Disclaimer: Not mine. I'm just playing. I'll put'em back when I'm done.

Rating: PG

Summary: John finds out the hard way that some fairtyales may have root in reality

 

Kha'ah
Commerce planet
Uncharted territories

The sun. He had to admit it. If there was one thing he missed on Moya, it had to be the sunlight. With a duffle slung over one shoulder, he trudged slowly through town, the purchases he had for once been allowed to deal with himself tugged away among foodstuff and spare parts, and despite having acquired all he needed on this trip, he was dragging his feet. And why? Because there was a sun above him, shedding its warm, balmy light down on him; there was no sign of other planets or planetoids up in that pristine blue sky, and if he kept his eyes on the black tarmac under his feet and just glanced sideways at the buildings he passed, he could almost convince himself that he was walking down a street on Earth, somewhere in a big city that didn't care too much about trees lining their streets.

The illusion clouding his mind was shattered the second his com-badge chirped. He sighed lightly, letting his shoulders droop a little and sent one more lingering look up at the sky before tapping the badge. "Yo," he said and smirked at the immediate and inarticulate response in the form of a very audible huff.

"What the frell does that mean?"

"It means yes, light of my life," he countered. "What's up?"

She took a moment to answer. "That depends on what you're thinking right now," she almost cooed, her voice rusty.

His smirk transformed into a grin. "Damn, Aeryn. What are you trying to do to me here?" he chastised.

She chuckled, a habit she had picked up since becoming a mom. "I was just wondering where the frell you were. You've been on that rock for arns now."

Hours? Hardly, he thought, but didn't put up a fight on technicalities. "As we're speaking, I am heading toward the landing pad and my trusty steed," he said, not entirely sure she would catch that one.

"Steed?" She sounded puzzled. "I suggest you lengthen your stride, then. Pilot says there's a cosmic storm on the rise and the sooner you get that drenbucket of yours back on board, the better we will all feel."

Her continued disregard for what he personally considered one of his greatest achievements made him sigh deeply. "Aeryn, my love, my pod is not a drenbucket, as you so lovingly call it. It is a superior piece of machinery, which can navigate wormholes whereas your prowler can't. So, back off, okay?" he suggested kindly. "As it were, I left the pod at home and took a transport pod instead. So, before you go on insulting my ride, you should probably consider Moya's feelings here and not mine."

This was answered by a brief silence. "Oh, you were done?" she finally asked. "I was about to fall asleep up here."

"Oh, ha-ha," he said, still smirking, and stopped at the ladder on the side of the pod. "I'm taking off in a microt," he added.

"Good. And be careful. Cosmic storms are no joking matter," Aeryn countered.

"I know, Aeryn," he assured her and closed and sealed the hatch behind him. "You sure you got everything for the little man?"

"I have all I need," she said. "I cannot believe how frelling slowly he grows, though."

John arched an eyebrow, dumped the duffle on the floor just inside the door of the cockpit, and dropped down on the pilot's seat. "Already told you. Human kids grow way slower than Deke does. Nothing to worry about."

"So you say," she said, sounding a bit unsure about it. "Not that I have any first-hand knowledge of narls. I never did get enrolled in the breeding program. Must have been because of what Xhalax did."

"Must have," he agreed and fired up the engine. "She must have been a hoot, your mom."

This caused another brief pause where he scrunched up his face in a virtual face-palm action. "I forgot you never met her," Aeryn finally said, her tone tentative.

Yeah, the other John had met Xhalax, a dubious pleasure from what John could figure out. Aeryn didn't talk much about her time away on Talyn, and with good reason. "Yeah. Not that it matters," he said, trying to maintain an easy, upbeat tone of voice. Despite all their mutual reassurances, that part of their lives still caused a strain whenever it was brought up.

"Did you get the spare parts you needed?" Aeryn was pretty damned good at changing the topic when there was something she didn't want to talk about.

"Yeah, everything acquired," he agreed, only too ready to jump on that wagon. "What's Deke up to?"

"Nothing much," Aeryn countered. "He has taken to sticking his thumb in his mouth, though. What the frell is that for?"

Apparently there were a lot of things that Sebacean kids didn't do, thumb-sucking being one of them. "It's for comfort, I think. Very normal behavior in Human kids," John said and focused on the display. "Come on, already," he muttered, waiting for the all-clear from the port authorities. It popped up almost at once and he sent the transport pod towards the sky and Moya waiting beyond. "Nothing to worry about. We're in the pipe, five-by-five," he added and wondered if that would make any sense to his lovely bride.

"You are so frelling strange sometimes," she said, confirming his suspicion. "Just get your eema back on board before that storm hits. Pilot says Moya is getting anxious."

The blue sky changed hue until the blackness of space took over. John adjusted his course and then visually scanned the darkness ahead of him. Cosmic storms could take many shapes and this one looked like a big purple cloud forming out of nothing. A brief check of his bearings and he shrugged. "I should be there in plenty of time. This thing is way over there," he muttered.

"What was that?"

He grimaced and briefly checked the readings again. "I said, I don't think I'm going to hit this storm. Unless Moya has moved," he said a little louder.

"She has not. Yet!" Aeryn said. "I don't like the look of that cloud, John. Get a move on."

"I'm going as fast as I can," he countered. "Don't get your pantyhose in a twist," he added and made a face. Aeryn had never, to his knowledge, worn pantyhose. Hell, he wasn't even sure she knew what pantyhose were.

"I am not getting my pantyhose in a twist," she replied and even over this distance he could hear the ice in her tone, which made him grimace. Oh, she knew what it was and that little pun was obviously not appreciated. "Despite all you have learned in your cycles here, I still know space better than you do. And when I tell you to get a frelling move on, you will do so! Is that clear?"

The Peacekeeper always came up in her when she was nervous and John had learned to heed her warnings when she used that tone. "Wish I could step on it, babe, but this bucket won't go any faster," he said, hoping against hope that his tone was sufficiently appeasing that she would not rip his head off once he was back on Moya.

That said, he was beginning to share her sense of urgency. The cloud was coalescing and growing at an alarming rate. He shifted his attention from the cloud to the controls and back again, then did a double-take when he thought he saw something moving within the cloud. "What the hell?" he muttered.

"What is it?"

Sometimes he forgot that her senses were so much better than his, her hearing included, and that muttering things did not mean she didn't hear them. He blinked a few times and stared hard at the growing cloud, then shook his head in denial. "Nothing, babe," he said.

"Moya is changing course. She is coming toward you," Pilot's voice broke in. "She is very anxious about this storm and wishes to leave this part of space as fast she can."

John sneered a little helplessly. "As long as she remembers to pick me up on the way, I'm all for that," he countered. It would not be the first time that the skittish giant had bailed on him because something spooked her. How anything apart from Sebacean or Scarran-made vessels could scare the huge leviathan into flight was still something that baffled him. Of course, something the size of a Budong would probably be flight-worthy, but there wasn't much out there that was as big or bigger than a leviathan, and after having met Talyn, John found it hard to understand at times that Moya got scared of anything. "Must be a female thing," he muttered under his breath.

Neither Pilot nor Aeryn responded to that and he was grateful for small favors. Slightly to the left of the ever-increasing cloud of broiling purple interstellar gas, he spotted the golden shape of Moya and adjusted his course so it would cross her current trajectory. It would give the behemoth the chance of picking him up with her docking web if she felt she needed to starburst quickly.

Only, when the pod changed trajectory, so did the cloud. This baffled John so much that he couldn't act for a moment. All he could think of doing for the time being was to stare out at the cloud, which was now literally tumbling toward him at a speed he would not have attributed to a cloud that moved without something to propel it. The cloud grew while it moved, spreading in all directions, and after what seemed like a split second, it obscured his view of the leviathan racing toward him. "Guys?"

"John! We've lost sight of you. Pilot says Moya is panicking," Aeryn responded immediately, but the connection was cracking up.

Her voice forced him back into action and rather than try to make the pod give something it didn't have - namely more speed - he throttled back, cutting his forward momentum in the hope of avoiding a face-on collision with whatever the hell this was. If he would be forced to spend a few days on this planet until Moya returned, then so be it. With that in mind, he reversed, sending the pod backward at an accelerated pace until he could turn it around and race back toward the planet. "Aeryn, I'm making a run for Kha'ah!" he said, hoping she heard him. "Pick me up in a few days."

The fact that there was no reply from Moya made his stomach drop. Either the cloud still spreading out behind him had obliterated communication or - and this was much more likely in his mind - Moya had already starburst the hell out of here. Not that he really blamed her. That cloud - which was more like all-out soup now - was freaking him the hell out too.

The pod, not built for this type of adventure, careened back toward the planet, skidding sideways occasionally when he tried to adjust his course, and for a few heartbeats he actually thought he was going to make it. But then the purple soup closed around the pod and the engine sputtered and stalled while something beyond his control hauled the pod to a stop.

To be honest, it made his skin crawl. Whatever this was, it made him feel pretty much as helpless as his first encounter with Scorpius had, and he very much resented that feeling. Gritting his teeth, he let go of the controls and leaned back in his seat to wait out whatever would happen. No matter what, he was not going to go down easy; whoever was behind this was going to have a fight on their hands.

***

On Moya

Aeryn stared at the forward viewscreen as Moya raced past the cloud of spreading interstellar mist, her heart hammering against the inside of her ribcage with enough force to nearly pound its way out of her chest.

"John?" she demanded again while visually searching what she could see out there. "John, answer me!" And still there was no reply.

"I believe the cloud is somehow preventing communication," Pilot suggested. He sounded strained. "Moya will not stay here. She wants to starburst."

Aeryn ground her teeth together, the rush of irrational anger making her see red. "Tell her I will personally put a frelling control collar on her if she does," she snapped, immediately regretting the harshness of both her tone and her words. She briefly closed her eyes, pushing down the urge to fall back into familiar patterns. "No, I didn't mean that," she added. "Please, convince her to stay. John needs our help."

For a moment there was no reply and she barely dared glance over at the clamshell. When she did, she found Pilot's image gazing back at her, his expression unreadable. "I will convey your sentiment to Moya," he finally said.

