Fate or Destiny

By Hawk

Email: Hawk

Genre: General

Rating: FRT-13 

Disclaimer: I don't own 'em. Check my wallet, it's sad really. I'm only borrowing the characters portrayed here - - I'll return them eventually and if you disregard the bemused grins they'll be wearing, you'll find them nearly as I found them. Honest!

Permission to Archive: PLEASE do not archive.

Warnings: mild language, torture

Summary: Unsettling dreams portend change for the Captain of the Andromeda Ascendant - - and not all change is good.

A/N: If you recognize this fic from someplace else, don't panic. I didn't steal it. I just write under a couple of different names.

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Dylan rubbed his forehead angrily; trying to stop the headache he knew was coming. It was no use. Somehow when Harper became involved, he always ended up with a headache - - usually from exasperation. Some days he'd swear Harper was timing just how long it took him to piss Dylan off - - was trying to beat his personal best or something. It was a good thing that the younger man was good (very good) at what he did or Dylan would have thrown him off his ship long before now.

"Mr. Harper!"

The barking sound of Dylan's voice cut through the inane chatter currently being spewed forth by Harper and the younger man looked up in surprise.

"Yeah, Boss?"

He was nearly bouncing in his excitement and Dylan sighed, knowing instinctively his next question would bring him nothing but misery. He rubbed his forehead again. "What did you find Mr. Harper?" Dylan looked around quickly, making sure they hadn't been spotted as of yet. The hair on the back of his neck was prickling and he could swear they were being watched. It was unsettling to say the least - - especially since, if they were discovered, they would be arrested - - or worse.

"This is awesome, Boss. I never knew such a collection of scientific data existed in one place. These people must…" He stopped talking as Dylan held up his hand.

"Harper. What - - exactly - - did - - you - - find? And can it help us?"

Harper licked his lips and bounced on his toes. "Yeah, Boss. It's here - - it's all here. Buyers, sellers, future shipments. You name it and they wrote it down."

Dylan nodded once and then all hell broke loose. He yelled at Harper to get down, even as he pulled his own weapon. Spinning to the right, he put a half-wall between him and the men currently shooting at them. Harper was firing from a similar position to his left. Dylan watched helplessly as the younger man stood to fire and was hit multiple times. He fell. Dylan lurched forward, barely stopping himself before he stepped into the line of fire. A low growl burst forth from his chest as he wordlessly cried out for his fallen crewmember - - his friend.

The shots from in front of him continued and Dylan peered around the edge of the wall, trying to assess his situation. Suddenly he was jumped from behind, his foes having come up behind him unseen. He was pushed down on the ground, the breath knocked from his lungs as he hit. The struggle was brief - - the forces against him overwhelming in their numbers. A wordless cry escaped his lips as his hands were wrenched behind his back and cuffed tightly. A heavy weight pressed into his lower back - - someone's knee holding him immobile? He lay on the ground, his cheek pressing into the cold tile. Directly in his line of sight lay Harper, his sightless eyes forever staring - - all life extinguished.

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"No!" Dylan sat up in the inky darkness, his cries echoing in the empty room. His hands shook as he ran them over his face and took deep breaths, trying to calm his pounding heart.

"Dylan? Are you okay?" Andromeda's voice startled him.

He cleared his throat. "Fine, Andromeda. I'm fine." He sighed softly. "Good night," he added, trying to belay the inevitable questions about why he screamed out in the middle of the night. Now was definitely not the time he wanted to explain his nightmares to Andromeda - - or anyone else for that matter.

"Good night, Captain."

Dylan lay back with a small groan, knowing it was useless to try to get any more sleep this night. With a loud sigh of frustration he sat up, the midnight-blue satin sheets of his bed pooling at his waist. He rubbed the sleep from his face and threw the covers back.

"Lights - - dim." The lighting in his room came on, illuminating the darkness just enough that he could see. He looked around at his quarters, noting with a sense of familiarity the accumulated artifacts of his life.

The pictures of he and Sara still adorned his desk and chest of drawers and now a picture of his mom and dad sat next to them. A glass case held the reminders of many missions - - both failed and successful. The vase put together with blood and tears from the Shards of Rimni, the various medals - - including the one awarded after the debacle on Mobius. They all held a story - - some he remembered with fondness, some with shudders of half-buried pain.

The crew didn't understand the hold these pieces of his history had on him. Beka and Tyr had once tried to convince him to clean out his quarters and start anew. How could they possibly understand that these items - - junk, they'd called them - - were the only link he had to his past?

His family was gone, his father killed before his very eyes long after he was sure he'd never see him again in this life. His fiancée was gone, along with his dreams of a home and family of his own. All he had were the few pieces of clay, stone and plastic that adorned his rooms to remind him of who he was and the ideals he held dear. And he had Rommie, of course. But Rommie - - well, Rommie - - Andromeda - - she was his ship. She was also his friend, if he cared to admit it (which was usually only to himself and in the middle of a particularly long night) - - but she was also a reminder of what his life was supposed to have been, a reminder of just how things had gone terribly wrong.

Harper was the only person who seemed to understand why he collected these reminders of his past. But then maybe Harper was the only one aboard his ship who had his past ripped away from him also. Granted, his life had been ripped apart by the Neitzchean invasion and subjugation of Earth while Dylan's had been destroyed by the event horizon of a black hole - - but they'd both lost their families to war. Yes, Harper could relate, especially since watching the Earth be destroyed and not being able to do a thing about it. All those souls lost forever. It's no wonder why Harper had withdrawn into himself and was working on some secret project. It was most probably the only thing keeping him sane right now.

Dylan sat on the edge of his bed for a few minutes then got to his feet. "Damn. If I can't sleep I'm not going to sit here feeling sorry for myself." He slipped on a black tank top then looked down at himself. He was wearing a pair of loose-fitting black sleep pants. His bare feet peeked out from beneath the hems. He shrugged. "It's my ship. Who do I have to impress?"

The door opened with a soft whooshing sound as he stepped close and he exited the room on silent feet. The corridor was deserted. Not that that was at all surprising. After all, a ship of Andromeda's size should hold at least a thousand souls - - and currently they were housing a much more meager crew than that.

Andromeda knew the second her captain left his quarters. It was her job to know where each and every person on board the ship was at all times. She kept this data running and updating in the background while she performed various tasks. If someone had asked her where Harper was at that very moment she could have told them - - after a brief search of her sensor records. If someone asked where Dylan was she always knew immediately. He was never just a part of a program running in the background. Was she in love with her Captain? Maybe, but she wasn't going to let that ruin the nearly perfect working relationship they had.

Dylan soon found himself standing before the opening doors of the Hydroponics Garden, not quite sure just what had drawn him to this place. He entered the dimly lighted space and looked around while taking a deep breath. // Trance has really worked wonders in this place. // The scents of the various plants wafted on the ever circulating air and he smiled as they triggered memories of walking with his father through the imperial gardens on Tarn Vedra. His dad could tell him the name of every plant they walked by, often giving him lessons in gardening while they strolled. He took his work as gardener very seriously and, as a small boy, Dylan ate up every word.

