For some reason, they reached the floor plan room without incident and John closed and sealed the door, then leaned back against it. His jaw ached, but the pain was not nearly as bad as it had been while the dislocation had been a reality. It felt a bit better and he knew he had Aeryn to thank for that. Her quick response to his injury had probably saved him weeks of agony.

"Maybe we should stay here," he suggested and glanced around. His left eye was in the process of swelling shut, but he could still see without trouble.

Aeryn had grabbed another portable plan from the pile next to the door and was programming it to do the same the first one had; namely to give off a sound when and if something other than them moved out there. She looked up to face him, a slight frown on her brow. "John, we need to get the frell out of here," she countered.

Feeling a little weak in the knees, John slid down the door until he was sitting on the floor and leaned his head back. "I know. But every time we get close, something messes it up." He gingerly rubbed his jaw and hissed at the soreness.

Aeryn eyed him for a moment, then found the medi‑kit and searched through it. She pulled out what looked like a can of spray paint and knelt down in front of him. "Close your eyes," she said and couldn't help a smile. "And your mouth," she added.

He gave her a vague grin, then did as she asked. She sprayed a very cold liquid onto his skin, covering every inch of injury he had on his face. "Keep your eyes closed and your mouth shut for a moment," she said. "Give it a chance to work."

"Uh‑huh," he managed without parting his lips and waited for whatever this would do. After a moment, the pain and soreness started to recede and when Aeryn gave him the go‑ahead, he found that he could open both eyes fully and that the puffiness of his right eye was gone. "Wow, "he muttered and grabbed the spray can to study it more closely. "How come you've never used this on me before?"

She smiled. "It's not readily available," she said, then glanced at the door behind him. There was something in her eyes right now that he'd never seen there before and it looked very much like the beginnings of fear to him. "What the frell is wrong with this place?" she muttered, asking no one in particular.

John closed his eyes again and just sat there for a moment. This cure‑in‑a‑can might take away the swelling and the sting, but it didn't remove the aftereffects of the injuries he had sustained. He still felt pretty banged up. "I don't know. I have about as many answers as you do, babe," he finally said and gingerly shifted his jaw a little, flinching when he realized that this spray‑can stuff didn't go too deep. His jaw was still sore as all hell.

Aeryn returned to studying the big floor plan, skimming one level after another with no general result. "There has to be a way out of here," she growled. "It's just too frelled if there isn't."

What was he supposed to tell her? He had no idea what this was himself. Sure, he had analogies that might fit this scenario, but in the end who really knew? He doubted any of the authors back home had actually encountered werewolves or ghouls or ghosts. Some people just had very vivid imaginations and were able to build on what others used their imagination to describe. Humans at least were prone to exaggerate and what might have been a run‑away Tasmanian wolf had probably turned into the big bad monster of many horror stories of today; namely the werewolf. Or someone had seen a curtain flapping in the wind and, afraid of the dark, had turned it into the spirit of the recently departed and thereby created ghosts. Vampires could be accounted for as well, and with enough he exaggeration, even a case of actually being allergic to the sun could turn anyone into a vampire. In essence, anything able to put more than two words together was likely to be afraid of something or other and people, being stupid creatures in hoards, always tried to destroy what they did not understand. Anything foreign was dangerous. It threatened their way of life and therefore was something that needed to be eradicated.

John himself had never been a fan of that sort of reasoning and as such considered himself to be a tad more enlightened than some of his species. But this situation defied even his reasoning skills. So how did they get out of this one and why, for the love of ... well, someone, did it have to happen to him? That was what he kept coming back to. Why was this happening to him? Why did everything have to ... He trailed off in his own mind, opened his eyes and frowned lightly. Where was this negativity coming from? Normally he was always able and more than willing to see the good side of everything. He had forced that sort of view on himself many years ago, to deal with life in the real world without losing his mind.

Aeryn, in the meantime, had turned her back on the big floor plan and was staring ahead of herself, quite obviously trying to solve this dilemma in the most effective way. John almost managed a smile. She had no idea what they were up against. He at least had some grounds for comparison, but she was drawing a blank on this. Aeryn didn't believe in the supernatural. There was always a logical explanation for everything for her.