For a few more thudding heartbeats, the leviathan continued her somewhat hap-hazardous race away from an enemy Aeryn did not recognize, but then she slowed down, banked and turned back to face the cloud. Aeryn's only response to this was to slowly brush one palm over the edge of the control console she was leaning against. Whether Moya could actually feel this touch was something she did not know, but she hoped at least the visual of it conveyed both her gratitude and her apology.

"What the frell is going on?" Chiana's voice cut through the heavy silence in Command when the girl skittered in through the door, little Deke on her hip, his thumb firmly wedged in his mouth.

"I have no frelling clue," Aeryn admitted. "John was on his way back and then this ..." she waved at the viewscreen, unable to understand the ramifications of this impossibility, "... got in his way."

Chiana stared at the viewscreen for a microt, then glanced at Aeryn. "A cloud?" she asked.

The deep purple cloud had stopped expanding and just hung between them and Kha'ah like a normal, interstellar cloud. Yet Aeryn had that odd feeling in the pit of her stomach that John called 'rattlers'. "It ... expanded," she said a little helplessly, waving one hand at it. "Pilot, why does it do that? I have never heard of anything like this before."

"I am unaware of any such thing happening without a direct cause. There seems to be nothing out there that could produce such a cloud, yet it expanded rapidly and seemed to follow the Commander," Pilot replied.

As if on cue, the soup almost seemed to convulse and then started to dissipate. It grew more and more transparent, broke up into scattered fog banks, which in themselves grew thinner and thinner until nothing remained.

And that was just the problem. The space between Moya and Kha'ah was utterly devoid of anything of substance. The pod was gone. Without being conscious of doing so, Aeryn reached up to touch her com-badge. "John?" It was her hope that he had managed to escape back to the planet and would therefore be safe. But that would also mean that he would be able to answer her. "John! Answer me!"

She glanced over at Pilot's image. "The line is open," he assured her. "There is just no one out there to answer you."

"He must have landed the pod," she said, desperately clinging to the hope. "There is no other reasonable explanation. Perhaps his com-badge was damaged."

"I shall contact port authorities," Pilot said and his image flickered off.

Aeryn just stood there, one hand still covering her com-badge, her eyes on the void screen in front of her, and for the first time since she had met him, she understood the phrase he used so often. "I need air," she whispered, because she felt like her chest had constricted, that she couldn't breathe.

A hand touched the small of her back, making her jerk. "Easy, Aeryn," Chiana soothed. "You're probably right. He landed and is having badge-issues. Probably dropped the frelling thing on the floor in a panic or some dren like that."

As little as Aeryn wanted to admit it, the girl might have a point. Her eyes settled on her son, on his big eyes glued to her face, and she felt a tickle of fear roll up her spine. "Get Deke out of here," she said quietly. "Until I know what's going on, keep him away from Command."

Chiana stared at her. "What difference does it make where he is?" she asked.

Aeryn almost snapped at her and forcefully calmed herself down a little. "Could you please for once do as I ask you without turning this into a debate?" she asked quietly.

"I am not turning this into a frelling debate, Aeryn. I just don't understand why you don't want your narl around," the girl countered hotly. Chiana made no attempts to calm herself down.

Balling her hands into fists, Aeryn pressed her lips together into a thin line, counting backwards from five to give her anger a chance to simmer down. "Chiana, please," she finally said and met the girl's dark eyes dead on.

For a long microt she feared that Chiana would continue to argue this, but then she relented. "Fine," she said, her tone dismissive. "Good thing for Deke that I'm around." With that, she turned and strode out of Command, not looking back.

Little D seemed more puzzled about the whole thing and Aeryn was grateful for that he wasn't older and therefore not able to understand the severity of the situation.

***

On the pod

With his view blocked off by the almost paint-like mist, all John could do was sit and wait. Since the pod jumped and jittered, he clung to his seat, a grim expression on his face. "Why does this keep happening to me?" he growled under his breath, angry and - admittedly - also scared. He didn't scare as easily as he used to, but facing unknown odds on his own was not his favorite pastime and this was as unknown as it could get.

The pod jittered like a living thing, shifted sideways and then settled down on something. The soup had gone from purple to black and for a long moment he had to struggle against the idea that the pod had just been swallowed by some monster. "Get a grip," he admonished himself quietly.

With a steady floor to stand on again, he rose from his seat and turned to face the door, pulling both pulse pistols and readying himself mentally for a fight; against what he had yet to find out, of course.

Before he could make any further moves, the lights in the pod flickered and died. "Oh great," he growled. "Just what I need."

But no complaints of his would restore the light and something told him that even if he could figure out where the light switch was - something he was pretty sure didn't exist on the pod - it was evident that the pod, for whatever reason, had run out of juice and simply wasn't capable of giving him back the light.

With his ability to visually identify his potential attackers gone, he had to rely on his other senses and the one that served him best was hearing and the knowledge that if he couldn't see, neither could whoever had just hijacked him.

Something hit the hull of the pod and a moment later he heard the doors being forced open. He knew he was facing the door to the cockpit, which gave him a general advantage, but it became very clear to him that he was up against an enemy that could see in the dark when the door to the cockpit was forced open and no light spilled in. Taking no chances, he discharged both pulse pistols, lighting the scene before him in flashes of unreality. What he saw was something he could not accept and he convinced himself that his mind was playing games on him. It wouldn't be the first time, he reminded himself grimly while he kept firing. The second both clips ran out of juice, his attackers rushed him and knocked him to the floor. He was disarmed and handcuffed in a matter of seconds, where after his attackers beat the crap out of him for a few minutes.

"Enough!" a voice snapped angrily.

At the cessation of the physical attack on him, John grunted, rolled over on his side and got up on his knees the moment the invisible ones released their grips on him.

"Get him to his feet." The voice was hoarse, it sounded like a man who had been out drinking and smoking all night. "Let's have a look at him."

A hand, decidedly humanoid from the feel, grabbed his chin and pushed his head back a bit. John tried to pull free, but the ones that had hauled him to his feet held fast, not allowing him to pull back.

"Sebacean from the looks of it," the voice growled. "You got a name?"

"What's it to you?" John countered as evenly as his presently winded condition allowed for.

"Watch the attitude, fekkik. That beating could have gotten a lot worse if I hadn't stepped in," his unseen assailant said in an almost jovial tone of voice, briefly tightening his grip on John's jaw to a painful extent. But then he let go. "My men are not in the best of moods on a good day."

The thing that really got under his skin right now was the smell that wafted off these people - whatever type of people they might be. Unwashed, yes, but there was an undertone of rot that made his stomach roll painfully. The speaker had been close enough for him to smell his breath and man, that guy needed a dentic and fast. "What the frell do you want with me?" he snarled, mentally reminding himself to stick to the lingo. If they didn't know who he was and mistook him for a Sebacean, he might still make it out of this in one piece.

"Oh, I think I'll leave that to our dear captain to explain," the speaker said, a now decidedly bemused undertone to his voice. "Come. Let's not keep her waiting."

Assuming he was pretty well outnumbered and well aware that he had the huge disadvantage of not being able to see the others, John remained docile and allowed them to drag him out of the pod.

***

Their forward motion in complete darkness stopped and the clanging and groaning of not too well tended machinery made John frown. A crack of light appeared in front of them and, accompanied by groaning gears, bay doors slid apart to reveal ashen light and an interior of a vessel he could not immediately identify.

A brief glance to his right made him jerk in both surprise and revulsion. What he could see of the landing bay they were still in was downright disgusting. Large holes, corroded and full of liquid gunk, covered the floor in the shadows.

The group that had overwhelmed him, were all bathed in the almost sickly light that spilled out from the area beyond and they were all, without exception, Peacekeepers. Granted, they were the worst-looking Peacekeepers he had ever seen. There wasn't a whole uniform between them and they all looked like they could use a shower or two to just scratch the surface of the grime covering them. The smell of the whole place was of disease and rot.

The group started moving again, pushing him forward, and they threaded their ways through corridors which made John think they were on a leviathan. The curvy walls covered in rib-work gave it away. They turned another corner and came to a stop in front of a door. The guy in the lead - John assumed he was the one who had spoken to him earlier - passed a hand over the door opener and the door slid aside, for all intents and purposes sounding like it needed to be oiled if the screech it gave off was anything to go by.

His captors pushed him forward into what had probably at one point been Command. Now, however, it more resembled a throne room. There was a stone throne sitting in the middle of the room and the planning table and two of the consoles had been ripped out and removed. Half the room was in shadow and it looked sick. There were puss-oozing holes in the floor, cracks in the walls as wide as his arm, and what light there was looked as sick as the rest of this boat.

John turned his attention to the woman sitting on the throne and wondered if this renegade group were wanted by the Peacekeepers.

"Welcome," she said, her voice gravelly. She made no move to rise, just sat there, hands resting on the arms of the throne, her head slightly bent while she eyed him with slight curiosity. In part she reminded him of Grayza despite her being blonde and fully dressed. No cleavage there.

"He was alone," the speaker said and tossed John's pulse pistols on the floor in front of her.

When they clattered against the floor panels, John remembered his attempt to shoot them all and wondered how the hell he could have missed all of them. There were seven of them and the pod's cockpit wasn't that big.

"Of course he was," she agreed. "Come closer," she added.

The speaker stepped out of the way and turned to face John, for the first time revealing himself. He was just as unclean as the rest of them, but probably a fairly good-looking individual under all the muck. Tall, dark-haired and powerfully built, he did not look like the kind of guy John wanted to get into a fistfight with.

The men holding onto him shoved him forward and he focused on the Captain again. "Hell of a welcome," he said and almost grimaced. He never had been able to figure out if the translator microbes translated Hell into Hezmana or if others actually heard the words he was saying, but just instinctively knew the meaning.

The Captain cocked her head to the right. "Hell?" she asked. "I know it means Hezmana, but ... where is that word from?"

John shrugged. "Something I made up," he lied.

She smirked in response, rose and stepped toward him. She was almost as tall as him, slender yet sinewy. He figured she packed quite a punch if she wanted to right before she slapped him hard enough to make him stagger sideways into one of the men now forming a half-circle around him. "Don't lie to me," she suggested almost kindly when the Peacekeeper he had stumbled into shoved him back in front of her.