As Dylan walked down the rows of plants he mentally repeated the names of the species he knew. When he turned a corner, there she was - - and why was he not surprised? Trance always seemed to know when she was needed, sometimes even before the person needing her knew it. This was one of those times.

Dylan smiled as Trance looked up at him. The sadness in her eyes made his smile slip from his face. He looked down, shuffling his bare feet a little before looking up again. She was studiously avoiding his gaze.

Her voice was soft. "You aren't sleeping well."

It wasn't a question, but still Dylan felt the need to answer. "No, I'm not. I've been having - - unsettling dreams lately."

Trance nodded and picked up a spray bottle. She began misting the plants.

Dylan cleared his throat. "Trance?"

She turned away further, setting the bottle down and picking up a trowel. She began turning the soil in one of the beds.

Dylan fidgeted as he watched, knowing instinctively that she was trying to avoid him. "Trance, I need to ask you a question."

Trance stiffened then sighed as she hung her head. "Yes, Dylan."

Her voice was anguished and her answer seemed "final". Dylan stared for a minute.

"Trance?"

She straightened her shoulders, but didn't turn around.

"Yes, Dylan." He frowned. "That was your answer, wasn't it?" He turned away for a minute, silently fuming. Suddenly he turned back. "How the hell can you just say 'yes' and leave it at that?"

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She flinched as he shouted at her, but didn't turn to face his wrath until he was finished yelling. When she finally turned around his breath caught in his throat as he looked at the anguish burning in her gaze.

"Trance?"

"What do you want to know?"

Dylan ran his hands through his hair. "You know about my dream?"

She nodded.

"What was my question going to be?"

She sighed softly. "You wanted to know if your dream was going to come true."

Dylan stared. "And you said 'yes'."

She nodded, wiping at her unshed tears almost angrily. "I'm trying, Dylan. I'm trying to see my way - - our way - - to the perfect possible future without getting Harper killed in the process, but right now? I'm at a loss." She took a deep breath. "I can't explain just how my 'gift' works, Dylan. All I know is I can see different versions of our future and through the events that unfold, I can help to steer that future toward the best one possible."

"But does Harper have to die?" Dylan cleared his throat as his voice broke.

Trance frowned. "Not if I can help it."

"Help it, Trance." Dylan turned and stalked away, clearly upset by their conversation.

"I'll do my best, Dylan." Trance knelt in the garden and thrust her golden hands into the soil, letting her consciousness stream out through the root systems of the plants, into the ship itself and, finally, into the surrounding stars. If there was a way out of this she simply had to find it. She couldn't bear to lose Harper.

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As the weeks crawled by, the crew watched Dylan withdraw more and more. His sleepless nights were telling on him and he was short tempered with everyone.

Harper had been the brunt of his wrath on more than one occasion and, finally, he just stayed away. There were any number of projects to do around the Andromeda Ascendant, and one in particular that he wanted to get completed as soon as feasible, and so he buried his head in his work just to keep away from Dylan's anger.

Beka was Beka and she tended to snap back - - until Dylan threw her off the bridge in a rage. After that, she tried to be as diplomatic as possible just so she could get her job done in peace. As she flinched from yet another verbal lashing, she wished she were the engineer instead of a pilot so that she too could hide in the ductwork of the ship or in a machine shop, hidden away from the Captain's wrath.

Rhade watched the events unfold in front of him and seemed to be able to time his exits to the onslaught of Dylan's most abusive rantings. Beka fumed as she watched him walk off the bridge just before Dylan let loose yet again. // How does that damned Neitzchean snake know just when to leave? //

Trance was keeping a low profile, skirting the issue each and every time Dylan tried to raise the question and staying out of the way of his anger. Even though she knew what was causing his distress, there was nothing she could do or say at this point to relieve his anxiety and so she simply avoided him. Knowing that he was taking his frustrations out on the rest of the crew didn't help her as she desperately tried to sort through the many possibilities they faced.

Each time a new system was approached Dylan looked to Trance, only to find her slipping away from him before he could ask if this place was where it would happen. Each time they made contact with another ship, he ordered the Andromeda into slip stream. The constant running and uncertainty were telling on everyone. Unfortunately, only Dylan and Trance knew what they were running from.

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"No!" His anguished screams echoed off the walls of his quarters. His covers pooled around his waist before he flipped them off and climbed from his bed.

"Dylan?" Holo-Rommie shimmered into being in front of him as she gently illuminated his bedroom.

"Get out of here, Andromeda! Now!" The roar of his voice echoed in the nearly dark room.

Holo-Rommie's eyes opened wide as Dylan screamed his rage. She found herself facing a flying vase that passed through her form to shatter against the wall as she quickly shimmered out, leaving Dylan standing alone in his quarters. Tremors wracked his exhausted body and he crumbled to the ground.

Trance stood for a full minute in front of Dylan's door, hesitant to seek entry. His dreams were well known to her and they had progressed from the first dream of Harper getting gunned down in front of him - - because of a mission he had ordered. The dreams haunting the captain had now progressed to his incarceration at the hands of the people who had murdered his friend - - and the atrocities they heaped upon his helpless form.

She knocked and, when there was no answer from within, she simply opened the door, gaining entry by convincing Andromeda she had Dylan's best interests at heart. Andromeda knew her captain was in trouble and trusted Trance to help him. As acting medical officer she had final say as to the crew's competence and Andromeda was beginning to doubt Dylan's ability to command.

The sight of Dylan sitting on his floor and resting his head on his bent knees made Trance stop for a moment. She could see the rise and fall of his broad back as he breathed slowly and deeply.

"Trance."

Trance smiled slightly and walked forward to stand beside Dylan. Her heart went out to the man as she gazed down on his exhausted form. "Dylan." He looked up into the swirling golden centers of her eyes as she knelt beside him on the floor.

"I can't do this anymore, Trance. Please tell me you have an answer to all of this."

Trance looked away for a moment and Dylan knew her news was not going to be all happiness and sunshine.

"Trance, tell me Harper doesn't have to die."

"Harper doesn't have to die."

The sadness in Trance's voice sent a warning through Dylan's mind and he sighed. "Tell me."

Trance sighed and stood beside Dylan. She held out her hand and Dylan took it, allowing her to pull him to his feet where he stood, swaying slightly. His body continued to tremble from the exhaustion that seemed to be deeply imbedded into his sinews.

Trance pulled Dylan with her as she walked to his bed. She sat on the edge of the bed, pulling Dylan down to sit beside her. Her fingers traced small circles over the back of his hand as she began to speak.

"I've stayed away from you these past weeks, Dylan, because I've been desperately seeking that one perfect possible future where your doomed mission doesn't exist."

Dylan nodded, instinctively sensing the veracity of her statement as well as the 'but' imbedded in it. He waited for her to continue.

"I haven't been able to find that future."

He continued to stare at their entwined hands. "You said Harper doesn't have to die."

Trance nodded slowly. "That's true."

"And the rest?"

Trance took a deep breath. "If Harper doesn't die the rest of your dream has to happen." She looked over at the man sitting next to her. "I'm so sorry Dylan."

