The comparison grew even more eerie when the bugs descended underground into corridors so low-ceilinged that John had to lie back to avoid having his face scraped off. He was really beginning to feel nervous until the moment the bugs ahead of the ones that carried him spread out to either side as they reached a large, high-ceilinged room. It was mostly like a natural cave and it was huge.

The bugs carrying him came to a stop at the edge of a big pit. It looked like a football field embedded in the ground and the whole place was illuminated by artificial light. Generally it shouldn't have surprised him, of course. These bugs knew how to fly ships. But it did surprise him because the idea of an anthill with artificial light was a bit humors in his opinion.

Before he could build up the courage to actually smile, the bugs set him down and moved away from him. One of them remained, though, and he assumed it was the same one that had spoken to him earlier.

"You will fight our champion," it said and waved a hand toward the pit.

John eyed the steep walls for a moment. "Figures," he muttered under his breath. If things got dicey, he wouldn't be able to make a run for it. This was win or lose. "All right," he agreed and returned his attention to the bug in front of him. "What do I get when I win?"

The other bugs buzzed and John had the distinct feeling that they were laughing at him. He glanced around at them and made a face. The bug in front of him moved a little sideways. "You have come here for something. That is what you will receive." It waved to the left and John looked that way and found about ten women standing around, all of them Sebacean, all of them looking shell shocked. "One of these," the bug said.

"No," John countered. No matter how much he wanted to save them all, his priority was Aeryn and she wasn't among them. The mother of his child came first. "You grabbed a woman on a commerce planet a few days out. Dark hair. Former Peacekeeper. She's the one I want."

The bug paced sideways again, this time to the right. "Not possible," it claimed.

John folded his arms over his chest. "Then I don't fight," he stated stubbornly.

The bug chittered and the others answered it. "You must. You challenged our champion," it said.

John glanced up toward the far-away ceiling. "Not if I don't get what I came for," he said. He had the distinct impression that the bugs would be very upset if he didn't agree to fight. Why it would be such a big deal was beyond him, but that was the impression he got.

The bug titled its head to the right and paced sideways to the left again. It was apparently an equivalent of pacing nervously, John mussed. The bug chittered again and some of the others replied. Moments later, some of the bugs brought Aeryn to stand among the other ten women.

John tried to catch her eyes, but she looked just as shell shocked as the other women and it made him furious to see her that way. Turning his attention back to the bug, he pointed in Aeryn's direction. "What the hell have you done to her?" he demanded.

The bug tilted its head the other way. "I do not understand," it claimed.

"Screw you," John countered angrily. "Where's that frelling champion of yours? Bring him on. I'll fight him right now."

"You will fight when we say you fight," the bug countered and chittered when he lashed out for it and only barely missed it.

Before he could do anything more, a throve of bugs had turned up behind him and pushed him, without consideration, into the pit.

It was deeper than he had assumed and the impact with the dusty floor of the pit knocked the air out of his lungs. "Ow," he groaned and pushed himself up on his hands and knees. He had a weapon on him, but shooting one would jeopardize any chance he had of rescuing Aeryn. And right now he knew that she needed rescuing badly.

He straightened up and eyed the pit for a moment. Then he glanced up at the edge he'd fallen off. There was no way he would be able to get out of here without some help. "Shit," he growled, got back to his feet and dusted himself off a bit. Then he glanced around again. There was no sign of any contender. "Come on. I don't have all day," he said aloud and glanced up at the rim of the pit. The entire rim was now crowded with bugs watching him.

"You will fight when the sun is gone," one of the bugs up there said.

"And when's that?" he countered and tried to make out which one of them had spoken. But they all looked alike and it wasn't like they had any lips to move.

"One arn from now," the bug countered.

"One arn," John growled. "Great." Deciding that he might as well take the opportunity to rest up and ready himself, he sat down on the ground, his back to the wall of the pit, and folded his arms over his chest. "I'll just sit here and wait then," he muttered, annoyance thick in his voice.


Exactly one arn later, a bug climbed down the opposite wall of the pit and John rose to his feet, intent on winning this thing and as ready as he would ever get. That, of course, did not prevent him from being scared.

He dried suddenly sweaty palms off on his pants while he watched the opposition; a bug like all the others. This one looked neither tougher nor bigger than the others and he assumed he could take it. And if he should get so lucky that he outwitted this thing, then what? Would the others stick by the agreement and let him and Aeryn go?

