan aside and hunkered down in front of him, her hands on his knees. "You're not causing this, John. This isn't your fault. It's this place. There's something frelled about it. Stop blaming yourself."

He let out a chuckle devoid of joy. "Easy for you to say. You're not the one who's causing havoc with her every move," he claimed. "Why is it, exactly, that I can't go anywhere without causing major problems? Why is it that I'm so disaster prone? I wasn't back home. I never got in any major trouble. Here I'm about to bring down the frigging house every damned day."

She made a face, obviously uncertain about what to say. Then she sighed and rose again. "Well, I won't argue with that," she said with a vague smile on her lips. "But, on the other hand, you can't take on the responsibility for every little detail that goes wrong. I agree that most of your plans are frelled, but I won't agree that you're disaster prone, John. The things that have gone wrong for you have done so because they were beyond your control. If you want to avoid this type of situation all together, you'll have to lock yourself up in your quarters and never come out again."

He smiled somewhat ruefully. "I'm being stupid, aren't I?" he asked and she nodded, still with a smile. With a heartfelt sigh he leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. "Well, at least we're not in prison or being tortured," he added.

"That's the spirit," she countered and turned back toward the door. "We should check to see if the pod may have returned."

"You wanna go out there?" he asked, doubtful. "Don't you think we should wait a little, see what happens?"

For a moment she didn't move, just stood there with her back turned and her eyes on the door. Then she glanced back at him. "Maybe we should. It's not like the pod is going anywhere without us."

John sat up, back straight, and stared at her. "What if Chiana comes to check what's up with us?"

A raised eyebrow was all the reply he got to that one. Instead of either supporting or denying his fears, Aeryn grabbed the plan yet again and eyed it for a moment. Then she pressed a few buttons. "There," she said. "I've adjusted the settings so it makes a sound when something approaches. It won't register our movements. Only something approaching our position."

"Fine," John countered. "But what about Chiana? What if she decides to come looking for us?"

Aeryn made a face. "When is the last time she's done any such thing?"

Although it was the last thing he wanted to do right then, he had to agree with her. The thought of Chiana coming down here was both encouraging and depressing. If she came, she could mean their salvation. But it could also mean that she would be stuck here with them. And then what? It was highly unlikely that Rygel would come to their rescue.

"Don't give up," Aeryn said. "We will find a way out of here."

"Says you," he muttered and shook his head. "I'm being depressing, I know," he added. "I don't know why that is. Usually I'm pretty good at seeing the light side of things."

"Yes, you are," Aeryn agreed and unlocked the door. "I suggest we take a look around and check if the pod has reappeared. If it has, we grab what we can and get the frell away from this place. If it hasn't ... well, we'll deal with that when we get to it."

John sighed, rose again and took the floor plan. "Alright, but if this thing makes the slightest noise, I'm back in here faster than you can count to one."

Without a word, Aeryn opened the door and stepped out into the corridor. John lingered for a moment, trying to convince himself that this was nothing, that if a girl could do this so could he, but no amount of convincing made him feel better about this. And, if he was truthful about this whole situation, Aeryn had always been braver than him. That was just as far as it went.


The corridor was empty and devoid of life. There was nothing there indicating that there had ever been anyone or anything but them; not even the slightest sign. Truth be told, Aeryn was getting a little tired of this situation. She couldn't explain what was going on and, as she had told John previously, she did not consider it her job to explain it. There was simply nothing about this that made her even vaguely comfortable, but there had been many campaigns in her cycles as a Peacekeeper that had left her with the same feeling. The only thing that was different now was that she was B virtually B alone. John was no soldier, never would be as far as she was concerned, and that was as it should be. But that made this situation more volatile than a faulty cluster bomb. He did watch her back, did no longer hesitate when it came to pulling a weapon on others, but this situation had him scared and she knew what fear did to people.

In her platoon, if any one soldier had shown even the slightest indication of nerves before a big event, he or she would have been off the team faster than they could turn their heads. They would be sent for re‑schooling to correct whatever the problem was and most of them had returned, as steady as any of them. But two or three new additions had not made it back from re‑schooling and Aeryn had no idea what had happened to them. Knowing what she knew now about the Peacekeepers, it was fairly likely that they had been terminated or, as the rules proclaimed it, 'honorably retired'.

So, could she count on John in a pinch? Yes, she thought she could. But not this time around. He was as jittery as a melka bug in the sunlight and his pre‑disposition to negativity was very uncommon and more than a little disturbing to Aeryn. John was a go‑getter under normal circumstances. He jumped in feet first and stopped to assess his feelings of the event later. Now and then that lead to disastrous situations, yes, but in general they always made it out alive and in one piece. So why should this be any different?