He nodded and squared his shoulders before squeezing her hand gently and letting go of it. The single nod was followed by a deep breath, and then he looked up at her. His eyes were shining with unshed tears and he tried on a tremulous smile which didn't fool Trance at all. "Thank you, Trance. Saving Harper is all I asked of you. Whatever else happens isn't important."

Trance nodded and got to her feet. "Get some sleep, Dylan. You are in no condition to face this challenge as exhausted as you are. I don't plan on saving Harper only to lose you because you weren't prepared for what will happen."

Dylan nodded and lay back on the bed, pulling his covers up to his chest. He sighed as a feeling of profound relief swept over him. Harper would be safe - - he could rest now.

Trance watched Dylan curl up on his side and knew the instant he fell asleep. She sighed softly as she turned away from where he lay. "I'm sorry, Dylan."

Rommie was waiting in the corridor when Trance let herself out of Dylan's quarters. "How is he?" She knew something was up with Dylan and that he hadn't been sleeping - - had in fact been having severe nightmares - - but that was all she knew and the sadness in Trance's eyes scared her.

"He's sleeping, Rommie."

Rommie nodded and fidgeted slightly. "Is he going to be okay, Trance?"

"I hope so, Rommie." Trance turned away then, unable to meet the android's frank gaze. "Could you please make sure he is undisturbed until he wakes? He needs all the rest he can get."

Rommie nodded and watched Trance walk away, thinking that the golden being looked a bit lost as she made her way along the corridor.

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Dylan slept for fifteen hours and, when he awoke, he immediately sought out Trance, as she knew he would. She was working in the hydroponics garden when he finally put in his appearance. Trance knew she was being watched long before Dylan stepped from the shadows. She smiled up at him.

"You look better, Dylan. Did you sleep well?"

He nodded and looked away. Suddenly he was unsure of just what he wanted to say to Trance. She sensed this and waited for him to gather his thoughts. A soft sigh escaped his lips before he turned his sad eyes to hers once again.

"I need you to be honest with me, Trance."

Trance nodded as she stood and brushed the dirt off her hands. "Come with me, Dylan."

He followed her to a bench nestled among the gardens.

"What do you need to know?"

Dylan fidgeted for a minute before answering. "Can I outrun this mission, Trance?"

Many thoughts flew through her mind in an instant. Realities and possibilities converged and separated much as the strings of the slipstream. Her eyes closed as she pondered the possibilities. Seemingly no time at all passed before she opened her eyes again. She stared off into the foliage surrounding them for a minute before finally meeting Dylan's eyes.

"This mission is vital to our survival, Dylan. For every mission you run away from this mission only looms closer. This is one mission that will be forced upon us by circumstance and we will not be able to run from it." Trance paused and took a deep breath. "You will be taken - - by hostile forces and imprisoned - - sentenced to death."

Dylan nodded slowly, looking down at their entwined fingers.

"Replace Harper on this mission with someone you trust implicitly. You will need this person working behind the scenes to rescue you and no one from the ship will be able to land once you are arrested. Your life will depend on who you choose - - and the future depends on you not dying in that place so don't even think about going it alone."

"You still haven't told me what the mission is."

"That's because I don't know what the mission is, Dylan. I only know it is vital to our survival."

"That's just great, Trance. How will I know who to take with me if I don't know it's the mission?"

"Faith, Dylan. Trust your crew to do their job - - and choose carefully."

Dylan sat for a minute longer before nodding. As he got up from the bench, Trance looked up at him and smiled.

"Get some rest, Dylan. You look awful."

"Gee, thanks Trance. You sure know how to make a guy feel good about himself." He ran his hands through his hair, rumpling it, before rubbing his face and yawning.

"Get some rest. Doctor's orders."

"You're not a doctor, Trance."

She smiled up at him. "No, but I am acting medical officer and I've removed you from active duty until I deem you fit for such again."

"I need to command, Trance."

"You need to sleep - - then you can play soldier again, Dylan."

"That's Captain, Trance - - not soldier."

She looked away. "Soldier is closer to what you'll need to be to survive this ordeal, Dylan." Her eyes bored into his for a minute. "Remember your training - - all of your training."

A shiver ran up Dylan's spine at her words. His special ops training was as fresh in his mind as it was for his first mission. Some things stuck with you - - no matter how hard you tried to forget.

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It was a much more rested Dylan Hunt who walked onto the command deck six days later. The small split in his lower lip was the only thing that marred the look of complete rest and health.

Beka nodded at him. "So - - uh, Dylan. I hope the other guy looks worse."

Dylan smiled and looked over his shoulder as Rhade limped onto the command deck. He had a large bruise on one cheek, a split lip and was cradling his ribs with his right arm.

"Well, that answers that question." Beka snickered softly then turned her gaze back to her console, missing the scathing glare Rhade threw her way.

Rhade nodded in Dylan's direction. "Dylan."

"Rhade." Dylan let his gaze wander over his obviously injured crew member. "Have you seen Trance yet?"

"No. I'm fine."

"Like hell you are. I need you fit for duty, Rhade." Dylan turned away, gripping the console in front of him in anger. "Report to med deck now."

"But, Dylan!" Rhade hesitated as Dylan swung around to glare at him. "Right. Med deck." He nodded and limped away.

Beka had watched the interaction from under lowered lashes. When Rhade was gone she turned to Dylan. "So I take it he was the other guy."

"Yeah."

Her quick anger was nearly palpable and she braced herself on her console before lashing out at Dylan. "What the hell got into you?"

A chilling smile crossed Dylan's face. "We were sparring, Beka. I had no idea you cared so much."

She felt the blush creep across her face and mentally cursed herself for her outburst. "That's not the point, Dylan. You beat the hell out of him."

"He'd have done the same for me." Dylan dismissed her with a glance.

An exasperated "men" was the only answer.

<><><>

"Wow! I just bumped into Rhade in the corridor." Harper gestured over his shoulder as he bounded onto the command deck. "Well, I didn't exactly bump into him. I mean somebody sure did, but it wasn't me!" With barely a pause for a breath he continued. "Did you guys see him? Who beat the crap out of him anyway?"

Beka pointed to Dylan. "He did."

Harper stared at Dylan, open-mouthed.

"Do you have a problem, Mr. Harper?"

"No, Boss." He grinned nervously. "I - - I, um, have some - - things to do - - in the machine shop. See ya!"

Dylan watched the smaller man scamper off the command deck and breathed a sigh of relief. Seeing Harper right now was not what he needed. A critical decision needed to be made and there was no way he was taking Harper on any mission away from the Andromeda. So, who would he take?

Rhade could hold his own - - and he'd need his strength if he were to defeat a powerful enemy force.

Beka was a great pilot and could get them out of any bind - - and she was sneaky. Getting in and out of any venue would be a piece of cake with Beka around.

Rommie was an obvious choice. She was strong, fierce, and she would protect her captain with her very existence. But would that be enough? And she'd been acting 'quirky' since their last mission. She would bear watching for a while.