"It's not gonna do any good, you know," John said after watching her for a moment. She glanced at him, a dark look in her eyes, but refrained from responding. "You can't fix this in a military way, Aeryn. This is so far beyond anything remotely military‑like that it boggles the mind."

"What the frell are you talking about?" she asked and turned to face him. "I think that whoever attacked you hit you a little too hard," she added.

"See?" he countered. "That's your first mistake. You think it's a 'he' or a 'them'. I don't think it's either. I think it's ... well, an 'it'."

"An 'it'?" she asked, sounding almost puzzled by the mere idea. "What the frell are you on?" She shook her head and grabbed the spray can to study the label. "Maybe there's something in this dren you can't tolerate," she muttered.

"I'm not having an allergic reaction, Aeryn. My mind's never been clearer," he countered and struggled back to his fee. "This is messed up, I know. But what else could it be?"

"I am not going to grab at any far‑fetched ideas about the recently deceased or any such frelled thing just because I do not presently have all the facts," she countered, stressing each word and thereby letting him know that she was anything but happy with his ideas. "I have been on a great many campaigns and I have seen a lot of dren that seemed unexplainable and at times even obscenely supernatural, but in the end there was always B and I mean always B a reasonable explanation for it. There was always something we had overlooked or forgotten to check. And I believe that it's the same thing for this place. This is not some recently deceased fekkik trying to get back at the universe for snuffing out his or her frelling life too soon, John. This is some kind of disease. These people are infected with something and they're not behaving in a rational manner."

"What people?" John countered. "I haven't seen any frelling people in this facility, Aeryn. There's nobody here, a brand new mining facility like this with tons of food and every thinkable and unthinkable addition in tact and running ..." He shook his head lightly, careful not to strain bruised muscles. "People don't get attacked by fists as big as my head in the dark without a word, Aeryn. I don't care how sick they are ... unless they've got elephantitis or something. But that's not even an option." He waved at the large floor plan. "Look at this place. Things are majorly weird here and they're getting weirder by the minute. Why do you keep changing your mind about this? A few moments ago, you agreed with me. Now you're back to denying it's happening."

She stared at him for a moment, her expression tense, then she hissed through clenched teeth and glanced up at the floor plan again. "I'm scared, alright?" she finally admitted. "To even consider that this situation is not only beyond my control but also beyond my ability to understand is very ..."

"Intimidating," he agreed. "And I totally understand that you're scared, Aeryn. Just don't be afraid to admit it, okay?" Despite his own words, the thought of this scaring Aeryn was very upsetting to him. He counted on Aeryn to be the tough one, the strong one, the one who kept it together when he fell apart. The fact that she was afraid was not good news.

"I'm not afraid to admit anything," she claimed tensely, then nearly dropped the floor plan when it started giving off a steady even ping.

"What the hell is that?" he asked.

Aeryn stared down at the plan, then glanced at the big plan to her left. "Someone's coming," she said, met his eyes for a moment and then glanced at the door. "Did you seal it?"

"Yup," he replied, but double‑checked just to be certain. It was sealed.

"Get away from the door, John," she said quietly, waving him over. She didn't have to say that twice. He joined her where she stood while she raised her pulse rifle and aimed it at the door while they both watched the progress of the lone dot moving steadily toward their position.


The ping the approaching dot gave off was eerie in the sudden silence of the room and Aeryn found it almost impossible to draw a decent breath. Fear had been an unknown factor for her before she had met John because fear was not acceptable among Peacekeepers. Sebaceans as a whole were considered superior to all other lifeforms and Peacekeepers, purebred as they were, were above even them. She had been imprinted with the belief that there was nothing out there for her to fear. But she was afraid now. It was a sneaking feeling, a sensation in the pit of her stomach that made her want to gag.