A quick glance up at the bugs standing all around the pit made him wonder. But then again, what did he have to loose? If he didn't win, he would die. Whatever happened to Aeryn was beyond his control at that point. If he did win, he could try and shoot his way out if the bugs didn't stick by the agreement, but he doubted the charge in his pulse pistol would last him long enough to kill every single bug, and there were a lot of them.

"Should have brought a bomb," he muttered under his breath and wondered if threatening to blow himself and everybody else up wouldn't have a better effect than fighting against a bug that knew neither mercy nor when to quit. The thought almost made him laugh. It was a seemingly hopeless and no less ridiculous situation to be in. It reminded him of the command carrier, of the futility of his idea of bringing Scorpius down all on his own.

"No Talyn around to save my ass this time," he told himself quietly and flexed his fingers as he took a few steps closer to the center of the pit. "It's all up to me." He stopped, his eyes on the critter at the other end of the pit, and then he grinned. He just couldn't help it. "I guess this is the prize I have to pay for getting the girl in the end. Looks like happy endings is a big load of crap."

The bug at the other end reared up and let out a piercing screech, which was answered no less enthusiastically by its brethren up on the rim. Then they all fell silent and focused on him. John glanced around and smiled cynically. "I don't have a war cry," he said aloud. "Where I come from, we don't fight each other to the death."

The bugs didn't respond. They all just watched him and waited and John felt more than tempted to yank his gun out and blow the champion to hell. But what good would that do? If he fought the critter, he at least stood a chance of winning and getting out of this crap with his honor in tact. "I'm not a killer," he whispered and focused on the bug at the other end. "I'm only defending myself, saving my wife. That doesn't make me a killer."

He took another step forward, then stopped, straightened his back and dropped his head, his eyes closed. For a long moment, he just stood like that, a part of him hoping that he would wake up and find it was all a dream. Then he opened his eyes again, raised his head and stared at his opponent. "Let's get it on," he said loudly.

And then the game was on. The critter raced toward him, all four arms outstretched, all sixteen claws at the ready, and all John did was remain where he was while he watched it coming. He was still armed, but he had no intention of fighting dirty. Although he was all for getting away easy, he didn't believe in it any more. If this part of the universe had taught him one thing, then that was it. You don't get off easy. You pay the price and you fight the fight. There's no easy way out.

Trying to anticipate what the critter would do, he threw himself sideways when it reached him, hitting the dusty ground on his shoulder. The impact made him grunt, but he avoided the sharp claws. The critter seemed to have trouble stopping and reached the opposite wall before it managed to turn around and race at him again. That gave John time to get back to his feet and turn around to face it.

They played this game for awhile and John began to suspect that he needed to better his physical condition if he survived this one, because he was out of breath already and both his shoulders and sides, not to mention his hips, were beginning to get sore from the constant impacts.

The chittering and clicking of the spectators was getting on his nerves, but so far he had managed to avoid the distraction they caused. When his opponent raced at him again, he watched it intently, trying to estimate whether it would deviate from course or not.

His attention to its methods, however, deprived him of the right second to get out of its way and he threw himself to the side just a moment too late. Instead of racing on and using the wall to stop, the bug sank four claws into his left calf instead. The pain exploded in his leg and the muscle instantly cramped from the violation it had to suffer through.

Somehow, John managed to jerk his leg away from the invasive claws and used his right foot to kick the bug in the chest. The impact sent it skittering backwards and he realized that Sikozu had it right. They weren't strong, they were just very fast and had damned sharp claws. "Fuck!" he spat and sat up to grab his painful calf. "Shit, shit, shit," he hissed.

The bug had retreated to the opposite wall again and was readying itself to attack again. He had to get back to his feet, wounds or no wounds. With an effort, he got back up and tested his left leg's ability to carry his weight. It hurt, but he could stand, which meant the damage wasn't that extensive.

Breathing hard through his teeth, he turned to face the bug again. "Come on," he urged it and flinched when he flexed his calf muscle a little too much. "Let's get this over with."


The lacerations in his calf hurt like hell, but the pain focused him and his anger knew no bounds. The mother of his child was at stake here and it was up to him and no one else to get her out of this mess. And he couldn't even sacrifice himself, because without him she wouldn't get out.