Trance was - - Trance. Hell, she'd be an asset in almost any situation. But he couldn't pick Trance for all his away missions. It would be too obvious to the rest of the crew. Each mission team was chosen for the specific mission according to what traits and abilities they could add to the mix. They were all part of the whole.

His reverie was interrupted by Beka. "Incoming message, Dylan. Courier on our six."

His instinct was to run and it took all his effort to remain calm. "On screen."

"Aye."

The screen flickered for a moment then cleared to reveal a young man bearing the insignia of the restored Commonwealth. "Courier Ship Argo here, Captain Hunt, sir. I bring a message for Commander Rhade."

"Commander Rhade?" Hearing those words his heart rate had slowed to nearly normal. This was not the mission.

"Yes sir. May I transmit?"

"Sure thing. Andromeda, secure a file for Rhade's communication."

The courier nodded. "Thank you, Captain Hunt. Transmitting."

Dylan worked at his console, glad for the distraction. "Andromeda, sever communication once the file is complete."

"Aye Captain. Severing - - now."

They watched the courier ship enter slip stream and Dylan blinked at the sudden flash of light as the portal opened. It wasn't the mission he knew was coming, but still he could feel it beckoning - - out there someplace, waiting for the right moment to strike.

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Days passed and Dylan settled back into his role as Captain of the Andromeda Ascendant. His dreams still haunted his sleeping hours, but he found them easier to handle now that he knew Harper would not be harmed by what was to come. The dreams were snippets of information and, if he could just concentrate - - remember - - maybe he'd be able to give Trance some information to help her find a solution - - to help her find a way to avoid the mission entirely. But dreams were not meant to be remembered in their entirety, and these dreams were particularly elusive, waking him screaming in the middle of the night, but leaving him with a feeling of dread instead of the details necessary to help him change the future.

"Are you sleeping well, Dylan?"

The unexpected touch of Trance's hand on his arm made him flinch and he flushed beneath her gaze. They were standing on the Obs Deck, staring out at the stars.

"As well as can be expected, Trance."

She nodded. "The time is drawing near. I can feel it."

"I know."

"We will get through this, Dylan."

A nod was her only answer, as he didn't trust his voice not to betray his raging emotions. How could he explain the trepidation he felt each and every day at the thought of what lay ahead? Would his crew think him dead and abandon him to his fate as his dreams suggested? Or would Trance be able to convince them that he was still alive - - and worth mounting a rescue for? How long would the ordeal last - - and would he survive it? The tight feeling in his gut was becoming familiar now and he found himself almost wishing for it to begin. The waiting was taking its toll.

<><><>

The next mission came suddenly. A cry for help in the dark of space and the Andromeda answered. Dylan took Rhade with him to the surface of a sparsely populated planet, deciding the Nieztschean's strength was what would save him. It proved to be a poor choice. The people had endured centuries of Neitzchean ambushes and slaving runs, their population nearly decimated. Rhade was exactly the wrong choice for the humanitarian mission - - while Trance would have been perfect. They came home to the Andromeda unscathed, but accomplishing very little on the planet. It was a resounding failure and they left the planet only marginally better off than they found it.

Another resounding failure slapped him in the face and this time he'd taken Beka. He'd really needed Harper, but was unwilling to risk the engineer in what could prove to be a fatal mission. Harper knew he'd been overlooked for a mission and couldn't figure out just what he'd done to make Dylan mistrust him all of a sudden. Trance did her best to soothe him and then went in search of Dylan.

A yell rent the air as Trance stepped into the hydroponics garden. It looked like she'd found Dylan on the first try. He and Rhade were sparring again and neither man looked up as she stepped to the edge of the basketball court.

"Dylan?"

"Get out, Trance."

She nearly flinched at the anger in his voice but stood her ground. "I need to speak to you, Dylan."

Another blow landed and Dylan grunted with the effort he'd put into it just before Rhade growled with the pain of the strike. "Not - - now!"

"Now, Dylan."

The tone of her voice made him look at her, taking his eyes off his opponent for just a second and giving the Neitzchean the opening he'd been hoping for. The blow caught him off guard and he landed hard on his back, panting up at the ceiling as he cried out his frustration.

Rhade grinned down at him for a moment before offering him his hand. Dylan took it and allowed Rhade to pull him to his feet. The Neitzchean was breathing hard. "Why do you insist on sparring with me, Dylan?"

"Because you're the only one who really tries to kill me every time we fight, Rhade."

Rhade's look of incredulity was lost to him as he turned away and stalked out of the hydroponics garden, followed closely by Trance. His long legs carried him to his quarters quickly and he never hesitated as his door whisked open at his approach. Trance hurried through the door close on his heels.

"Dylan, you have to stop this. Our time is growing short."

The ferocity in his gaze when he spun to face her made her catch her breath.

"Just what aren't you telling me, Trance? I'm risking my neck here and you're telling me squat. Nothing - - nothing at all except that by sacrificing myself I can save Harper from a certain death. Well, I've decided I can live with that - - I can take being tortured and worse to save Harper. But what I can't take is your cryptic comments and hints at what is going happen. Save me the frustration of trying to decipher your riddles and just give it to me straight."

"Fine!" Her voice was as angry as his and also a little hurt. "Contrary to what you may think, Dylan, I am not keeping things from you. I have told you all I know about the upcoming situation." She sighed and looked away. "My - - gift, if you will - - isn't about absolutes. It's all about possibilities and probabilities and how to shape the future into something we can all live in. This time, I knew we could save Harper - - but only through a sacrifice, a sacrifice you seem to be willing to make. Don't you know this is tearing me apart?"

Strong arms enfolded her, bringing her tight against a hard muscular chest. A light, butterfly kiss caressed her brow and she closed her eyes, inhaling his scent. She wrinkled her nose. "Um Dylan?"

"Yeah Trance?"

"You really need a shower."

His laugh rang out loudly in the room. "Sparring, Trance. Sparring tends to work up a sweat - - especially when your partner is Rhade." She giggled. "Thanks, Trance."

"For what, Dylan?"

"For making me relax - - and forget - - if only for a minute."

Her smile was smug - - and innocent at the same time. "You're welcome, Dylan. Now remember what I said. Don't try so hard - - and pick your teams based on ability for the mission at hand. The perfect mission team will be the one to save your butt - - not the perfect fighting partner or the perfect pilot - - or - - well, you know what I mean."

"Yeah Trance. I know what you mean." He watched her leave then stripped off his clothes and climbed into the shower, letting the pounding water wash away his apprehension.

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Two weeks later found an astonished Harper gaping at Dylan before running from the bridge to prepare for his first mission away from the Andromeda in over a month.

"Well, he looks happy." Dylan couldn't help but grin at the engineer's rapidly retreating back.

"He should. You do realize he hasn't been off the ship in well over a month now."

"Yeah, Trance. I know." Dylan walked toward the door, speaking over his shoulder. "You'd better get ready too. I don't want to have to wait for my crew."

"Aye aye, Dylan." Trance ran from the command deck to get the equipment necessary for the mission.