With his cheek stinging and his lip split, he gritted his teeth and gave her his best glare in return. "I'm not lying," he growled. "Who the frell are you people? What do you want with me?"

She smiled indulgently. "Straight to the point. I like that," she said. "I am Coora Mardi, captain of this ... unfortunate vessel."

He sent a swift glance around, noting more holes and cracks, most of them oozing puss. "A leviathan, I take it," he said, mostly just speaking his thoughts out loud. He returned his undivided attention to the Captain. "I don't give a frell who you are, by the way. I just want to know why you've hijacked my pod."

Mardi eyed him for a second, then lashed out to grab a handful of his t-shirt, which she used to pull him close. "You are on Bartok," she said, stressing the words and making him believe she expected him to know what that meant.

He met her eyes, the peculiar copper making her irises look almost bloody. "Is that supposed to mean something to me?" he countered.

This caused surprise. She pushed him back and let go, both brows arched, and a brief mutter rippling through the gathered around him made it obvious that they were all surprised by his lack of knowledge. Mardi's eyes narrowed a little. "You have never heard of Bartok?"

It very much felt like he was missing some vital information here, but all he could do was shake his head. "Can't say that I have," he agreed, keeping his tone of voice even. There was no sense in escalating the obviously bad mood of this crew.

She took an almost hesitant step back, her eyes still narrowed. "You are no Peacekeeper," she said and looked him up and down for a second. "You dress like one, but you are not a Peacekeeper," she decided, stepped forward again and planted a palm against his cheek. That action surprised him and he didn't pull back, which obviously gave her the information she needed. She pulled her hand away, grabbed it with her other hand and started massaging her left palm with her right thumb. "You're not Sebacean," she stated in no uncertain terms.

This caused overall surprise and a few murmured words from those surrounding him again. "So?" John asked, not sure he liked where this was going.

Mardi mulled that over for a second, then returned to her seat and stared at him for a full minute without a word. The others remained immobile, waiting for her verdict. "Are you prone to heat delirium?" she finally asked.

This line of questioning was making him nervous, but he generally felt nervous when he was surrounded by hostile Peacekeepers. "I can get heat stroke," he countered as evenly as he could muster.

"What species are you?" Mardi asked, her tone tight.

"Not one you've heard of," John countered just as tightly.

"Do your people suffer from the living death?" she pressed on.

"No," he admitted. Something told him that keeping his trap shut around here would do him no favors and he was already sore from that first beating.

"How much heat can you stand?" Mardi demanded.

"I don't know. I've never measured it," he snapped. "Look, enough with the twenty questions here. Who the frell are you guys and what do you want with me?"

Mardi glanced at the leader of the group and the look in her eyes was almost conniving. "He may just be the one," she said, then focused on John again. "We need you to do something for us. If you do this, you will be set free. We will take you back to where we found you and release you."

That sounded suspiciously like a trap to John. He glanced at the guy who had originally spoken to him and met a pair of startling blue eyes. "Yeah, right," he muttered and glanced back over at Mardi. "But the chances of me getting out of whatever it is alive are probably pretty damned bad, right?"

"If you were Sebacean, yes," Mardi readily agreed. "But you are not. If you are not prone to heat delirium and your people do not suffer from the living death ... there is a chance that you can do what we cannot," she added and sent a look over at the equivalent of the clam shell on Moya's command deck. "Take us back there, Pilot," she said.

The hologram of this leviathan's pilot flickered and wavered and it was obvious that the poor creature was as sick as the leviathan it controlled. "As you wish, Captain," a feeble voice, overridden by bursts of static, replied.

***

On Moya

Aeryn turned back to the clamshell and waited for Pilot to let her know what was going on one way or another. She didn't have to wait long.

"I have just spoken to the port authorities. No vessels have landed and no crashes have been observed within the past arn," Pilot finally said when his image flickered back on. He focused on Aeryn. "I am sorry."

She closed her eyes, one hand steadying her against the control console, while she focused inward and tried to force the boiling rage back down. "What the frell was that?" she asked after a microt, her tone as even as it could be under the circumstances.

"The Sebacean running the port office had one suggestion, although I do believe he was trying to be funny," Pilot said.

Somehow, she knew what came next. Even though she was anything but willing to accept such a ludicrous explanation, what had just happened was insane in its own right and opened up the possibility of the insane. "What?" she asked calmly.

Pilot sighed audibly. "All he said was ... Bartok."

That word sent a shiver up her spine. "That's a myth. A story told to children to keep them in line. It's something older cadets tell younger cadets to spook them." She focused on the clamshell. "Pilot, there has to be another explanation. I do not believe in myths."

"I have no scientific explanation to give you, Aeryn," Pilot said. "Nor do I believe in myth. Especially this one." He shifted his massive head, obviously looking at some readout or other, then glanced back at her. "As of right now, this is the only explanation I can give you."

Bartok? She shook her head, grabbed the edge of the console with both hands and let her head drop forward while rolling that idea through her mind. Fairytales and spooky stories. The tale of Bartok was widely known, a tale, a fabrication, something to keep the feebleminded in line and help scare the youngest cadets into not shooting above their targets, figuratively speaking. Know your place and you won't end up like the crew of Bartok. The monster leviathan, biggest one ever seen, black as space and cursed to wander the Uncharted Territories for all eternity because his crew was corrupt and defiant. She knew the story well, had spent arns hiding under her blanket in her bunk as a child after hearing it the first time, scared that Bartok's crew would come and get her. And she had not been the only one. The majority of her platoon back then had been scared drenless of that tale. But, then again, most Peacekeepers were afraid of stepping out of line. Rules were rules, whether they were enforced through reality or fiction.

"Bartok?" she asked, raised her head and looked over at the clamshell again. "That is the only explanation you can come up with to this? A horror story told to little children to keep them in line?"

"If the port officer had not mentioned the name, I would not have connected it with this, Aeryn. But there is no information on something like this ever happening based on natural causes. Interstellar clouds do not pursue you, do not expand rapidly like that and drift like propelled forward. And the tale of Bartok does say that he comes covered in interstellar mist and disappears as quickly as he appears." Pilot grimaced lightly. "I do not hold to that theory, Aeryn, but ... that is all I can tell you right now. The port officer may have made fun of it, but there was an undercurrent in his tone that suggested fear. I have investigated a little and it seems that others have vanished into ... what is the Commander's saying here? ... thin air, I believe. The deeper I dig in their archives, the more instances I find. This must be one of the places where Bartok is said to appear and steal Sebaceans away to whatever nefarious fate he holds for them."

"It's a story. A tale told to frighten children," Aeryn persisted, but knew that her defense was weak. If there was no other explanation, who was she to deny the possibility? All that she had thought was possible or impossible had been turned on its head since John's arrival in the Uncharted Territories. Why should something like the tale of Bartok not be possible then? "There has to be a more ... logical explanation," she tried.

"I agree," Pilot said. "I am just not able to find one."

"Keep looking. Please," she said, turned around and leaned back against the console. "There has to be a better explanation," she muttered.

"I shall keep looking," Pilot agreed and his image flickered off again, leaving Aeryn alone with her thoughts. It was not a pleasant place to be right now.

***

On Bartok

There was something seriously wrong with both Bartok and his crew. Much bad could be said about Peacekeepers, but, generally, they were a pretty tidy and clean bunch. John glanced around at his captors, not sure how to interpret what Mardi had said.

"Maybe I'm dense, but ... where are we going, and what exactly is it you want me to do?" he asked, focusing on Mardi.

The good captain smirked. "You will deliver us from evil," she said cryptically.

He waited for a second to see if there was more coming, but that seemed to be all she had to offer. "Evil?" he asked. "And how do you expect me to do that?"

"All in due time," she said. A note of impatience had crept into her voice, but John had never been one for subtleties.

"All in due time? You hijack my pod, you beat the crap out of me and now you're stringing me along with cryptic sayings?" One of the men made a grab for him, but he ripped free and stepped closer, anger tainting his reason. "I demand to know what the frell you want from me!"

Mardi's expression tightened while the look in her eyes became very flat. "You will do as you're told, whoever the frell you are," she countered sternly.

"As you observed, I'm not a peacekeeper. I don't owe fealty to anyone on this boat. So cut the crap, lady, and just tell me what the frell you want from me!" he insisted.

She sneered and leaned forward a little. "I do not tolerate insubordination," she stated and her copper eyes shifted to whom John deemed to be her second-in-command.

If he could have, he would have raised his bound hands to appease her. Pissing these people off was probably not in his best interest right now. "Okay, fine, just ... take it easy, okay? I'm just ... it can't be that big a deal to tell me what this is all about," he tried.

Mardi stared at him for a second, then seemed to simmer down. "Very well," she finally said. "Cycles ago, we raided a world so full of riches, we never thought what we took would be missed. We were cursed and we are now doomed to wander through the Uncharted Territories, never able to set foot on any world." Mardi looked almost melancholy at the thought.

Her words sounded familiar on some level, but not in connection with this part of space. "The Flying Dutchman," he muttered. "Cursed, huh?" he added. "That sounds ... ridiculous."

One of the men lashed out at him and nearly managed to deck him with a pretty decent right hook. He staggered sideways and rammed into one of the others, who pushed him back into the middle of the half circle they formed. Sucking on the inside of his bruised cheek, he glared at the man in question before returning his attention to Mardi.

"Ridiculous, you say?" She smiled benevolently. "We thought so too in the beginning; until we realized the strength of the curse."

"I don't believe you. This sounds ... insane," John said while trying to keep ahead of any of them trying to lash out at him.

Mardi raised a hand, obviously stopping an assault he hadn't seen coming. "I don't care if you believe it or not," she said. "You are here, which makes you a part of Bartok's crew. And that means you are now touched by this curse as well."

He couldn't help the snort that escaped him. "I'm cursed?" he asked. "You idiots hijack me and beat the crap out of me and now you think I'm part of your curse?" Laughing at this was really the only way to go, he figured and let out a bark of a laugh. "You're nuts, lady."

Apparently she thought that was funny, because she smiled. "Am I now?" she cooed. "We'll see about that. What is your name?"