John chose that very moment to take a step forward and slightly sideways when the ping ceased and the dot hovered just outside the door to the floor plan room. By that one step he placed himself halfway in front of her and she knew that it was a subconscious reaction that stemmed from the fact that males were supposed to protect females on Earth. Despite this knowledge, Aeryn found it hard not to take offense and to compensate, she took a step forward as well, thereby placing herself fully in front of him. "Stay here," she whispered and took another step toward the door, her eyes glued to the red light on the door control that confirmed John's claim that the door was sealed. It flashed orange briefly, telling her that whoever was out there had tried to open the door.

She paused for a microt, then glanced back at John who was watching the door control with the same tense expression. He hadn't moved. With a churning sensation in her guts, she returned her attention to the door control and watched as it flashed orange yet again. Something inside her seemed to break under the tension of the fear and to counter any possible outcome of it, her subconsciousness clamped down on her feelings and reared the Peacekeeper in her. Suddenly, her mind turned cold and analytical and all she could think of was the threat out there and how to deal with it if it managed to get through the door. In essence, there was only one thing to do. She stepped forward and reached out for the door controls.

"What are you doing?" John snapped. "Don't let it in."

"We don't know what's out there," she countered, but hesitated just the same. The near panic in his voice was enough to make her doubt the wisdom of opening the door to face the enemy dead on.

"Exactly. It might not be something we can handle. And since it isn't in here yet, it probably can't get in unless we let it in." He still had not moved, did not seem able to at the moment. "Just ... step away from the door, Aeryn. You don't want whatever is out there to come in here. Trust me. I've met it and it's not friendly."

Aeryn glanced up at the floor plan and the lone dot out there and then back at the door. "There's something wrong with this picture," she muttered and frowned while trying to figure this one out. Then she glanced back up at the plan. "There's only one dot, John. If it was this ... whatever the frell it is that's infected this facility, there would be a lot of dots, not just one."

"You don't know that," he disagreed. "It might be a trick."

His words made her sigh and roll her eyes. "You're being paranoid," she grumbled and once again reached out for the door control.

Just then, the portable floor plan she had put down at the other end of the room erupted with noise and the big floor plan came alive with green dots. They came from the lower levels again and surged up through the level riser shafts and out onto the ground level, moving like liquid.

The lone dot outside their door was still there and now combined frantic hammering against the door with muffled cries for help. "Open the frelling door. Let me in," a voice cried.

Aeryn stared at the door for a microt longer, then slammed a flat hand against the door control. If whatever was out there was part of this thing, it was doing a good job of convincing her otherwise. She did aim the pulse rifle at the opening door and took a step back, though.

The door had barely opened enough for a normal person to squeeze through before the visitor out there did just that. It was a Sebacean female and she looked very disheveled. She had barely cleared the door before she slammed a flat hand against the controls, breaking its opening cycle and shutting it again. Then she sealed it and, breathing hard, leaned her brow against the door for a moment.

She was skinny. Even through the baggy clothes she was wearing, Aeryn could tell there wasn't much fat on her body. Her brown hair was mused and dirty and what little Aeryn could see of her skin was smudged and dirty too.

"Who the frell are you?" Aeryn finally asked.

The woman turned around and leaned back against the door. She was a bit taller than Aeryn and looked haggard and worn. Her eyes were a bloodshot blue and she had obviously seen better days. "I might ask you the same question. What are you, looters?" she countered and looked from Aeryn to John and back again.

"Looking for food, actually," John said, his tone laced with suspicion.

"Would you shut that thing off? It's going to pop my ears in a microt," the woman countered, nodding painfully toward the still screeching floor plan.

John grabbed it and fumbled with it for a moment, then finally managed to switch it off. Then he looked up to meet her eyes while still keeping his distance. "I'm John Crichton. That's Aeryn Sun. And who are you?"

The woman eyed him back for a moment, then sighed and slumped back against the door again. "Veena Kentar. I used to work here," she countered.