"You're late." Dylan looked up form the pilot's chair of the Maru as Trance hurried on board.

"Yeah, sorry. I - - needed to get a few extra things."

Dylan gave her a quick look, which she managed to avoid, then turned back to the job at hand. There was no time for him to try to decipher any hidden meanings in Trance's comments. As he launched the Maru he was too busy to see the look of profound sadness that crossed Trance's face as she glanced at him.

They were heading to a backwater world at the edge of known space, far from any semblance of civilization. The planet went by many names, but Trance only knew that she smelled danger creeping ever closer. The star map Andromeda had downloaded identified the planet as Fulsom's Folly; the Maru's maps called it The Dunes.

It was the second planet from this system's sun - - hot and dry. Dylan felt the heat slap him as he stepped to the hatch of the ship. "Harper, you're here."

"Aw, Boss!"

"No arguments. I need you to infiltrate the security system of the warehouse. Rommie will be there to get into the system once we're inside. She can interface with a touch, Mr. Harper. I need you to get us inside quickly and quietly."

"Sure thing, Dylan." Harper grumbled but sat at the console and got to work quickly. He had exactly fifteen minutes to crack the system and he wouldn't let him team down.

The rest of the team headed out across the hot sand, keeping low to the ground to avoid detection. Once they hit the edge of the encampment they stopped for a moment to study the lay of the land, so to speak. They scuttled to the edge of the warehouse and Dylan activated his com link to speak to Harper.

"How's it coming, Harper?"

Even though Dylan was speaking very softly Harper had no trouble hearing him. "Just a second, Boss. Almost there."

"Hurry up, Mr. Harper."

"I'm hurrying. And - - voila!"

They heard a soft click and the warehouse door swung open slowly. Trance and Dylan entered quickly, followed closely by Rommie.

The inside of the building was cavernous and their footsteps echoed eerily. Dylan activated his com link again. "Harper, can you tell me where the mainframe is? Rommie needs an easy access point."

Harper's voice crackling with static. "Boss - - straight back - - wall - - data port there."

"Harper? You're breaking up. Can you repeat?"

"Just - -back wall, Boss - - access point."

"Damn, just what we need. There must be a dampening field in here."

Rommie stepped in front of the group and began moving cautiously toward the back of the building. Trance followed and Dylan brought up the rear, watching behind them for any suspicious movement. It took only a few short minutes for Rommie to find the access panel. They quickly looked around again before Dylan nodded to her once - -curtly.

Her hand had barely touched the control panel when her eyes closed, signaling her interface with the resident computer system. A low blue glow surrounded her hand.

"Is it there? Rommie?" Dylan watched her, the silence of the warehouse unnerving him slightly.

"Transmitting all relevant data to the Maru." Rommie's voice was hollow sounding and Dylan shuddered as a shiver of apprehension ran through him.

"I don't like this, Trance."

"Me neither, Dylan."

He risked a glance at her and saw her go still. As he turned back toward the open room behind him a shower of blue sparks erupted from the piled crates immediately to his right. Someone was firing at them. He spun to his right, hunkering down behind a low pile of metal crates that effectively formed a wall. He looked to his left and motioned for Trance to melt back into the shadows. Just then Rommie was hit. She fell, her circuits fried.

Dylan gasped and looked to where Trance stood in the shadows. "Take care of her, Trance."

She nodded once. "We will come for you."

"They come first - - Rommie and Harper."

Trance melted into the shadows as Dylan was jumped from behind. He fought but went down under superior numbers. A grunt was the only sound that escaped his lips as he was crushed to the floor and his arms wrenched behind his back. Metal cuffs were fastened around his wrists and a heavy knee in the center of his back held him immobile on the floor. The cement floor felt cool beneath his cheek. Directly in his line of sight lay Rommie, her dead eyes staring sightlessly into his.

<><><> <><><>

Dylan cried out as he was hauled to his feet by his bound arms, wrenching them painfully up behind him. A blindfold was fastened over his eyes, blocking out all light and leaving him unable to map his way free of his captivity. His captors didn't utter a word as they hauled him out of the warehouse and across the compound - - his only clue as to his whereabouts the burning sun on his skin, the smells of fuel, and the sounds of ground transport and people talking around him. // At least they speak Common here. // Unseen eyes tracked his progress through the compound, noting his location before melting into the shadows once again.

The feel of cool air on his skin told him they had entered another building. Their footsteps sounded hollowly on the floor, echoing slightly in the silence. A door whisked open in front of them, the whooshing sound loud in his ears, making him flinch involuntarily. A strong shove from behind sent him stumbling forward, his feet catching on a small rise at the doorway and sending him sprawling to his knees on the hard floor. He rolled quickly to his side to save himself from falling flat on his face and heard a harsh laugh behind him just before the door whisked shut, drowning out both voices and laughter. His chin lifted and he quested with his head for any other sound in the room to tell him whether or not he was alone.

The only sound in the room was the harsh panting of his ragged breath. He sat for a few minutes doing nothing but bringing his breathing under control. The inky blackness was unnerving and he rubbed his head against his shoulders, dislodging the blindfold and letting the harsh light in. He squinted his eyes against the glare until they adjusted then looked around.

The room was cool and stark white. No lines of demarcation separated the floor from the walls or the ceiling from the same. He shivered slightly, grateful for his light jacket. Pushing with his feet, he scooted backward until his back rested against one wall. The only break from the stark white of the room was the black cloth blindfold that lay in the center of the small space. There wasn't even a sign of a door. No windows. He couldn't even see a camera, although he was sure he was being observed. There was nothing to do now but await his fate.

<><><>

Trance watched Dylan be manacled, blindfolded and led from the warehouse. Keeping to the shadows she watched them march him across the compound and into another smaller building. It was then she turned back silently to rescue Rommie.

The warehouse was deserted and she made her way to where Rommie still lay unobserved. Sparing a second for a quick look around, she then stooped next to Rommie's lifeless form and opened the pack she was carrying. She pulled out an anti-grav harness and fastened it on the android before activating it. Rommie's body floated up off the ground a couple of meters. Trance stood, grasped the harness and tugged gently, setting the android into motion. Keeping a furtive eye on her surroundings she towed Rommie back to the Maru.

Harper shot to his feet as Trance activated the hatch on the Maru. "What the hell happened back there, Trance?" His mouth dropped open at the sight of a lifeless Rommie hovering at Trance's hip. Seeing Rommie like this, so close on the heels of Doyle's destruction, however temporary it might be, unnerved him more than he cared to admit and he was shaking as he hurried forward, taking Rommie from Trance. "Rom-doll? Trance, what happened?"

"We were ambushed. Rommie was shot. Dylan was taken." Her voice was flat and hollow making Harper look at her quickly.

"Taken? The Boss is out there someplace - - in trouble - - and you took the time to bring Rommie back here? Why?"

"He told me to."

"Excuse me? What do you mean he told you to? You had time to talk to him before they carted his butt off? And why did you have an anti-grav harness?" Harper was getting very excited and Trance winced.

"Later, Harper. Just fix her. I have to work on getting Dylan out of there before it's too late."