His mind was running a mile a minute, trying to figure out what she thought his part in this curse-thing was going to be. The most obvious outcome would be some sort of sacrifice and he wasn't too happy about the implications. "What exactly do you want from me?" he asked back, ignoring her question.

Mardi stepped down from her thrown again and into his personal space. Backing up was not an option at this point because her men had closed in behind him. "To break this curse, one of Bartok's crew must go where no Sebacean can. You not being Sebacean ... I assume you do not suffer from the same shortcomings that all Peacekeepers are subject to? As you said, you do not get heat delirium."

John stared at her and wondered if she actually knew who he was. "I can get heat stroke," he repeated.

Mardi grabbed his chin in a steely grip and her men prevented him from fighting her by grabbing his arms. "You are warmer than Sebaceans. I say I'm right. I say that you are like ... Nebari. Or Luxan. But you look Sebacean."

"So what? You think I'm gonna go to that place and break this curse for you?" he pressed out. Mardi tilted her head to the right expectantly. "Forget it. All you had to do was ask nicely, but you couldn't be bothered to do that, could you?" He tried to yank his chin out of her grip, but her fingers were like steel bands. "Frell you, Coora Mardi. There is no way I'm doing you any favors."

Her expression tightened while her eyes narrowed. She released him and took a step back, but her men continued to hold onto him. "You will change your mind," she said with frightening conviction. "Get him out of my sight and put him in his place," she snapped.

This turned out to be bad news for John. The seven who had dragged him from the pod were the same to drag him out of Command and into a cell somewhere nearby, where they preceded to beat the crap out of him yet again.

When they finally let off him, he was on the floor, gasping for air. Before they left, they did have the decency to remove his cuffs and he curled up with an arm wrapped around his now aching chest. The cell door clanged shut when the last of them had left and moments later he was alone in the diseased-smelling, puss-oozing cell. "Son of a bitch," he groaned before passing out.

***

John woke up with a start, still on the floor, and flinched at the tenseness in his neck. "Shit," he growled and pushed himself up on his elbows. The cell he was in was about the same size as the one he shared with Aeryn on Moya. But that was where the comparison stopped. The bed was in bad condition; half of it was missing. It looked like it had melted and the resulting goo gave off a very pungent smell.

He grimaced and got up on his hands and knees before realizing that his right hand was about a hair's breadth away from a puss-oozing hole in the floor. With a disgusted grunt, he pulled away from the hole, which was in shadow since the lighting in this cell was fitful at best. Finding a place to sit that hadn't partially rotted away turned out to be a bit of an ordeal and he ended up with his back to the latticework of the door, where he took a timeout to let his sore muscles catch up to the fact that he was awake and ready to move.

For a long time he just sat there, knees pulled up, his arms resting on top of them, while he tried to figure out how to handle this situation. Even if Moya could track this leviathan, there was no way that Aeryn, Chiana and Rygel could free him; not with this bloodthirsty hoard coming at them. So how could he get out of here?

He let his eyes roam over the inside of the cell while he thought things through, but a sudden burst of realization derailed his thoughts of escape and rebellion. Blinking rapidly, he sent a sweeping glance over the cell again and the corridor beyond while slowly getting to his feet. There were a lot of holes and a lot of decay, but all of it, without exception, was in shadow. The floors, walls and ceiling all looked remarkably unmarred where the light hit them.

"What the hell?" he muttered. Maybe there was something to this curse-business? He snorted. "Yeah, right." And yet, he couldn't entirely dislodge the idea that was starting to fester in his mind.

Unsettled, he took a cautious step toward a patch of shadow and eyed it like it was alive and could bite him at any moment. Then he slowly stretched his hand out, sliding his fingers into the shadows. It made no difference to his hand, which in part was a relief and in part a disappointment. "You're losing it, Johnny," he muttered and let his hand drop while sending another sweeping look around the cell. "They've got space madness or something like it," he told himself and nodded to reaffirm this conviction. "Plain and simple mass hysteria. That's what this is."

"Is it now?"

That voice came from the corridor beyond and John turned a little too quickly, finding that the beatings he had taken had left him a little wanting in the balance department. He staggered and barely caught himself.

The speaker was Mardi's second-in-command and the man looked equal parts at ease and annoyed. "You know, there have been many before you, and if you fail, there will most likely be many after you, because Captain Mardi is not one to quit. She will find a way to break this curse. But a curse it is. We were Peacekeepers and Peacekeepers are not known for mass hysteria."

John eyed him for a moment, not sure he wanted to approach the latticework, but knowing too that he needed something to lean against. "Is that so?" he asked and took a step forward. "Thing is ... I don't believe in curses. I don't believe in the supernatural."

The man shrugged. He looked a little worn, but otherwise like any Peacekeeper John had ever met. "You may believe what you wish. That will not change the facts."

"Says you," John countered and grabbed a hold of the latticework that made up the wall. "What's the truth here?"

Tall, dark and ugly grinned, exposing rotting teeth, and John only barely prevented a grimace at the view. "The captain already told you," he said.

"Yeah, you guys are cursed. So, what is this? Something similar to the Flying Dutchman?" John countered, well aware that this analogy would make no sense whatsoever to this guy. "Do you have a name?"

The man sneered. "De'car," he said. "Second in command," he added with some pride. "What the frell is a flying dutchman?"

Pensively, John rubbed the back of his neck and chomped down on his lower lip for a second. "Never mind," he muttered. "So, this curse does what? You can't jump ship? Is that it?"

De'car leaned against the latticework and sent a brief glance along the corridor, which was lighted sporadically. "We can't leave Bartok, we can't visit worlds apart from one, we can't die," he said and sounded almost sad. "It has been countless cycles since we've had the pleasure of clean, healthy surroundings or decent food or water to drink. Bartok is as diseased as the rest of us."

"So, pretty much like the Flying Dutchman," John muttered, mostly to himself. He really didn't believe in curses. Granted, he had seen and experienced a lot out here that he had thought could never happen, but this took a step over the line of sanity and he really wasn't too keen to take that step. "Sorry to hear it, buddy. I just don't get what the frell you guys think I can do," he added.

"You're not Sebacean," De'car said and eyed him critically for a moment, then snorted. "Before this frelled curse, you would not have survived the capture. But now ... well, you look Sebacean, but you are not one. And you are really not prone to heat delirium?"

John stared at him for a moment. "Why?" he asked, hoping to get a little more information despite having already answered that one.

"Just answer the question. Are you really not prone to heat delirium?" De'car repeated impatiently.

"Not per se, no," John said, a frown furrowing his brow. "Why?" he repeated.

De'car smirked. "Then you will deliver us from the clutches of this curse," he said.

"Uh ... no, I won't," John countered and folded his arms over his chest. "Why the frell should I help you guys out after the way you've treated me?"

"Because, if you don't, we will have to ... convince you. Violently so," De'car said in a casual tone of voice.

John pursed his lips and glanced down at his boots for a moment. Then he sighed heavily. "Every damned place I go," he muttered and shook his head, then looked up again to meet De'car's somewhat vacant stare. "You people really have to find a better way to motivate others. Threatening to kill people just doesn't get the best out of them," he said.

De'car snorted. "Is that a fact?" he countered sarcastically. "We can be very convincing. We've convinced Luxan warriors to try to break this curse."

It was the threatening he was getting tired of, the posturing, the hit-first-ask-questions-later attitude that made Peacekeepers such an unlikable bunch. "No offence, buddy, but you're not convincing me to do anything other than sit in a corner and sulk," he proclaimed and glanced over at the bed. "Besides, the accommodations leave a lot to be desired," he added.

"Agree to the terms and you will be treated like part of this crew," De'car countered indifferently.

"I don't want to be a part of this crew. I want to go back to my family," John shot back, tired of this conversation already.

"And we want to return to ours," De'car said, his tone suddenly steely. "The problem is we can't. Not unless someone breaks this frelling curse and we can't do it. We've lost fifteen on this and the captain won't lose any more."

"Look, I'm sorry to hear that, but if this really is a curse - and I must admit that I'm far from convinced of this - how the frell do you think I can make a difference? I am not a member of this crew, I have no connection to you guys and I don't want to be a part of this." He did not get angry quickly, but his patience was wearing thin. Antagonizing these people probably wasn't the wisest move, but coupled with nervousness and growing irritation at the situation, John found it hard to control himself. In other words, he found it nearly impossible to shut up.

De'car's smirk was downright nasty in its unclean, half-rotted way. "Whether you want to or not, you are a part of this now. And the sooner you come around to our way of thinking, the better for you," he said, pushed away from the latticework and left John to ponder his words in silence.

***

Time passed slowly. The water they gave him was stale and tasted like it was one step away from rotting, the foodcubes were tasteless and so dry they turned to powder in his mouth, and the constant stink of decay around him was giving him a headache. Life on Moya had never looked better. Any commerce planet was better than this, but there was nothing he could do to get out of this. He had tried. The latticework of the walls and door was unbreakable. The cells on either side of his were in severe disrepair. The lights in there didn't work and the latticework was full of breaks and holes he could have pushed through. But his cell was more or less intact apart from holes in the floor and ceiling. The part of the floor in front of the door was pretty much complete and he could stretch out on it too, but sleeping on a hard floor was not his idea of fun.

"How are you holding up?"

De'car seemed to be the only one who bothered about him and John had to admit that he was beginning to like the man's company; if for nothing other than that he had that daily visit to look forward to. He was convinced that he would have lost his mind by now if he'd been stuck in this wreck alone for however long he'd been here. "The stench is giving me a headache," he confessed and got to his feet. "Don't you guys have anything other than dried out foodcubes to eat?"

De'car leaned a shoulder against the latticework of the door and regarded his less than clean fingernails. "No," he said. "Nor do we have clean water to drink. But for the most part, you get used to it after a while. Have you considered our offer?"

John smirked. "Look, man, I'm all in favor of helping others. That's what gets me in trouble out here most of the time. But ... this? I mean ... if taking a walk on a planet that's too hot for you guys is what it takes to get off this boat, I say bring it on. But the least you could do is ask nicely."