Only moments after Veena Kentar had closed and sealed the door and John had managed to switch the screeching portable floor plan off, all activity had ceased. Veena appeared to be somewhere around forty to forty‑five even though the haggardness of her expression would put her at over fifty. She slid down the door until she was sitting on the floor, her knees pulled up, her arms resting on top of them.

"Where'd you come from?" John asked and glanced at Aeryn, who was watching Veena suspiciously, her pulse rifle still trained on her.

"I've been hiding. Not much else you can do with this dren happening around you," Veena countered. "You wouldn't happen to have anything to drink, would you?"

Aeryn frowned and made no move to reply.

"Nope, sorry. We didn't count on staying here this long," John said and sent a sideways glance at Aeryn, who wouldn't ease up on the tenseness. "What exactly is wrong with this place?" he asked, directing this to Veena.

She smiled, a crooked little twitch of the corners of her lips, and let her head fall back against the door. "Cholok only knows," she said, sighed again and shook her head. "I haven't had a decent conversation with another living soul in so long, I can barely remember how."

"How long has this been going on?" Aeryn asked.

"I don't know. After the first monan I lost track of time. It could be anywhere from six monans to a whole cycle. I've scavenged the food stores on the private quarter's level until now. Fortunately there's no shortage of food here, but I lost my water flask about a solarday ago and I haven't been able to get close enough to the food stores to get another one," Veena explained.

John hunkered down without moving closer. "You don't know what's going on here?" he asked, wanting to verify what she had just claimed.

Veena met his eyes, her expression serious. "I have an idea, but what exactly this dren is supposed to be I don't know."

"We've seen the floor plan light up with activity from time to time," Aeryn inserted, waving a hand toward the now motion‑free plan. "Are all the employees of this facility hiding in the mines?"

Veena looked up at her, somewhat stunned, and then she started to laugh. It was a hoarse, somewhat pained laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. "No, Peacekeeper, the employees of this facility are dead," she countered. "Or at least I assume they're dead. They disappeared one by one ..." She trailed off, a dark look in her eyes.

"Have you ... seen this ... whatever it is?" John asked tentatively. There was something eerie about an enemy you couldn't see. Personally he preferred to be able to see whatever was attacking him.

Veena looked up. "No, it hides in darkness, whatever the frell it is," she replied. "I don't think anybody has seen it."

Aeryn finally lowered the pulse rifle, but she did not switch the safety back on it and she did not take her eyes off Veena either. "What about the people you worked with? If they're dead why do we see their motion signatures on the plan whenever ... whatever the frell happens?"

Veena made a face and finally decided to get up. She straightened her somewhat tattered clothes, then aimlessly tried to push her mussed hair into some semblance of normalcy. "Whatever this thing is, there's only one of it. Why it is able to project that many signatures I don't know. I'm not a science‑tech."

With a dark glance in John's direction, Aeryn took a step forward. "Why didn't you leave when all this began?" she asked. "Why didn't you just take the closest transporter and leave?"

The smile on Veena's lips was a bit disconcerting because it was a little insane. "Because others beat me to it. By the time it occurred to me that I could do nothing here, all the transporters had gone. The rest of us ... well, we hid. I was just better at it than the rest of them."

John was more interested in what they were up against than why Veena hadn't gotten out. "Where'd it come from?" he asked.

Veena arched her back with a groan, then glanced at the floor plan which so far had remained silent. "The mine," she said. "At first everything was fine. This planetoid contained more madium than any other we'd found before. It seems to be made of madium."

"Madium?" John asked with a slight frown.

"Very valuable metal," Aeryn explained. "It's used to build command carriers."

"They dug down for a dekka or more, finding nothing but madium. They started a second well and a third, finding nothing but madium. But when they hit the dekka mark on the third well, they found a chamber of sorts. It was full of ... 'black soup', one of the techs called it. It was liquid, but like gas. It didn't rise, so they left it be. Well three was abandoned and they made preparations for a fourth well when this dren started happening. The blackness down there started to rise and it had purpose. People started to disappear, odd sounds were heard that gradually became what you've heard here."

"I heard sniffing," John inserted. "Like a big animal of sorts."