"Too late?" Harper's voice rose alarmingly.

"Just do it." She nodded toward Rommie. "Can you fix her? We'll need her to rescue Dylan."

After a quick cursory examination Harper nodded. "Yeah, I can get her activated again, but I'll need to get her back to the Andromeda to really get her fixed."

"We can't leave here without Dylan or we'll never be able to land again. Right now they don't know where we are - - and that will work to our advantage. Do what you can Harper - - and hurry."

Harper pulled Rommie away toward his workshop. It wasn't as well stocked as the machine shop on the Andromeda, but it would have to do. "Trance, let Beka know what happened."

"No."

"No?" He turned to stare at her.

"We can't take the chance, Harper. Someone might be monitoring communications - - and that would only get Dylan killed." She sighed. "I'm afraid we're on our own here."

Harper nodded. "Well then, I guess I'd better get busy." He looked down at Rommie. "Come on, Rom-doll. Let's get you patched up."

<><><> <><><>

Dylan hunched forward, leaning his head against his bent knees. The air felt colder to him than it did when he was first thrust into the cell and he was shivering almost continuously now. The cold was sapping his strength and he wondered, not for the first time, just how he would endure what was to come. His situation was similar enough to his dreams that he knew he was in for a very rough time - - and dissimilar enough to realize that by saving Harper, they had somehow altered the timeline subtly. What worried him the most was that he didn't know how the alteration would affect him. Would his time here be better because of it - - or worse?

The lights in the room suddenly went off and Dylan was plunged into complete darkness. He stared into the inky blackness apprehensively, visibly flinching when he heard the door whisk open and then shut again. His captors wore night-vision goggles, giving them a distinct advantage over their prey. Unable to see anything, Dylan was unprepared for the attack. Strong hands gripped him, pulling him painfully to his knees. He struggled as yet another blindfold was fitted to his face, his harsh grunts as he struggled against the hands holding him, the only sounds in the room.

This blindfold fit snugly against his skin. It laced tightly up the back and fit snugly from mid-forehead to just under his cheekbones. There was no way to rub this one off. He was blinded - - until his captors chose to grant him his sight.

His struggles continued until someone behind him pulled up sharply on his shackled wrists, wrenching his shoulders and causing a sharp cry to escape his lips. His wrists were lifted until his head rested against his knees. He growled from between clenched teeth, both at the blossoming pain in his shoulders and against the feeling of helplessness he was experiencing. The sounds of his harsh, panting breaths permeated the quiet of the room and then he heard footsteps at his ear.

"Lift him." The voice was deep, nearly a growl in its animalistic quality.

Dylan was hauled to his feet by his shackled wrists, wrenching his already abused shoulders. He struggled to get his feet under him and take some of the pressure off his aching joints. Once he gained his feet he twisted sharply, intending to pull free from his captors. Before he could gain his independence, his feet were kicked out from under him and he hung once again by his wrists, his shoulders screaming in agony.

Shackles were affixed to Dylan's ankles. An eighteen-inch chain ran between his bound feet, hobbling him to anything but small, mincing steps. His arms were grasped and he could feel that he was walking between two individuals. A choke chain was wrapped around his neck and the chain was grasped behind him and pulled taught. A blunt object pressed between his shoulder blades and he was propelled forward, having no clue as to where he was going and no choice but to follow.

Knowing this was coming did nothing to alleviate the anxiety the position he was in caused him. In fact, having experienced the torture in his dreams only served to heighten his concerns. He knew, first hand, just what kind of pain could be inflicted by these people.

Token struggles punctuated his journey at the hands of his captors. A door whisked open in front of him just before he was pushed forward sharply to stumble and fall on his knees again, the sharp tug on the chain around his neck the only thing keeping him from falling forward on his face. He choked and a low, angry growl escaped his lips as hands grasped his arms again and he struggled against their grasp.

"Enough!" The voice, a bass growl, echoed in the room and Dylan hesitated. "Who are you, thief?"

// They don't know who I am - - and I can tell them nothing. Too many people want me dead. I have a price on my head in at least three systems and restoring the Commonwealth didn't change that. These beings look like they could use the reward for my capture. So much for my standard 'resisting torture' military response. Things were so much easier before the fall. // Dylan grimaced at his own attempt at humor.

Dylan received a backhand across the face for his silence and he tasted blood. Strong hands hauled him to his feet.

"What were you looking for when you tried to violate our computer system?"

This time Dylan's silence was rewarded with a blow to the kidneys that made him groan and left him gasping for breath, doubled over in pain. The chain around his neck was pulled taught and he straightened up again, struggling against the blossoming pain in his side.

"Your robot is nothing but scrap metal now. You are alone here." Another blow landed, this time to his mid-section, and his knees threatened to buckle. "What were you attempting to steal from us?" A large paw-like hand grasped him around the throat. "Who sent you here?" The last was virtually screamed into his face and other than a slight flinch he stood stoic in the face of the being's rage. One more blow - - a solid fist to the face, sent him into oblivion and he crumpled to the floor, unconscious.

<><><> <><><>

"So Trance - - um, where's Dylan?"

Trance looked up from the computer screen where she'd been working - - extrapolating data from a simulation of the compound on the planet. "Is Rommie patched up yet?"

"Almost - - just running a diagnostic on her systems. I don't want her to fail when we go to rescue Dylan."

"You aren't going."

"What? Why not?"

Trance watched her friend pace around, gesticulating with his hands and wondered just how much she should tell him. "Harper, Rommie and I will be able to handle this."

"Yeah?" He stopped pacing to stare at her angrily. "For your information, Trance, Rommie and I could do the job and you could stay here to monitor things."

Trance smiled. "I know you could do it, Harper. But that's not the point."

"Oh? And just what is the point, Trance? Enlighten me."

Trance watched him fold his arms across his chest and sulk, barely able to resist the smile that threatened to adorn her face. "The point is, Harper - - I'm just not as good as you are at all this computer stuff. Rommie will do the hard job - - getting us in and Dylan out. I'm just going to be there as acting medical officer in case Dylan needs immediate attention."

Harper frowned down at her. "What aren't you telling me, Trance?"

"What do you mean?" She deliberately kept her face averted from Harper's gaze, not wanting him to read her emotions on her face.

"Why would Dylan need medical attention?"

She smiled up at him innocently. "You never know what a people will do who resort to abduction, Harper. And we were caught trying to break into their computer network. They may resort to any means to find out why."

Harper grimaced as he mulled over this information. "You're probably right, Trance." He turned away. "But I still think you're not telling me everything."

// You have no idea just how right you are, Harper, but I can't tell you that Dylan is being tortured to keep you safe. I promised Dylan I wouldn't burden you with that knowledge. //

"Make sure Rommie is ready, Harper. We can't wait very long to go after Dylan."

Harper stared at Trance for a minute, wondering at her cryptic comment, before shaking his head and leaving to check on Rommie, muttering about golden close-mouthed aliens.