De'car chuckled. "Well, consider this a polite request for your assistance then," he said and eyed John for a moment. "You still do not believe in the curse?"

"No," John agreed. "I don't. I think that whatever's wrong with this leviathan is somehow influencing you guys; the smell alone is enough to mess with your head."

"You have been with us for three solardays now," De'car said and pushed away from the latticework. "Yet you have not once watched me come or leave, have you?"

John thought about it for a moment and shrugged lightly. "Guess not. Is it important?"

"It would convince you, I think," De'car claimed. "Watch now, then. I will show you what you've missed so far." He took a step toward a patch of shadow and glanced back at John. "Are you watching?" he asked.

"Do you see me watching?" John asked back and shook his head with a small smile.

De'car's expression displayed neither annoyance nor offence. Instead he turned back toward the patch of shadow and stepped into it.

The universe as a whole stopped making any sense to John at that very moment. The smile frozen on his lips, he stared at what he could now only describe as a living corpse standing there. De'car had gone from an unhygienic yet whole-looking man to a half-rotted, mummified corpse of a man, yet he was still standing and very much alive. He turned back to face John and spread his arms, one skeletal, one still with strips of flesh on it. "Convinced yet?" he asked and the rotted remains of his face jerked into what probably was supposed to be a smile.

"Holy crap," John gasped and took a step back from the latticework of the cell wall. He closed his eyes, shook his head, and then focused on De'car again, who looked just as rotted and decayed as he had before he'd closed his eyes.

For a moment longer the Peacekeeper stood there in shadow, showing off his cursed self, but then he stepped forward into the light again and was immediately whole again. "Now tell me this is no curse," he suggested.

Okay, he couldn't. Whatever the hell this was, it was not something John could explain logically. Except ... "Hallucinations," he muttered and nodded, admittedly shaken to the core of his being by what he had just seen. "The bad air, the bad food, the water ... it's a hallucination. That's what this is."

De'car snorted. "You are a difficult one to convince," he said and stepped up to the latticework again. "As I mentioned before, you have been with us for three solardays. The curse has taken hold by now. Try this out yourself."

The idea that he himself might look that way in the shadows was totally ridiculous, but it still sent a shiver up his spine. "Bullshit," he claimed. "It's in my head. It's not real."

"Try it out yourself and you'll see," De'car said. "I will come back tomorrow. By then I assume you will have changed your mind about the curse." With that he turned around and walked away and this time John watched him go, seeing him change from whole to rotted corpse and back again as he passed through shadow and light.

"You gotta be kidding me," he muttered, turned his back on the door and sent a sweeping look around the cell. Shadows meant decay, light meant whole. It was very evident for the leviathan. It was evident for De'car as well. He raised one hand and stared at it; a bit dirty, but otherwise unmarked. Hesitantly, he approached a patch of shadow and stopped at the edge of it. He had done this before, stuck his hand into the shadows and seen no change. The prospect of seeing anything other than his hand, whole and unmarked, raised the hairs on the back of his neck and made him hesitate before he finally did slide his hand into the shadows. "Aw man," he whispered hoarsely and yanked his hand back out. It had gone from normal and whole to rotted and dead-looking. "This isn't happening. This can't be happening," he muttered and slid his hand into the shadows again only to see it change once more.

This time he held it there and stared at it, barely able to breathe. Half of the flesh on his fingers was missing; black-looking strips of skin were hanging off the remains. He turned his hand over and saw the same devastation on the other side. Then he slowly pulled his hand out again and watched as it went from rotting decay to normal when it passed from shadow to light. The thing that struck him was that he felt no difference. His hand didn't go numb and it didn't hurt either. "It has to be a hallucination," he muttered, but could not really find the drive to convince himself of this anymore.

***

Bartok's crew left him to ponder his situation for another solarday before De'car returned. He stood outside the cell all of a sudden, a crooked smile on his lips. "So?"

John rose, not certain he wanted to go with this. But he had managed to convince himself that he would not get off this boat alive if he didn't do this and the thought of never seeing Aeryn or Dargo again made his skin crawl. "Fine. You've convinced me. There's a curse," he said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. He wasn't entirely convinced, but he wanted to go home and he wouldn't be able to do that if he didn't give a little.

"Excellent," De'car said and opened the door. "And good timing too. The Captain wants to see you." He stepped aside and made a sweeping gesture at the corridor beyond.

The thought of passing through shadows and watching himself decay made him a little nauseous, but there was no way around it. Balling both hands into fists, he stepped out of the cell and gave De'car a brief look. "So ... I do this and I go home?"

"If you break the curse, you get to go home, yes," De'car agreed. "That's the deal."

John nodded and started walking. What else could he do?

De'car led the way and John found himself glancing away from the other man every time they passed through a patch of shadows. He wasn't all that squeamish, but he did feel a little off kilter at the moment and that feeling was upsetting his stomach a bit too. "So ... how long have you been out here?" he asked, hoping to strike up a conversation that would distract his thoughts.

"Hard to know," De'car said, turned a corner and came to a stop in front of the door to Command. "Too long, I guess." He opened the door and led the way inside.

"Ah, our reluctant savior," Captain Mardi said and rose from her throne.

John eyed her for a moment. "Okay, so you got me. I'll do whatever it is you want me to do. But only if I can count on that you'll drop me off where you found me once this is over."

Mardi pursed her lips. "That was the plan all along. Despite the potential you have for saving our collective backsides from this curse you are not Peacekeeper and not Sebacean. We do not want you on board any longer than necessary."

"Thanks," John grumbled and sent a look around Command. Every shadowy patch looked like crap. Everything else looked okay. "So ... what's the deal? What do I have to do?"

Mardi waved a hand and one of her crew turned on lights to illuminate the deeply decayed planning table - which of course restored it to perfect health the second the light hit it. She called up a star map and tapped on one of the planets swirling around in that mess of stars. "This is the origin of our curse; a wasteland now. It was lush and bountiful when we came upon it." She eyed the holographic display of the planet for a moment, but then aggressively swiped a hand through it. "Frelling rock."

John eyed the display alongside her, not sure what to make of it. Something had obviously changed the ecosystem of the planet after these cretins had visited it.

"There is a landing site there," Mardi said, tapped the planet and zoomed in on the point in question. "From there, you have to walk across this wasteland to here," she added and trailed a finger along the surface until she hit what looked like a crumpled tower. "Inside is the answer to our curse."

John frowned. That was a little vague in his opinion. "And ... what exactly is the answer? What am I looking for?"

Mardi's expression was hard to read while she eyed the display, her brow furrowed in thought. "You'll know when you see it," she replied cryptically.

"That's helpful," he muttered, assuming that she had no clue how to break this curse.

"All you have to do is make it to the tower and correct what's wrong," she said and glanced at him sideways.

The hologram of the planet wasn't big on details and it was a little jittery too, which made it hard to see anything clearly. "Is the air breathable?" he asked.

The Captain sighed and leaned her hip against the display, her arms now crossed over her chest. "Yes, but it is frelling hot on that rock."

So, heat prevented the Peacekeepers from reaching their goal then? He frowned a little. "Why don't you just put on a space suit?" he asked and glanced at the woman.

"Because the cloud cover does not permit the light of the sun to penetrate. Therefor we are in shadow. Therefor we are as good as dead. We tried everything. We even tried portable lights, but they do no good on the surface." She tapped the planet again and it zoomed back out to a dot among millions. "We need someone who can tolerate the heat, but can also pass as a Peacekeeper. And you can do both," she added and eyed him up and down in a critical way.

"Yeah, I get it," he agreed, a little annoyed. "So ... when will we reach this little gem?"

Mardi smiled disconcertingly. "We're already here. All you need to do is get in a pod and fly down there," she said, her gaze steely. "Try and run and Bartok will blast you out of the sky. He has weapons and he is as eager to be rid of this curse as we are."

John raised one hand and eyed it, then glanced at the shadows. "Don't worry. I won't run," he said. "How long is the distance from the landing site to that ... tower?"

De'car stepped forward. "About a motra," he said. "It should take you no more than half an arn to an arn to cover that distance."

"Unless the air down there is toxic and I die," John countered sarcastically. "Right. So what are we waiting for? Let's get this over with."

***

The bay De'car took him to was half in shadow and therefore half decayed. The stench was so overpowering that John had a hard time keeping his stomach at bay. With the back of one hand pressed against his mouth, he stopped just inside the doors and struggled against the rising bile.

"Man, that's nasty," he finally pressed out.

"You get used to it," De'car countered indifferently. "The only pod you can use is that one," he added and nodded at the one closest to them. "The others are ... unsafe."

John eyed the pods further on and had to agree. "Got a question," he said. "That one looks whole because it's in the light. Won't it decay once it hits the shadows? I mean ... what about out there? I don't want to suffocate in the middle of everything because there's no light out there and the pod loses half of its walls."

De'car smiled. "For some reason, this pod is not included in the whole curse thing. Might be because we need a means of correcting what we did wrong," he said.

It wasn't ideal. John wasn't at all sure he could trust De'car right now, but he figured he really had no choice. The space suit he was wearing would not protect him against the elements on the planet because it was just as infected by this curse as everything else on Bartok, but it gave him a false sense of security nonetheless. "Okay, fine," he said and started toward the pod.

"Fly safe, John Crichton," De'car said.

John stopped next to the pod and turned back to face him, a little rattled. "How'd you know my name? I haven't told you."

De'car merely smiled. "We're not out of the loop, Crichton," he said. "We may be cursed, but we still keep up on current events. We know all about you."

This explained a lot in John's opinion, but changed nothing about his present situation. He grimaced, turned around and climbed the steps up into the pod. The inside of the pod, once the door sealed behind him, was less pungent than Bartok and John breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe he would get used to the stench after a while, but he wasn't keen on staying long enough to test that theory.

He dropped into the pilot's seat and eyed the controls. They looked just like the ones in Moya's pods, which was helpful. "Okay, let's do this," he muttered and fired up the engines. What he was most nervous about was how the pod responded once it hit the shadows on the way out of the bay and he found himself holding onto the controls a little more tightly than necessary when the pod slipped into the shadows. He himself decayed, but the pod stayed whole. "Aw man, I'll never get used to this," he growled and forced himself to keep his eyes on the viewscreen instead of on his now decidedly dead hands.