Veena sneered. "It's no animal. I don't know what the frell it is, but nobody has seen it and survived."

Aeryn frowned. "Except for John. He was attacked by it down on sub‑level one. And we both encountered it when we checked out the officer's lounge. And we're both alive."

Veena's response to that was not very comforting. She stared at Aeryn, wide‑eyed and suddenly afraid, and then glanced at John. "Are you feeling alright?" she asked, her tone more hoarse than before.

John frowned and glanced at Aeryn, who shrugged. "Apart from bruises and a sore jaw, yeah. I think I may have a bit of a concussion, to be honest, but nothing I can't live with. Why?"

"Because that's how it gets you. It gets inside you, eats you up, drives you mad and then you disappear," Veena said and dropped down into a crouch.

"That's a stack of dren," Aeryn proclaimed. "People don't just disappear."

"With this dren you do. I used to be like you. I used to believe everything could be explained. But this can't and it's pure evil. All it wants is to devour us," Veena claimed and rose again. She snorted and shook her head lightly. "I'm beginning to think someone locked this dren up in a ball of madium to keep it from infecting the known galaxy. It's going to eat us alive and there's nothing we can do to stop it from happening. This dren has all the time in the universe and we're running out."

John raised both hands in a deprecating gesture. "Ho‑wow. Slow down, girl," he said. "If it infects you, it's sort of like an intellint‑virus, isn't it?" he asked and glanced at Aeryn, who nodded. "Well, I don't feel any different and neither does Aeryn. Neither of us are 'infected'. And this stuff doesn't seem capable of walking through locked doors. So as long as we stay away from it and find a way out of here, we'll be fine."

Veena chuckled joylessly. "What makes you think it will let us leave?" she asked. "There's no way out of here. I've been here long enough to know that."

Aeryn glanced at John and he glanced back at her and shrugged lightly. Aeryn was obviously suspicious about something, but John didn't see it. Aeryn nodded toward the rear of the room and walked over there. John glanced at Veena, who snorted, folded her arms over her chest and turned away from them, then he followed Aeryn over to the corner.

"What?" he whispered.

Aeryn stared at the wall for a moment, then sent a quick glance over one shoulder. "I don't buy this. There's something more going on here than she lets on," she whispered back.

"Like what?" he asked quietly.

"John, if she's been here all this time, why hasn't she shown herself before now? Why didn't she warn us about what was down in those mines? I don't believe her. There's something untrustworthy about her." She cupped a hand against his cheek, reminding him of his battered physique, and smiled vaguely. "If she was right, you would be infected now. You don't feel any different, do you?"

He looked into her eyes while trying to estimate if there was something off, but apart from the aches and pains and the exhaustion the attack had left him with, he didn't feel much different. "No, I don't. And I know you don't either. But maybe we should just give her the benefit of the doubt, okay? I'm not entirely sure I buy this myself, Aeryn, but look at her. If she's been alone here, with that ... whatever the hell it is, for nearly a cycle, I'm not surprised if she's a bit batty. Let's just find a way out of here and take her with us."

Undecided, Aeryn stared at him for a moment longer, then glanced briefly over at Veena who was definitely not paying attention to them in any way, and then she sighed. "Alright," she consented silently. "You are just too kind for your own good, John. You know that?"

He grinned and flinched when it hurt his jaw. Aeryn gently rubbed her fingertips along the line of his jaw, then turned back toward Veena. "Alright," she said. "Let's find a way off this stack of dren."

"We're not going out there," Veena stated as she turned back to face them and stepped in front of the door.

Aeryn gave her a look that John knew only too well, a look he felt he had to defuse at once. To prevent any physical attack, he stepped between them, facing Veena. "We have to go out there. We can't stay here. We have no food, no water."

"There is no discussing this," Aeryn inserted and stepped around him. "Get out of my way," she said to Veena.

"You're going to kill us all if you open that door. There's a rhythm to this. It's been quiet too long. It's only a matter of microts before the whole frelling station erupts with activity," Veena insisted, her tone tense, her expression bordering on the frantic.