The bug attacked again, arms spread out, claws at the ready, and it gored his right shoulder when it raced past. "FUCK!" he snapped, grabbing his shoulder when the impact nearly tore him off his feet.

He swirled around and watched the bug hit the opposite wall, which it nearly climbed before stopping and turning back toward him. 'They're frail', Sikozu's voice whispered in his head. He narrowed his eyes, then glanced at his bloodied hand, and suddenly he went numb. If that thing was allowed to hurt him again, he wouldn't survive this encounter and then what about Aeryn? He couldn't allow this damned bug to win because it wasn't just his life, it was Aeryn's life, and the thought that little D would have to grow up without his parents made him see red.

With a snarl curling his lips, he shifted his stance while valiantly ignoring the pain from the cuts and bruises, spread out his arms and waved the bug towards him. "Come on, you bastard. Is that all you've got?" he snapped at it.

The bug pressed up against the far wall to gain more speed in its attack, pushed off and raced toward him. And as it came, he realized one important thing; this Nur'dur never deviated from the way it attacked, and he suddenly realized what it would take to bring this damned bug down. He waited, readying himself, and just a split second before it hit him, he dropped down on his left knee, effectively ducking under the Nur'dur's outstretched, claw-wielding hands. At the same time he stretched his right leg to the side and the bug hammered right into it.

He rose by pushing forward rather than up and came up behind its arms while he grabbed his right fist with his left hand and drove his elbow as hard as he could into the bug's back. He was rewarded with a painful crunch as he broke the bug in two over his thigh with amazing ease. Then he pulled his right leg away and the bug dropped to the ground. It jittered and jerked for a moment, then finally stopped moving.

Out of breath and with one of its spines sticking out of the back of his right arm, John staggered a step sideways and eyed the carcass for a moment. Then he grabbed the spine, yanked it out of his arm and threw it onto the bug. "I win," he stated.

Only then did he realize that the chittering and clicking up there had stopped. The pit was blanketed in total silence. He looked up at the spectators and wished desperately that he could read their faces. But since those bugs barely had anything worth calling a face, it was hard to determine if they were angry over the loss of their champion. John realized, though, that he didn't care. Not right now. He raised a fist in the air while blood trickled down his arm. "I WIN!" he yelled while turning in a slow circle, his eyes on the bugs up there.

For a long, breathless moment nothing happened. John lowered his arm, too tired to gloat any longer, and figured he was in for a quick death. It didn't seem likely at this point that the bugs were going to let him leave here alive.

Then the bugs started chittering again. One of them broke out of the ring and scurried down the wall while the others kept chittering. It stopped in front of its fallen brother and leaned down to examine it for a moment. Then it looked up at the others and let out a long row of clicks and buzzing sounds. The other bugs fell silent for a moment, then they all took off. Within seconds, the area around the pit was cleared, leaving only Aeryn behind. She still made no move on her own and just stared ahead of herself with glassy eyes.

John returned his attention to the bug that had sent the others away and eyed it. He wasn't going to make the first move here. He would wait for its verdict.

"You win," it confirmed. "Take your female and go."

For a long moment, John just stared at it while it stared back. Then he cleared his throat. "I need a way out of this pit. I can't climb steep walls without help," he said. He wasn't about to thank this critter for not killing him.

It inclined its head, turned around and left the pit, threw down a rope that was secured at the top and then it too disappeared.

John sighed. He still had to keep the steam up to get them out of here. Still not entirely sure they were home free, he limped over to the rope, dried his hands off on his pants and climbed the steep wall to where Aeryn was still standing. It hurt like hell, but he could not allow himself to give up right now.

Once he reached the top, he took a moment to regain his strength, then crossed over to where Aeryn was. For a moment, he just stood there and eyed her, uncertain of what to do. Then he cupped his left hand against her cheek. "Aeryn? Honey?"

There was no response. She just stood there and stared ahead of herself.

"Aw crap," he muttered, limped over to her right side and took a hold of her arm. The bugs had made her walk and she walked now too. It was a mechanical response, he knew.

All he could focus on right now was to get her back to the pod. Getting out of here was his primary objective and nobody and nothing would be allowed to stand in their way right now.