The pod was more or less self-sufficient when it came to taking him where he needed to go and he wondered if it had an autopilot or if this was just more of that curse. Once it broke the cover of the steel gray soup this world called clouds, John got his first real view of the world he was going to land on. And it was a discouraging sight. Buildings lay crumbled and nothing grew anywhere. The pod settled almost gently on the dust-covered ground and he took a moment to just sit there and stare at the landscape the stretched out in front of him. "Holy crap," he muttered.

Since there was no direct sunlight and most of this world existed in a gloom, John abstained from looking at himself and also found that the helmet he had brought would be completely useless. And when he finally opened the hatch, he regretted that dearly. No Sebacean would survive these temperatures. The wall of compact heat that hit him the moment the hatch opened made him take a hesitant step back. "Crap. That's hot," he growled, took a couple of deep breaths and climbed down the steps.

The ground was rust red. Everything around him seemed affected by the rusty dust, even the air. His destination was visible in the distance and he figured De'car had the distance to it wrong. As far as he remembered a motra was about five or six kilometers and even though there was nothing to compare the distance to, he doubted he would be able to see the structure if it was that far away.

"Here goes nothing," he muttered and started walking.

Every step he took whirled up dust and after a few minutes, a burning breeze started blowing, raising more dust and reducing visibility to near zero. He covered his eyes with his hands, finding that skeletal hands were next to useless in keeping dust out of his eyes. "Stupid Peacekeepers and their stupid curses," he growled. Occasionally he squinted ahead to make sure he was still heading in the right direction and when the breeze finally settled again, he almost tripped over the edge of the ruin he had spied in the distance.

Part of the tower was still standing and, once he was inside, he found the shelter he wasn't able to find outside. Although the ruin was anything but cool, it was at least a few degrees cooler than outside. "Gotta be grateful for small favors," he muttered and performed the rather useless task of trying to brush some of the dust off his clothes. This incited him to glance down himself and the sight of decay and rot made him sneer helplessly. "Man, I can't wait to get this over with," he growled, then sent a look around the inside of the tower ruin.

The only thing worthwhile was a pedestal sticking out of the floor in the middle of the collapsing circle of the tower. He slowly approached while keeping an eye out for trouble, but as far as he could tell, he was pretty much alone on this dust ball of a world. The pedestal, which wasn't really a pedestal and more a big barrel made of stone, had a smooth top except for the center, which formed a sort of fist-sized hollow. He leaned in over it and eyed it for a moment. A lot of the red dust had accumulated in the hollow and he spent a moment digging it out to get a better idea of what this hollow might be used for. There were no buttons or anything else, but the hollow was lined with metal. He glanced upward and wondered if this place had actually been used to power something.

"Something's definitely missing here," he muttered and sent a look around. There was no immediate indication of what might be missing, but he was pretty sure the hollow had held something specific and he figured that one of Mardi's crew - if not Mardi herself - had snatched whatever had been sitting in the hollow and had thereby started a chain-reaction that had led to the decay of this world and thereby Bartok and his wayward crew. Maybe it was a plague of some kind, he mused.

He mopped a hand over his brow and grimaced at the sense of bone scraping over bone. The heat was getting to him in a big way and he longed for cooler surroundings and water. Even Bartok's foul-tasting water would be a welcome change right now. "Damn," he muttered and stood up straight. "I should have brought water."

The fact was that there was nothing he could do here. Whatever was needed to break this curse, it wasn't here, and he assumed that it was on Bartok. "Well, this has been a waste of time," he said to himself, turned and left the tower again.

The hot air combined with the lack of moisture was really starting to take its toll. His head was pounding, his mouth was dry and he felt his already decaying skin peeling off him while he hurried back toward the pod. Wind buffeted him and whirled up clouds of red dust that made him cough and his eyes water. He fought his way back to the pod step by step while the wind kept increasing and the dust got in everywhere.

By some stroke of luck, since he couldn't see anything but red dust at that point, he bumped into the pod and knew that he could just as easily have walked past it and gotten completely lost in this soup of a dust storm. Since seeing entailed more than he could muster right now, he felt his way along the hull until he found the steps and climbed them with some effort.

Once the hatch had closed behind him and the ventilation system of the pod had kicked in in response to the dust he had dragged in with him, he slumped back against the wall and started breathing a little easier. "That was fun," he rasped and coughed heavily for a moment. "Tastes like burned metal," he added, pushed away from the wall again and made his way back to the cockpit while once again cursing his lack of planning. There was no water in the pod either and he was really beginning to ache for moisture.

***

Mardi stood there watching him when he climbed out of the pod again. Back in the light of Bartok's bay, John scratched the side of his neck pensively while the remains of the dust still tickled his throat.

"I see no change," Mardi said. She looked annoyed and displayed a complete lack of compassion for his situation; not that this really surprised him. She was a Peacekeeper, after all.

John grimaced and pushed past her on shaky legs. He needed water before he would even consider talking to that bitch. De'car was obviously a step ahead of him because he held out a flask. "Drink," he suggested.

Pouring half of the water down his throat in one go did him good, but he knew it would take some time and proper rest before he was able to even think straight.

"What happened?" Mardi insisted.

John turned back to face her. "Nothing happened. Something's missing down there. I don't know what, but there's a hollow in that ... pedestal in the middle of the tower, so I'm assuming that one of your crew has whatever it is in his or her possession."

The look that earned him made his skin crawl. On one too many levels, Mardi reminded him of Grayza and he really had no wish to remember that bitch; not after the hell she'd put him through. "None of my crew would ..."

He stopped her by raising a hand. "Don't tell me that none of your crew would have stolen that. That's why you got into this mess in the first place, Mardi. You stole from whoever used to live on that rock," he said a little angrily. "It's hell down there. Whatever that tower was, it must have somehow kept the eco balance of that world in check. By removing ... whatever it is ..." He stopped and pinched the bridge of his nose while squeezing his lids shut for a moment. The headache was really making it hard for him to focus. "This whole mess is giving me a headache," he growled, forced a sigh and glared at her. "I need some rest."

"You need to get back down there the microt we find whatever it is," Mardi disagreed.

John barely refrained from rolling his eyes at her. "If you want me to go back down there, Captain, you're gonna have to give me some time to recover. I'm not going to do you any good if I only get halfway and drop from exhaustion."

She was not pleased, but John really didn't give a crap right now. He had to play hardball or he would end up dead. For a moment, the good Captain considered his words before finally nodding. "Fine. Get some rest. I'll see if I can find what you're looking for."

"Thank you," he growled and left the bay in search of a cell that was lit and therefore whole.

He took the flask with him and found a cell with a shower after a bit of searching. Despite the bad taste of the water, the shower did wonders, and he managed to feel less dried out and less headachy by the time he dropped down on the bed.

***

"Crichton."

Someone grabbed his shoulder and shook him and it took him a moment to realize where he was. "Get off me," he muttered into the pillow.

"I'm not on you," De'car replied, managing to sound a little puzzled. "Captain Mardi wants to see you. She's found the item in question."

At first, he refused to open his eyes. He had only just lain down, after all. "That was quick," he muttered and pushed up on his elbows. "Man, I feel like crap."

"No doubt," De'car agreed. "You'd better get up and meet her, though. If she has to come to you, things might not turn out so well."

John sighed and squinted up at the other man. "Alright already," he groused and sat up. "What was it then? Some kind of gadget?"

The Peacekeeper arched an eyebrow. "A crystal. Seems to be a control crystal of some sort. The solider that took it has been punished."

"Ouch," John muttered and rose. "Let's go see the woman before she busts a vein," he added and gave De'car a lopsided smirk to take the edge off his words. He meant it, but the other man didn't necessarily need to know that.

Mardi was pacing when he finally entered Command and only came to a stop once the door had closed behind him again. Her eyes burned with anger when she held out a fist-sized pale-blue crystal. "This is what is causing our curse?" she asked, her voice clipped.

John eyed the crystal for a second. "I guess so. It could fit in the hollow," he said.

"Then return to that frelled dust ball and replace it. Rid us of this curse now!" Patience didn't really seem to be her favorite emotion.

John took the crystal and held it up into the light. The beam hit the center of the crystal and spattered multi-facetted color all over Command. "You got it," he agreed, gave her a tight smile and turned around to leave Command again.

"De'car. Go with him," Mardi said.

Everybody froze in place. The men that John could see looked uncomfortable. John turned back to face Mardi. "He doesn't need to go with me. He won't survive down there. It's almost too hot for me," he tried.

"Not to the planet, you fekkik. To the bay," Mardi shot back, angry now. "You really think I would sacrifice my second-in-command on this frelled mission?"

"Alright already," he countered and raised both hands. "My bad."

That expression confused her. "What the frell does that mean?" she snarled.

De'car grabbed John's arm and pulled him back a step. "Go now," he suggested, his tone urgent.

John figured that he was about to step in it again and decided to take the man's advice to heart. "My mistake," he corrected himself, turned and strode out before Mardi could come up with something that might put his return to his family in jeopardy.

De'car followed him and handed him another flask when they reached the bay. "You may want to hydrate down there if you can," he said.

John nodded. "Thanks," he said and tapped the flask he'd already stuffed into the hip pocket of the spacesuit. "Better safe than sorry, I guess." He strode back to the pod with more confidence than he felt and refrained from looking back. Even though De'car had proven to be a good guy, he was still a Peacekeeper, and once this wretched crew of the damned were back to normal, John figured that any leeway they'd given him so far would run out very quickly.

The pod took off on the same trajectory again and John decided that this thing had to have an autopilot hidden away somewhere. Curse or not, he just didn't believe any supernatural intervention was guiding the pod. So he leaned back and closed his eyes. He was still beat and wanted anything other than to fight his way through the dust storm and the blistering heat. He had to grab what rest he could before he landed.

A sudden jitter that nearly spilled him to the floor rippled through the pod, forcing him to sit up straight and squint at his surroundings. The jitter had been the pod settling back down on the ground of the planet. "Naps just aren't what they used to be," he muttered and scrubbed both hands over his face while trying to ignore the feel of bone scraping against bone. "It's all an illusion," he told himself and got up.