John grabbed Aeryn's shoulders and pulled her back a step. "Listen to the lady. She's been here a hell of a lot longer than us. She should know."

He could feel the jitter of tense muscles going through her, could feel the rock‑hard shoulders under his hands growing harder still. Aeryn was in no mood for games and he attributed that to her previous admission to fear. Aeryn didn't handle fear very well. She went into full commando‑mode when she was afraid and that sometimes had disastrous consequences.

"We can't stay here," she pressed out through clenched teeth, then suddenly froze completely. For a moment she didn't move at all, then she glanced back at John with a slight frown before returning her attention to Veena. For the longest moment all she did was stare at the other woman. Then she suddenly pulled out of John's grip and put distance between herself and them. Suspicion was evident in her expression at this point.

"You have been very quick to agree with everything she says," she said quietly, her eyes on John alone. "As a matter of fact, you've been very out of character ever since ... " She trailed off and raised her pulse rifle.

At first he had no idea how to respond to the accusation. The fact alone that she thought something was wrong with him made him very uncertain. But there was truth to her words. He had been acting strangely ever since they'd arrived in this ghost town. Although fear wasn't new to him, displaying it so openly was. Usually he tried to keep a lid on his fear by making jokes every two seconds, but somehow he hadn't been able to bring up the necessary drive. He'd been scared out of his mind ever since this crap had started happening and had not been able to clamp down on it.

Raising both hands in a deprecating gesture, he knew that any wrong move right now could force Aeryn to react in a way she might not be too happy about. "Okay, I know I've been off key since we arrived here and I don't know why that is, but if you'll remember, I was that way from the very beginning. So it can't be because of whatever's going on here."

Aeryn narrowed her eyes lightly while the frown on her brow deepened. But she did swing the rifle around to point at Veena instead.

"Besides, I'm not nearly as scared any more," John added. "Aeryn, come on. Put the rifle down."

She sneered and made no move to comply.

"Look, babe, it's me, okay? I'm just as nutty as I've ever been and I'm supposedly the paranoid one, right?" He was trying hard to mollify her before she went off the deep end and, considering her training, took Veena's head off before knowing all the facts. "Put the rifle down."

"No," she countered. "And stop talking," she added and eyed him suspiciously.

John arched an eyebrow. "Excuse me?"

"I said, stop talking," she repeated tensely and glanced at Veena again, who so far had said nothing about her behavior.

Somewhat concerned about her reactions at this point, John shut his mouth and decided to wait and see. Aeryn usually wasn't unreasonable and there could be another reason for her insistence that he should shut up. And, true enough, it took him only a second to realize that she was listening for something and therefore wanted the silence. John listened too, but couldn't discern anything specific. At least not until the lights died and the wall facing the corridor started shivering with one thundering impact after another.

Veena let out a muffled screech and he heard her scramble away from the door. The shock of the sudden change in scenery made John retreat sideways away from the door and in his hurry to do so he didn't watch his step and landed on the floor, rattling his sore jaw and other bruises. "Ow," he snapped.

"John?" He heard Aeryn's voice, but had no idea where it came from until she grabbed his arm and hoisted him back to his feet. "Are you alright?"

"Yeah, fine. I just managed to fall over my own feet for a change," he countered and wrapped his hand over hers still holding his arm.

Just then the pounding stopped again and the lights flickered back on. John found himself standing in the middle of the floor plan room all on his own, while Aeryn stood leaning against the wall next to the door, her rifle at the ready, and Veena cowered in the corner furthest from the door. And all the while, he could still feel the tense grip on his arm and the fingers under his hand.

Aeryn frowned and pushed away from the wall. "What's wrong?" she asked and took a step toward him. "Who were you talking to?"

His breath seemed to have gotten stuck somewhere between his mouth and his lungs and he could feel the blood draining from his face. For a second, he closed his eyes. Then he glanced down at his arm. There were distinct impressions on it from the fingers he could still feel, but he couldn't see them. "Some ..." was all he could muster.