With some trouble, he did find his way back to the surface and he instantly realized that just because this world was shrouded in endless clouds that didn't mean it couldn't get hot. It was as hot as a furnace outside, the air still and suffocating, full of an odd taste and smell that he could only identify as rotten eggs. Sulphur, most likely, he surmised and dragged Aeryn along as fast as he could go. The air on this world was probably toxic to them both if they stayed here for too long and the heat worried him too. Aeryn was Sebacean and they weren't good with heat. The last thing he wanted to happen right now was that she was struck down by heat delirium too. "That would really make my day," he growled sarcastically and limped onward.

When he spotted the pod, it suddenly dawned on him that he hadn't had the first clue what direction to walk in and yet somehow he'd managed to get back to the pod without checking directions even once. "Just goes to show what you can do when you are pissed off," he grumbled and pushed Aeryn up the steps to the pod. He unlocked the hatch and then glanced back at this unfriendly planet. "Someone should call an exterminator," he said aloud, then pushed Aeryn into the pod ahead of him and closed the hatch again.

The air-recyclers worked overtime to clear the air, but even so it was a lot less sour-tasting than outside. John guided Aeryn into the cockpit and got her to sit down before he turned to the first aid kit and tended to his still bleeding wounds. He'd lost a lot of blood on this crap and felt lightheaded on account of it. When he considered that he'd also had a concussion after those damned bugs had grabbed Aeryn on the commerce planet, he was a bit surprised that he hadn't passed out yet.

"Just shows what a tough guy I am," he muttered and sank down on the pilot's seat with a grimace. Then he glanced at Aeryn, who was sitting next to him. "You ready?" he asked and waited a moment. But she made no move to respond. With a sigh, he returned his attention to the controls and get them in the air.

Somehow he had the feeling he'd gotten away from this way too easily, but then he just had to flex his right arm or move his left leg to realize what it had cost him in physical injuries. And he just had to glance at Aeryn, who sat motionless, eyes empty, to know what it had cost him mentally.

The moment they were off the planet, John switched the comms back on. "Yo, guys. You still out there?" he asked.

"Commander!" Pilot exclaimed, relief evident in his voice, and John grinned gratefully. "Are you all right?"

He sent a quick glance down himself, at the tears in his suit, at the blood seeping through the makeshift bandages and smirked helplessly. "Oh yeah, just dandy, Pilot. I got Aeryn. We're coming back," he finally said.

"That is good to hear. How are you, Aeryn?" Pilot replied.

Nothing but silence answered him. John glanced at Aeryn again and sighed once more. "She's ... uhm ... a little shell-shocked, I think. Just needs some time to recover," he said, hoping desperately that his assessment of her condition was right.

"Is she injured?" Sikozu's voice rang from the speakers.

Hoping that the Kalish's voice might rattle Aeryn back into mental wakefulness, John glanced at her. And still there was no response forthcoming. "No, not that I can tell," John answered. "She's just ... a tad catatonic right now."

He eyed her for a moment, taking in the scratches on her face, the bruising on her skin where it was visible, and wondered what the hell those bugs had done to her. Aeryn was a tough girl. She could withstand most things without more than a sneer and a sharp word. So why had her abduction by these critters left her in this state? Why was she catatonic when she should have been ready to kick ass the second they let their guard down?

"What do you know about the Nur'dur's treatment of their prisoners?" he asked, directing his question to Sikozu.

"They do not take prisoners," she countered cooly.

"Like hell they do. Aeryn's alive and they take other women as well," he countered a little aggressively. Sikozu was really stomping on his last nerve right now.

"Just get back to Moya, John. We'll deal with whatever is wrong with her when you're both safe," D'Argo inserted.

John grinned and blinked furiously for a moment. Hearing the big guy's voice made him feel all teary-eyed right now. He hadn't really had much of a chance to respond to D'Argo's – in his opinion – miraculous revival and now that things were calming down, he was beginning to feel the emotional shock of realizing that D'Argo was back. "Be right there," he confirmed as the pod emerged from the cloud. "Pilot, can you grab us?" he added.

"Of course. I am deploying the docking web now," Pilot replied and the pod jerked lightly when the web engaged.

John leaned back in his seat and flinched when that put pressure on a cut he hadn't realized he had on his back. "We're almost home, babe," he said to Aeryn and briefly closed his eyes.