The corridor was silent as a tomb while she scanned it visually in both directions. Since meeting John she had developed a gut instinct that she had never known was there before; it was a kind of feeling for when a situation was about to turn bad. It had to be a little like D'Argo's sense of smell. At least that was the only thing she had to compare it to.

"Let's go," she said and turned back toward John, who was standing in the door opening, the portable floor plan clutched in his hands.

"Okay," he countered and followed her out into the corridor.

Together they made their way back to the reception area and, to Aeryn's immediate surprise, the door was back and the pod was outside waiting for them. The two hover carts were still there, untouched by the look of it, and the more she thought about it, the more she started to believe that whatever those sounds had been, they had been part of an elaborate hoax of some kind. The question was just whether it was possible to make six hundred people stand still long enough for their tracking signatures to disappear. Another question was, of course, why the frell anybody would want to do that.

"Alright, let's get the frell out of here," she said, strode over to the front hover cart and pulled it toward the doors. Some part of her actually expected the doors to disappear before her very eyes, but all they did was part to admit her out into the chilly night air of this planetoid's feeble atmosphere. She glanced back to make sure John was following her and saw him dragging the second cart toward the still open doors as fast as he could. He looked tense, but determined and that made her smile vaguely before dragging her cart on toward the pod. She opened the hatch and dragged the cart inside, then stopped dead in her tracks and listened. There was no sound from outside.

"John?" she called. There was no reply. "Frell it," she muttered and strode back down the ramp, ready to give him a piece of her mind. What she saw when she re‑emerged from the pod was enough to once again stop her in her tracks. "Frell," she hissed.

The doors had disappeared again and John was still inside. Whatever the frell was wrong with this place B and at this point she was starting to believe John's version of this B it had obviously been set on separating them and now it had succeeded. She saw John mouthing her name and instantly pointed to her comm badge, which she switched on.

"Can you hear me?" she tried.

He fumbled with his badge for a moment, then looked back out at her. She repeated her question. "Yeah," came the reply.

"Look at the floor plan. Find another way out. Whatever the frell did this can't make every exit disappear," she suggested. "Besides, I think this is a ruse somehow. The door hasn't really disappeared. It just looks that way to us right now."

John didn't look convinced. He looked somewhat resigned and more than a little scared. "I wouldn't count on it," he countered, but did grab the plan and started to study it. "There seems to be a tunnel going out from the first sub‑level," he finally said and looked up to meet her eyes through the glass. The look in his was full of fear.

"There's only one thing to do, John. Get to the tunnel and find your way out of there. Be determined and don't let your fear of this place show," she said. "Remember. Be strong."

He drew in a deep breath, held it for a moment, then raised his fist, his thumb pointing upward. "Keep your comm open and talk to me," he said and sent a doubtful look back over his shoulder. "I get the feeling this place wants something from me and it won't stop until it has it."

"What could this place possibly want from you?" she asked, a little concerned about his paranoid view on this.

He smiled joylessly. "My soul?" he asked, turned around and started toward the level risers with a determined gait.

"Be strong," she said, ignoring his odd reply. "Tell me about your father. What is he like?"

He stopped at the bank of level risers and pressed the button. "I don't want to talk about my father. I need you to talk to me," he replied. There was a slight disturbance in the transmission.

"No, John, you have to talk to me. It takes your mind off things," she insisted. "So, talk to me about something. Where do you want to go from here? Once we're back on Moya. What would you like to do?"

"Find a nice, breezy planet with high blue skies and great oceans where I can smell the wind and the salt from the ocean and hear ... well, whatever kind of sea birds you guys have out here. I want to feel the sun on my skin. I need a vacation." The last he added with an almost hysterical titter.

"Focus, John," she insisted. He stepped into one of the cabins and pressed the button. The doors closed. "What would you like to do there apart from feel the sun on your skin?"

"Go for long walks," he countered, his tone a little distracted. "There's gunk on the walls in here," he added.

"Forget it. Talk to me," she persisted. "Where would you like to take those walks?"

"Forest, beach. I don't give a damn. As long as it isn't here. Man, I wanna go home right now. I've never been more homesick than I am right now. You know what that is; homesickness?" He made a strangled sound. "Yuck, this stuff is everywhere."

"Focus, John," she said again. "Yes, I know what homesickness is. I felt it all the time when I first joined Moya. I wanted to go back more than anything. I understand why you feel that way. What would you do if you were home right now? Where would you go?"