<><><>

Inky blackness greeted his groan to consciousness and he tensed for a quick moment before he remembered the blindfold that had been tied around his eyes. His muscles ached, sending a dull throb across his back and legs. The snugness against his head and face made him reach toward his eyes to tear the offending piece of leather off and that was when he came fully awake. "Damn!" The word was a harsh whisper, but echoed in the air around him. His muscles tensed as he pulled against the restraints holding his arms and legs taught.

Struggling to calm himself, he took quick survey of his position. He was restrained - - bound - - arms above his head and to the side, his weight hanging from his wrists. He straightened his knees to take the weight off his throbbing arms and found he could not move his legs either. They were spread painfully wide and also shackled, keeping him immobile and making him stand somewhat on his toes to keep the bulk of his weight off his wrists. He clenched and unclenched his fists, willing the circulation to return to his tingling fingers. As his calves began to cramp he would settle his heels on the floor, taking the weight on his wrists again for a few minutes and resting his legs. The various aches and pains, caused by the way he was bound, kept him busy as he continually shifted his position.

Dylan realized his feet were cold as his bare toes pressed against the floor, lifting his heels from the ground to let his arms and shoulders rest. A shudder ran through him as he thought about his dreams and why he would have no shirt on. He remembered the feel of the lash as it bit into his back in his nightmares and wondered how he would be able to withstand it.

<><><>

"Dylan's in trouble."

Harper looked up quickly at the sound of Trance's voice. "Huh?"

Trance stood quickly. "Is Rommie ready?"

"Almost! Relax, Trance."

"I can't, Harper. Dylan needs us - - now." It had been twelve hours and Trance was feeling more and more antsy as each minute ticked by.

The young engineer stared at her for a minute before nodding and heading to his workshop to get Rommie. His mumbled words were lost on the golden alien. "I'm not asking. If Trance says Dylan needs them - - Dylan needs them. Damn." He hurried to get Rommie ready for the mission ahead.

<><><> <><><>

The whoosh of a door opening startled Dylan out of the meditative state he'd fallen into just to keep the intense pain at bay. A groan escaped his lips as he jerked in his bonds involuntarily. The sound was followed by a low chuckle sounding behind him and he tensed, coming up on his toes once again and taking some of the pressure off his ravaged wrists and shoulders. He concentrated on breathing slowly and regularly, struggling to stay calm in the face of his tormentors.

A low rumbling growl reached his ears and Dylan tensed in anticipation of the pain to come. What he didn't expect were the words that were snarled into his ear and he pulled away from their ferocity.

"We know who you are."

"I don't know what you're talking about." Although Dylan tried to sound indifferent to the threat, his pain was apparent in his words.

"Oh yes - - we are not so 'back-water' that we couldn't find a name to go with the face - - especially one as famous as yours. The price on your head will go far to feed my people - - to clothe them and rebuild the latest of the damage inflicted by our enemies." This statement was followed by another growl trying to pass itself off as a laugh.

The door whisked open again and Dylan could hear the alien speaking quietly with someone in the corridor before the door shut again, leaving him alone in his blessed darkness. The alien's words echoed in his head and he hung his head in defeat. "Trance, now would be a good time to get me out of here." He could feel a trickle of sweat run down his neck, between his shoulder blades and down his spine, leaving a faint itch in its place. He let that itch distract him from the pain he was feeling and the pain he was anticipating. For a time, it would have to be enough.

<><><>

Harper had tried his best but it had still taken nearly twenty-eight hours to get Rommie functional again. Twenty-four hours in which Dylan had been in the hands of people that Trance knew were capable of great atrocities.

Trance and Rommie made their way cautiously across the sand to a place just beyond the walls of the compound. It was dusk and they waited in the shadow of a dune, biding their time until the sun set fully. Harper was in communication through their com links and was monitoring all activity within the compound.

"So Trance, um - - how can you be sure Dylan is still in that same building? It's shielded or something and I can't get a definite bead on his position. Hell, for all I know they've moved him off planet."

"Calm down, Harper. We would have known if a ship left the surface. Andromeda would have known also. He's still here. Rommie and I will know where he is once we gain entrance to the building." She sighed. "Just work your magic and open the doors for us again."

"Aye aye, oh golden warrior."

Rommie rolled her eyes and Trance smiled at Harper's banter. Her heart was heavy, however, at the thought of what might have already happened to Dylan. She knew his dreams and her own were equally as violent. What she couldn't know was what saving Harper had done to the timeline. For all she knew, Dylan may have saved Harper only to die himself - - and if that happened, all was lost. // Don't think like that, Trance. You substituted Rommie's death for Harper's. Dylan will be okay. He has to be. // A deep breath helped to calm her and she closed her eyes for a moment.

Rommie watched Trance and wondered, not for the first time, just what the golden being was hiding. "Trance, maybe you should tell me what's going on here."

"Well, we were trying to download some data from the computers when we were ambushed."

Rommie rolled her eyes. "I know that, Trance."

"Well, you asked. I thought your memory circuits were affected by the blast."

"You are so exasperating! You are hiding something, Trance Gemini and I want you to tell me what it is - - now!"

"Shh! Gee, Rommie. Do you want us to be found before we can rescue Dylan?" Trance looked around fearfully, hoping to distract the android.

Rommie's eyes followed hers until she was sure they had not been discovered. "Don't try to distract me, Trance. Tell me what we are doing here."

"Dylan was looking for the source of the new weapons that have been used in raids on peaceful planets- - planets that have marketable resources. We traced them here and we came to get the information - - and possibly to steal the weapons."

Rommie growled menacingly. "Trance! I mean what are we doing here?"

Trance looked uncomfortable. "I don't understand."

"I think we were set up."

"Set up? Are you sure?"

"What else could it be, Trance?"

"Maybe when we broke their security we set off an alarm - - or something."

Rommie shook her head, frowning slightly. "No. If they had detected us they would have found the Maru because that's where the hack into their systems originated."

"But who would set us up? No one knew we were looking for the weapons - - or even where we would end up."

Rommie smiled and stood in the deepening gloom of twilight. As she brushed the sand from her clothing, she watched Trance and thought she looked more confused than worried by their conversation. She sighed. "Why would the Carnelians ask us to help them?"

"Because Dylan is known to aid the needy?"

"How about because they were setting a trap to collect the price on Dylan's head?"

"No matter the cost?"

"That's usually how it works, Trance."

"Oh."

<><><> <><><>

Pain was his friend. Pain was all that he knew - - all that he was and when he heard the door open yet again he barely lifted his head. It was increasingly difficult to take a breath as his muscles had begun to spasm over his entire body including his chest and diaphragm.

A huge maw-like fist grabbed him by the hair and lifted his head. "Why are you here?"

He took a panting breath, punctuated by a long breathless groan as his chest tightened again, robbing him of much-needed oxygen.

"Damn! Get in here - - bring a knife."

Dylan reacted to those words by struggling weakly in the powerful grasp of the large alien.

"Hold still, unless you want me to slit your worthless throat."

Dylan stilled - - not as much in response to the threat as because he simply couldn't breathe and didn't have the strength to move any more. He barely felt the hand at his throat before he passed out, exhausted from the effort needed to draw a breath.