He briefly touched the pocket that held the crystal and having convinced himself that it was still there, he headed toward the hatch. "I am not going to enjoy this," he growled and pressed the door opener.

The heat slapping him in the face was even more brutal than the first time and he found himself gasping for air for a second. He climbed down the steps, oriented himself as much as he could in the red dust storm raging around him and then headed in the general direction he thought the tower was in.

Halfway there he stopped briefly to regain his bearings and wished he could drink some of the water. But opening either of the two flasks would make the water inside undrinkable and he figured he had to wait until he reached the tower. So he pushed on, fighting the buffeting wind, wincing at the sting of the dust scraping away at his already decayed flesh. He wondered if any of that would be visible once he was back in the light and shuddered at the thought of the curse not being broken.

He finally made it to the tower and found the relative shelter inside all the more inviting. The first thing he did was drain one of the flasks. Then he headed directly toward the pedestal and dug out the crystal. "Here goes nothing," he muttered and dropped it into the hollow in the stone. Nothing happened. He adjusted it a little, turned it a bit, and found that it had a setting when it clicked into place. Yet nothing happened.

"Aw crap," he muttered and glanced around the room, then focused on his skeletal hand. "Man, I do not wanna look like this for the rest of eternity."

He sent a long look around the collapsing room, searching for anything that might help speed this along, but there was nothing visible. The heat was brutal, the raging storm outside was making the remaining structure shiver around him, and the red dust kept drizzling down on him from all sides. "Aw, for frell's sake," he rasped, pulled the stopper out of the second flask and took a sip. He didn't dare drain the second flask and despite the horrible conditions on this world, he was in no particular hurry to get back to Bartok. Mainly because Mardi seemed to be losing her patience with him and he could only guess at what would happen if he returned with the curse still in effect.

While pondering a possible future that included this half-life, he completely managed to miss the light shiver that was rippling through the floor. When he did register it, his first thought was that it was the beginning of an earthquake.

"What the ..." was all he managed to say before a ray of the purest light shot out of the pedestal and into the sky above. The ground under his feet began to shake in earnest and pieces of the tower walls started crashing to the floor around him. The safest place to be, it seemed, was right next to the pedestal, but the light from the beam was so bright, he had to turn his back on it to avoid having his eyes scorched out of his skull.

With one arm pressed against his face to shield his eyes from the searing light, he leaned back against the pedestal to steady himself and wait this out. The ground under his feet became too unsteady and he ended up dropping down on the dusty floor, his back pressed against the pedestal, while the world around him shook and the light blasting out of the pedestal behind him seared the sky and the inside of the tower.

Eventually, the shaking evened out and it took him a moment or two longer before he could convince himself to pull his arm away from his eyes. The first thing that hit him was the quality of the air. It was a balmy warm now rather than a blistering burn-your-skin-from-your-bones hot. He blinked a few times to clear residue dust from his eyes and then glanced around the tower ruin.

The light inside the ruin was different. It was brighter, more blue. With a frown furrowing his brow, John glanced upward and was staggered by the fact that the sky, which had so far been slate gray, was now a very pale blue. Tufts of grey clouds drifted by above him and he could feel the temperature dropping.

Rising to his feet, he turned back to face the pedestal and noted that the beam of light was still there, but it wasn't as brilliant any more. It was the same pale blue as the sky above him.

Realizing that he was still in shadow, he raised his hands and stared at them for a moment. "Oh wow," he muttered. Whatever had caused the hallucinations was definitely gone. His hands were whole; dirty, but whole. With a sigh of relief, he opened the second flask and took a sip of the water, then paused and eyed the flask suspiciously. It tasted fine now. "Guess I'm going home," he muttered and couldn't help a smile. But it faltered as fast as it appeared. What if Mardi didn't honor her end of the deal? What if they decided to kill him the second he set foot on Bartok again?

He stepped out of the tower ruin and frowned. His surroundings had gone from rust red to dust gray. The wind had settled and the temperatures were very much within the tolerable now.

Rebellious thoughts of escaping in the pod rippled through his mind, but the problem his present situation presented was that a leviathan pod wasn't made for long trips. He could use it, but he would have to stop frequently and he really didn't want to risk that. Besides, he had no clue which way that commerce planet was. Bartok had starburst a few times on their trek to this place and that was one thing he knew the pod couldn't do. For all he knew, he could drift around in space for the rest of eternity and never catch up to Moya and his family again.

Grimacing, he stopped in front of the pod and eyed it for a moment. It had looked whole all the time, but now it looked new too. He figured he had no other choice than to go back to Bartok and risk Mardi and the crew's duplicity. He was unarmed, but he had just saved them, so he hoped against hope that it would make enough of a difference to see him safely back to Moya.

***

De'car was there to receive him when the pod landed and the other man looked very relaxed and downright happy.

"You did it," De'car said and smiled. His previously so unclean appearance with rotted teeth and a bad odor hanging around him was gone. "You're the hero of the day on Bartok."

John smiled lightly. "That's good to hear. As long as it means you'll take me back to where you found me, it's all good."

"That's the plan," De'car said.

John had to admit that he was more likely to believe in curses now. Bartok looked alive and vibrant. The smell of rot and decay was gone and there was not a hole to be seen anywhere. What remained of Bartok's crew had gathered in Command together with Captain Mardi. John did notice that the stone throne wasn't gone and he wondered what kind of power trip she was on to have installed something like that on her ship.

"You succeeded," she said, a smile on her lips. "I must admit, I had my doubts. But you came through. We are able to go home."

John glanced around at the assembled men and women and made a halfhearted shrug. "I want to go home too, so ... it was really a no-brainer."

The expression caused her to frown, but she shrugged it off. "Well, you kept your end of the deal, so we will keep ours," she said. "We shall take you back to where we found you."

He nodded, still not entirely sure he could trust her. Only time would tell, he assumed.

***

All the way back to the commerce planet where they had scooped him up, John expected disaster to strike. Uncharacteristically of him, he had withdrawn to a cell to wait out the trip alone. It was strategically placed at the bend of a corridor, which gave him the opportunity of seeing anyone approaching from either side. There was a vent in the wall behind him that was big enough for him to get into as well. In other words, he had his exits covered and was as prepared as he could be. The only thing that bothered him was the absence of any physical means of defense, but, as Aeryn had once pointed out, he was good at hiding.

He was also tired. This whole ordeal had drained him and the food, although no longer as stale, was still less nutritional than it could have been. That coupled with the heat exhaustion and he was pretty much on the edge of his endurance.

That thought made him smirk joylessly. His endurance was a hell of a lot bigger than he ever thought. If anyone back home had told him that he would survive torture, insanity and living through things that no human being was supposed to ... well, he would have laughed his head off or disbelieved them in any event. Because ... who did that? Who went through something like that and came out borderline sane at the other end? The veterans back home had seen hell and had been worse for wear. He had been caught in a war, on the run from insane forces with the biggest baddest nightmare of all time breathing down his neck, and he was still able to be there for his family. He didn't wake up from nightmares, he didn't ... Something stopped him and the smirk turned very wry. "Paranoid much, Johnny?" he muttered, shook his head lightly and let it drop back against the wall.

"Are you in the habit of talking to yourself?"

He sat up straight and focused on De'car. The man was sneaky. Even with all his preparation and nervousness, he hadn't heard the other man approach. When nothing about De'car's posture indicated that he was going to shoot him, John relaxed a little. "Yeah, it's just a thing I do," he admitted and got to his feet. "So ... what's the verdict? Am I still free to go?"

"We've just reached that drenhole of a commerce planet where we ran into each other. Your pod is ready for you," De'car countered.

Still unsure of what would happen in the end, John took a step forward. "Great. This hasn't exactly been the best experience of my life," he said.

De'car nodded. "I can understand that," he agreed.

Together they headed toward the bay that held Moya's pod and John felt a surge of emotion at seeing it. He had no idea if Moya and her crew would still be here, but he hoped so. At least he could try and contact them from here.

The bay was empty apart from himself and De'car and on some level he could admit to himself that he found that a little offensive. He'd just saved their collective asses and they couldn't even see him off? Instead of making a fuss about that and thereby risking an outcome he wasn't prepared for, he glanced at De'car. "Can't say it's been a pleasure, but thanks for taking me back here," he said.

"It's our pleasure," De'car said with a crooked smile. "Your leviathan is in orbit around the planet, by the way. Just thought you'd like to know."

It took some doing to subdue the urge to grin like a goon; he was still too nervous that something would go wrong and he didn't want to challenge fate on this one. "Thanks," he said and made sure his tone of voice was subdued. "Can't say that I hope to see you guys again," he added sarcastically.

De'car chuckled. "I hope the same," he countered. "Go before someone changes their minds about this," he added and nodded toward the pod.

John didn't have to be told twice. He strode over to the pod and climbed the steps, reminding himself that he wasn't safe until Moya had pulled the pod into her bay.

***

On Moya 

For a full monan Moya had not budged from the commerce planet and Aeryn had used every channel she could think of to find out more about Bartok. As it turned out, this was not the first time that Bartok had turned up at this world. The long-timers were used to the demonic leviathan by now and everybody else either ignored the events or avoided them like the plague.

What had kept Moya in orbit around the planet was the fact that the people Bartok had abducted were returned to this place within a monan and Aeryn was willing to wait that long if it meant getting John back.

Dargo was sitting on his playmate, submerged in his never-ending quest to stick everything that got within his reach into his mouth, while Aeryn was studying the real-time map of the surrounding space. "Frell," she muttered. "Pilot, is there anything going on out there that we can't see on the map?"

"No, Aeryn. Nothing," Pilot replied. He sounded tired and to a certain degree Aeryn could understand that. That didn't mean that she was about to abandon John though.

"Thank you for your patience, Pilot," she said, turned her back on the display and leaned back against the edge of the planning table to watch her son. "Let's give it another day or two. If they have not returned by then, I think we should ..." She couldn't even get herself to say it out loud. John would not abandon her. Why should she abandon him?

"Aeryn!"

She turned around to face Pilot's image on the clamshell. "What is it?"