Something pinged. "First sub‑level," he announced. "What would I do if I was home? Go for a drink, probably. Or a party if someone was throwing one. Or a barbeque. Yeah, a barbeque would be great. Spareribs. With my dad's special sauce."

Aeryn smiled. He was starting to warble on about what kind of food and sauce and drinks he would have, who would be there, and who he would want her to meet. The more he talked about things other than here, the more he would focus on other things too.

And then the inevitable came. "Oops."

Aeryn frowned. "What?"

For a moment, there was no reply. Then he cleared his throat. "The lights just went out," he whispered hoarsely.

Frell, and he had just been doing so well. "Is the floor plan still working?"

"Yeah, it is, but all I can see is one blinking dot and that's it," he replied and cleared his throat again.

"How far did you get from the level risers?" she asked.

"No idea. Fifty or a hundred steps. Man, it's so dark here, there's more light if I close my eyes," he replied nervously. "Aeryn, get me the hell out of here."

"And how do you suggest I do that?" She stopped herself from saying more, realizing that she too was getting nervous and therefore was snapping at him when she shouldn't. "There's nothing I can do right now, John. I'm ..." She stopped as an idea hit her. "Stay where you are for a microt. I have to try something."

"Okay," he whispered.

She turned around and jogged back to the pod and walked back up the ramp. Once inside, she waited for a few microts, then walked back down and could barely contain a grin. "The door is back," she said. "I'm coming."

"Thank god," he muttered.

Aeryn reentered the facility and ran over to the level risers where she slammed a flat hand against the call button. Then she frowned. Nothing happened. "Frell," she hissed and pressed it again.

"What?" John asked, his voice almost panicky.

"The level risers don't work," she replied. "John, try to retrace your steps. Maybe you can find your way back to the level risers," she suggested. There was no reply. "John?" she tried again. Nothing but silence answered her. Then her comm badge erupted with static and she had to switch it off. "What the frell?" she snapped, then punched the call button. "Come on, you fekkik. I'm not going to let you have him," she yelled and punched the button again with the same lack of luck as before. "FRELLING DREN!!!"


"Uh‑oh," John muttered. Being alone in a corridor in this place without anywhere to hide and no connection to Aeryn made him feel ill at ease and that was putting it very, very mildly. He took a step backward and bumped into the wall. Using that as a guideline, he edged his way sideways back toward where he thought the elevators might be while he could barely hear more than the beating of his own heart in his ears. He couldn't recall ever having been this scared before. Not even when Scorpius had put him back in that damned chair again. "Nah, Scorpy has nothing on this. If I get out of this, I'll never fear him again," he whispered hoarsely. "Hell, I'll laugh in the face of any enemy," he added a little louder. "Be strong. Focus. Be strong," he repeated Aeryn's words and briefly stopped and closed his eyes. "Strength, John," he tried and it seemed to do the trick. His heartbeat slowed down and the pounding in his ears was no longer so pronounced. "Okay, I can do this. I'm not a frigging kid any more. I'm not afraid of the dark. I'm not going to let this get me down. No way, no how."

He had barely finished the sentence before two things happened at once. Something wooshed through the air very close to his face and whatever had made the sound smelled like death and decay. Before he had a chance to respond to this event, the wooshing sound came again, this time followed by a rather solid blow to his chin. The impact knocked him sideways, but not off his feet, and there was something so tangible about being hit that it almost instantly killed his fear. It didn't steal his apprehension about the situation he was in, nor did it make him less afraid, but the fear that had plummeted him into negativity and indecision was wiped away like a wet cloth taking away chalk on a blackboard.

Then he was hit again and this time he got a feel for whatever had hit him. Whatever it was, it was huge and it was obviously set on making him hurt. Since he couldn't see anything, it was impossible for him to avoid the punches. The second blow nearly managed to throw him off his feet. He only caught himself at the very last second before his balance was so shot that he would have keeled over. "Too afraid to fight me in the light?" he snapped and rubbed his jaw pensively. "What's the matter? Are you chicken?"

There was no reply from the other end, only another fist the size of a boulder that this time hit him square in the chest and a little too close to his solar plexus. The impact knocked the air out of him and he sank down to the floor while trying to breathe around the basketball sized dent in his chest. "Coward," he wheezed. "I'm not afraid of bullies. I outgrew that when I was twelve." He just had to put it on thick. It was part of who he was. Taunt or tease when in doubt. The bully at school had taught him that. Never let others know you're afraid. Always give them a run for their money. After all, Crichton's don't cry.

With an effort, he got back to his feet and waited for a moment for the next impact, which didn't seem to come. Could it be that easy? Was this all he needed to do? Fortify his resolve and be strong? Before he could convince himself that this was it, he'd beaten the unseen enemy of this facility, the blows rained down over him in rapid succession, hitting him hard and fast and without reprieve.

He went down for the count, in agony and growing numb from the continued beating, when suddenly the attack stopped. He lay on the floor on his back, eyes closed, both arms wrapped around his head to protect it from the blows, and tried to estimate the whereabouts of this bastard. But there was no sound. Just like before.

Slowly, he unwrapped his arms and opened his eyes. The lights had come back on. With an effort, he pushed himself up, wincing at the soreness of his right shoulder. His face felt as if he'd run headlong into a brick wall and for the moment everything was numb. It kinda felt like that one time he'd had a run‑in with the school bully and had really been pummeled by that log of a boy. He had considered himself victorious for getting through the beating without making a sound until the shock of the attack had worn off and every bruise, cut and scrap had started hurting all at once. He started to shift his jaw to estimate any damage and then realized that there was something worse than broken bones; dislocated jaws.

"Ow," he yowled through barely parted lips and grabbed his jaw with both hands. There was no doubt that his jaw was dislocated. He could feel the protrusion of the bone on one side while his jaw felt awfully non‑existent on the other. And, damn, but that hurt. Every move he made after that was nauseating and he knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that if he had to vomit, he would probably suffocate on it.

With a pained effort, he managed to get back to his feet and stumbled back to the elevators. His legs hurt, his arms hurt, his chest hurt, his damned kidneys hurt, and his jaw was killing him. It needed to be relocated before the muscles froze up and made it impossible without surgery, and since he couldn't even begin to imagine doing it himself without feeling faint, he had to get back to Aeryn. Unless the entity of this place had done away with her, of course.

The elevators had light and seemed to be functioning when he reached them. Once inside, he pressed the button for the ground floor and then slumped into a corner. This was going to hurt for a long time. Dislocations had a nasty habit of healing slowly and he most certainly wasn't in the mood to shut up for a month.

The cabin was halfway up when he realized one important thing. He wasn't afraid any more. He was mindful of the power of this place, definitely intimidated by the darkness that hid here, but he wasn't afraid of it any more. 'Like that makes a difference,' he thought snarkily to himself and managed a halfhearted smile before the pain stopped any further displays of mirth.

Moments later, the doors parted and he stumbled out into the reception area. "JOHN!"

Aeryn rushed over to him and grabbed him before he keeled over.

"What the frell happened?" she exclaimed, sounding more shook up than he felt.

"Jaw," he rasped and pointed at his jaw.

She frowned and he wondered how bad it was since she couldn't immediately see the injury. When her confusion did not let up a second later, he grabbed her hand and tapped her fingers against the protruding bone. "Jaw," he repeated and flinched when the act of speaking hurt him.

"Holy frell," Aeryn gasped and carefully felt along his jaw to estimate the damage. "Dislocated," she confirmed and then did something he was later both grateful over and very appalled by. She took a sudden solid hold of his jaw, pulled and twisted and snapped it back into place.

For a moment, the world around him blacked out when the pain exploded in his jaw. Then it receded again and the world swam back into focus. "Better?" she asked.

"A bit," he confirmed, careful not to move his jaw too much. "You could have warned me," he added.

"Or not," she countered and rose. "Let's ..." she started with a quick glance over one shoulder, but then sighed and rolled her eyes. "Or not," she repeated. The doors had disappeared again.

John gingerly rubbed his jawline, flinching when he hit particularly sore spots, and then started running his fingers over his swollen face. "Damn, he did a number on me, didn't he?" he muttered.

"Yes, he did," she agreed. "You look awful."

"Thanks," he countered and smiled tentatively. "Give me a hand up," he added and reached a hand up to her. She grabbed it and pulled him back to his feet.

"So, one cart is on the pod, which has disappeared again together with the doors, and going for the sub‑level exit is no longer an option. We have to make a plan," Aeryn said.

"Good idea. Tell me when you come up with something we can use, because I'm fresh out of ideas. And I'm a little dizzy," he countered.

"No wonder. You've just taken a severe beating. I don't suppose you saw who did it?" she asked.

"No, it was dark. But whoever it was had a pretty big fist," he replied and tried to grin a bit. Then he realized something. "And I lost the floor plan."

Aeryn sighed. "Alright. We'll go back up to the plan room to get another one. I'm sure I saw a medi‑kit up there. You may need something to stop the swelling," she replied, took his arm and steered him in a new direction. "We're taking the stairs."