Moya shifted position at that very moment and rather violently so. Aeryn grabbed a hold of the planning table, but little D got knocked over and instantly started howling like someone had punched him. "Moya apologizes," Pilot said even though he sounded a little stressed. "She had to move out of Bartok's way."

The microt Moya's movements settled again, Aeryn dashed over to her distressed son and hauled him into her arms. "It's okay. Nothing happened," she reassured him, then sent a look over at the real-time display. Bartok in all his might sailed into view, right past Moya's external sensors. The huge leviathan was so close that Aeryn felt like she could reach out and touch him.

The microt the larger male had passed Moya, he banked and headed toward the commerce planet. Halfway there, he drifted to a halt and just hung there.

The comm system sparked to life. "Aeryn? Pilot? Can you hear me?"

Dargo had fallen silent again and looked around in search of his father. Aeryn just stared at the display for a microt, not allowing herself to believe. "John?" she finally asked.

"Yeah. I'm coming home," John replied.

The pod finally became visible on the display, quickly distancing itself from Bartok. "Grab it, Pilot," Aeryn urged, suddenly frantic. The thought of losing him again now that he was that close made her skin crawl.

Dargo dug his small fingers into her arms with a strength that was disconcerting. Aeryn assumed the boy was picking up on her anxiousness and translated it into fear.

"Deploying the web now," Pilot said and moments later, the pod veered a little sideways, then was hauled steadily toward Moya. "Starbursting in one microt," he added and Aeryn only barely managed to latch onto the planning table before Moya launched into starburst, pulling the pod with her.

***

The moment the bay doors start to cycle open, Aeryn handed little D over to Chiana and pushed through the by then narrow opening.

The pod hatch was already open and she could barely contain herself when she saw him descending the steps. He stopped when he reached the floor and just stared at her. And all she could do for a microt longer was to stare back.

He looked so frelling tired, she could almost feel it coming off him in waves. But the smile on his lips belied his general state of health. "Aeryn," he said and before she could think of anything to say, he swept her into an embrace that reminded her of his response to seeing her when he thought he had killed her back on that ice planet cycles ago.

She in turn wrapped her arms tightly around him and tried to decide on any one way to respond. A part of her was tearing up while the other part wanted to slap him for making her worry and a third part was just so deliriously happy to have him back, she didn't know which foot to stand on.

When he finally pulled back, she eyed him closely. "What the frell happened?" she asked.

He smirked, shook his head, and then pressed his lips together into a thin line. "I don't even know where to begin. This has to be the most surreal experience I've ever had. It beats Maldis by about a mile," he said and focused on her. "And all I could think of was how the hell I was gonna get back to you guys."

Aeryn blinked. "Maldis?" she asked.

"Hey, old man." Chiana broke the moment when John turned to greet the girl and his son.

"Hey, Pip," he said and kissed her brow, then took his son in his arms. "Hey dude. How're you, huh?"

Dargo broke into a wide-mouthed smile and expressed his happiness at seeing his father again by gurgling loudly. John grinned and kissed the kid's forehead.

"My sentiment exactly," he agreed. "It's good to be home."

"John," Aeryn tried, but found herself uncommonly at a loss for words.

"I'll be happy to share everything with you guys, but I'm dead on my feet here. I really need to sleep for a bit," he said and struggled in vain to subdue a yawn.

Dissatisfied yet relieved, Aeryn nodded her consent and let him go. She had rarely seen him this tired before and it brought back memories of the first time she had truly witnessed his self-sacrificing ways.

"He looks like dren," Chiana commented quietly.

"He looks tired," Aeryn half agreed. "He will fill us in when he is rested."

***

John fell into bed after ridding himself of jacket, belt and boots. The rest would have to wait until he had slept a little.

What felt like minutes later, a brief jerk sent him off the edge of the bed and landed him on the floor. "What the ..." he gasped, startled awake by that sudden movement.

It took him a good few seconds before he even knew where he was and for the briefest of moments, the smell of rot tickled his nose. But then it was gone and he was looking up at Moya's golden walls.

"Moya apologizes," Pilot's voice rang from the comms. "She seems to sense ghosts around every planet."

John sighed and struggled to get up on his hands and knees. "We need seatbelts on these damned beds," he muttered, got off the floor and back into bed, pulling the sheets up with him.

"John?"

Aeryn's voice was laden with concern and even though he wanted nothing more than to pull the pillow over his head and go back to sleep, he felt an almost as overwhelming need to answer her too. "Yeah?"

"Are you alright?"

He just lay there for a moment, eyes closed, while every inch of him demanded he go back to sleep. "Yeah," he muttered and shifted a little.

"John!"

Her tone was more insistent, getting harder to ignore. "I'm fine," he said a little louder.

This was answered with a long moment of silence. "Frell. Why isn't he answering?"

"I believe I heard him reply, Aeryn," Pilot responded.

"Is he alright?"

John groaned and cracked an eyelid open to squint at the interior of the cell. Since getting any rest was obviously out of the question as long as she was in mother-hen-mode, he figured he might as well just get up and reassure her. Maybe she would lay off long enough for him to get some decent rest.

Every fiber of his body protested when he pushed up on his elbows and then stopped to convince himself to move further. But, damn, it was hard. "I'm fine," he called, hoping that might put her worries to rest.

"No need to yell."

He turned his head and looked over toward the doorway, where she was standing, one hand on the latticework, her expression one of slight worry. "I'm not yelling," he said, not entirely able to hide his slight irritation.

"Why are you not sleeping? You look like dren," she said.

With a heartfelt sigh, he flopped back down on the bed and closed his eyes. "I'm trying to. Hard to get any decent rest when you get thrown out of bed every two microts," he complained and tried in vain to stifle a yawn.

He felt the edge of the bed give a little when she settled down there. "What the frell are you talking about?"

"Moya got spooked. Took a hard turn to the wrong side. Sent me flying," he muttered into the pillow under his face.

"That was arns ago," Aeryn said, sounding puzzled.

He considered that reply for a moment, made a non-committal grunt and tried to drift off, only to feel her fingers brushing through his hair.

"You've got me worried, John. You haven't slept this long since ..." She paused, hesitant to go on, and he knew why. Bringing up that incident was never a welcome thing for him.

"Just wasted," he muttered, yawned again and briefly squinted up at her.

She leaned in and kissed his temple. "I'm just happy you're back," she said quietly, got up and left.

And John couldn't help smiling. She had come a long way since the first time he had met her. But, then again, so had he.

***

Center Chamber

"What the frell happened?"

He had been expecting this question ever since he had gotten up after sleeping for three days straight. The moment he had realized how long he had been asleep he could fully understand Aeryn's concern.

Since he had woken up a few arns ago, Aeryn had refrained from asking him the hard questions, but that stay of execution had obviously come to an end.

He eyed the foodcube before him while still trying to set it all straight in his head. "Curses," he finally said and looked up to face her. She was sitting across from him, her own meager meal in front of her.

"What the frell does that mean?" she asked, a slight frown furrowing her brow.

"Apparently, they're real," he said and couldn't help a snorted laugh. "Which makes me wonder about all the fairytales they tell on Earth."

"I'm not following," she admitted.

"What do you know of a leviathan called Bartok?" he asked and eyed her closely for her reaction. She displayed next to none, but even so he could tell she knew what he was talking about. He had learned to read her pretty well over the cycles he had known her.

"Rumors," she said and looked down at the contents of her plate. "Scary stories told to young cadets to keep them in line. Better stick to the rules or the crew of Bartok will get you." She smiled, looking a little lost. "But it's real, isn't it? Bartok is real?"

"Apparently," he agreed. "Either that or they had some pretty serious hallucinogens on that boat, because I saw things I wouldn't have believed - despite all I've seen out here - if I hadn't seen it for myself."

"You think there was something in the food? Or the water?" she asked, a faint quiver of hope in her voice.

"It's not out of the question. I'm not convinced either way. I ... saw things that made no sense, Aeryn. Things that made me think of horror stories I heard back home, fairytales told to scare kids." He paused and picked at the food cube. Nothing had ever tasted better, but at the same time it was bland and uninteresting. "Bartok is real. His crew is real. And that ... bitch running that leviathan is real. She makes Grayza look like a fairy princess, by the way."

"Captain Mardi," Aeryn supplied. "You met Coora Mardi?"

There was something in her tone that made him focus on her. "Yeah," he agreed.

"John, the tale of Bartok and his damned crew has been around from long before I was born. At least two hundred cycles if not more," she said. "There is no way you could have met Coora Mardi if they only had something wrong with the water or the food."

John sighed lightly. "Why don't you go and burst my bubble, huh?" he asked with a lopsided smirk that he didn't really feel. "Do you think the datastores have any images of her? Or her crew?"

"I know they do," Aeryn agreed and rose.

They left the Center Chamber and headed to Command, where Aeryn did a brief search for the information she was after. Then she brought the images up on the planning table. "That is ...."

"... Coora Mardi," John confirmed while he stared at the image of the woman he had met on Bartok. Her command crew had fanned out behind her. "And that's De'car, her second in command," he added, pointing to the first guy to her right.

Aeryn stared at the image for a moment. "That image is ..." she inspected the text underneath, "... over two hundred cycles old. It was taken right before they set out on their last mission, right before Bartok disappeared."

For a moment they both remained silent. Then they glanced at each other. "So curses are real," John finally said. "Because ... that's the crew I met. And I've never seen this image before or even heard about Bartok."

"Frell," Aeryn breathed and switched the images off. "I guess that there really is more out there than meets the eye," she said and gave him a smile.

"There sure is," he agreed while still staring at the spot the image of Bartok's crew had just occupied. He couldn't help thinking about what might be happening right now on board of that enormous leviathan. Would they return to the Peacekeepers? Would they be welcomed or shunned? Would they be prosecuted for three hundred year old crimes or be welcomed back as heros? And if they didn't return to the Peacekeepers, where would they go? "It's a big galaxy out there," he muttered and glanced at Aeryn. "Let's just hope that's the last we hear of that fairytale then."

"Let's," she agreed and took his hand. "I'm just glad you came back in one piece."

"Me too," he agreed and slipped his arms around her. "Me too."

The End