"Damn , this guy can't breathe." The alien grasped a handful of Dylan's hair again and ran the knife under the laces fastening the blindfold and slit it up the back. The piece of leather fell to the floor unhindered. "Help me get him down from here before we lose him."

"Why would it matter? Isn't the bounty the same whether he's dead or alive?"

"Stupid! We need to know who sent him to us - - and why he was snooping around. Someone hired him to come here and we need to know who that was."

"Oh."

Another large alien held out a set of keys. They unfastened the shackles holding Dylan in place and let him fall to the ground. A deep rumble sounded in the room as they chuckled at his graceless crumble.

"Roll him over."

A foot to his gut rolled Dylan onto his back and his head lolled against the floor. His eyes were closed and his face pale.

"Is he dead?"

"You better hope not."

Deceptively gentle fingers pried open one eyelid, checking for pupil reflexes. "He's alive."

"Good. Help me with these shackles."

The pair shackled Dylan's wrists in front of him then fastened his ankles together also.

"Blind him."

After making sure he was beginning to breathe easier his eyes were sprayed with a solution used to paralyze the optic nerve, leaving him blinded should he awaken. They left him lying on the cold floor and posted a guard outside the room again.

<><><>

Trance and Rommie made their way to the outside of the building Trance had tracked Dylan to. They hunkered down against the wall of the building around the corner from the main door. "Harper? We're ready when you are."

"In a sec, Trance."

Just then the sound of deep rumbling voices rent the still air. There were at least two beings coming up behind them.

"We don't have a sec, Harper. Open the door now!"

The door clicked just as they moved around the front of the building and they slipped inside, silently closing the door behind them just as the two large aliens rounded the corner of the building. Trance and Rommie squatted down against the wall, letting their eyes adjust to the low level of illumination in the building.

"Are you getting any readings from Dylan, Trance?"

Trance frowned as she studied the screen of the scanner. "I'm not sure. There's something - - very faint." She sighed and nodded down the corridor in front of them. "This way."

Rommie moved out, leading the way in case of trouble. Trance continued to scan the area they moved through, hoping to pick up a stronger signal from the nanobots circulating in Dylan's system.

<><><> <><><>

Dylan awoke to a familiar darkness. As he blinked, he realized he was no longer wearing the uncomfortable blindfold and sighed in relief. He had really hated the helpless feeling the wide piece of leather had induced in him. His various aches and pains made themselves known to him again as he struggled to a sitting position then pushed himself back to lean against the wall. He hissed as his ravaged back came into contact with the cool metal and then sighed slightly as the numbing effect began to take hold. The cold seeped into his flesh and he shivered in the darkness as he looped his arms over his bent knees, hoping someone would come for him soon.

It hurt to breathe, each inhalation sending sharp pains through his chest. Having no recollection of nearly suffocating, he wondered briefly if someone had punched him and cracked a rib. His muscles ached and his joints screamed with each tiny movement. Even if the lights were on and the door wide open he didn't think he'd be able to escape his prison. The reality of his situation made him shudder as the door whisked open yet again. He looked up, but didn't see any light before the door whisked shut again.

"Oh crap, not again." His muscles ached anew as he remembered the last time his jailers had approached him in the dark.

The large alien stood looking down at him. He noted the unfocused gaze of his captive and smiled. Huge paws closed on Dylan's arms and he was hauled unceremoniously to his feet before being slammed against the wall hard enough to knock the breath from his lungs.

Pain flared through his chest as Dylan struggled to draw a breath and he dimly heard the low growling laugh of his tormentor. A huge paw wrapped around his throat and pinned him to the wall. His hands pulled ineffectively at the armored arm.

"What were you looking for, human?"

"How about some air?" he gasped.

A loud roaring laugh rent the air and Dylan fought the urge to cover his ears. "You are funny, human." A solid punch landed on his unprotected stomach, making him retch. "I don't like funny."

"Apparently not." Dylan struggled to catch his breath as he retched yet again.

"I will find out who sent you here to spy on us - - and when I do I will turn you over to one of your worlds for the bounty on your head - - but first, I will have the distinct pleasure of breaking your scrawny neck with my bare hands."

"We all have to have goals." Dylan leaned against the wall, breathing heavily. The fist sent his way sent him to oblivion again.

The large seething alien looked down on him with loathing. "I will enjoy killing this one." He turned to the alien standing behind him in the doorway. "Clean this mess up. It stinks in here." He stalked out leaving the chore of cleaning up Dylan's vomit to the younger soldier.

"Just freaking great." The young alien grabbed a hose and turned it on - - soaking away the vomit into a drain in the floor and soaking Dylan at the same time. Dylan grunted but didn't awaken. The door whisked shut again, leaving him dripping wet and shivering in the cold room.

<><><>

"Trance, I don't think Dylan is here."

"Shh." The pair slipped out of sight around a corner just as three very large, very ugly beast-like, armored aliens stalked down the corridor. They listened to the fading conversation as they passed their hiding place.

"That freaking human. He may goad me into killing him before I find out what he was doing here."

"Yes sir."

"Did you find the android?"

"No sir."

"She was hit! How could she just walk away?"

"I don't know, sir."

"Post extra guards. There may be another accomplice that we haven't seen. I don't want our prize possession getting away from us. The bounty on his head will go far to fund our mission."

"Aye, sir."

Trance and Rommie stared at each other.

"At least we know he's still alive." Trance tried to smile. "Come on. As angry as that large one was, I bet he just left Dylan."

Rommie smiled a bit nervously and followed her as they hurried down the corridor. They came to a halt only moments later. Peering around the corner, Trance sighed softly. Rommie peered over her shoulder before pulling back. An alien was standing guard outside a sealed room just a few meters down the corridor. He looked bored.

"That must be where they're holding him."

Trance nodded. "But how do we get past the guard?"

"Hang on." Rommie activated her com unit. "Harper?"

"Yeah, Rom-doll?"

"We found where they are holding Dylan. Can you give me a diversion?"

"Coming right up."

The chipper voice of the ship's engineer made Trance and Rommie smile. He actually sounded like he was enjoying himself. Within a minute, a loud explosion was heard that shook the entire building. Alarms sounded and the alien standing guard looked around quickly. He hesitated for a couple of minutes, obviously debating whether or not to stay at his post. Loud voices in the distance decided it for him and he sprinted down the corridor.

"Yes!"

Rommie and Trance advanced quickly but carefully down the corridor to the now unguarded door.

"Can you open it?"

"Trance, I'm an android."

Trance blushed. "Sorry." She watched as Rommie pried the door open with her bare hands, not wanting to waste the time on more subtle methods. They only had a few precious minutes and couldn't waste any of them if they hoped to get Dylan to safety.

<><><> <><><>

"Slip stream event. It's a Maldovian vessel, Beka."

Andromeda's voice cut through Beka's boredom and she looked up from the command console. Rhade was already at the pilot's station and she nodded toward him.

"Get us out of here, Rhade."

"What about the Maru? Shouldn't we let them know we're leaving?" He was already maneuvering them away from the planet.

"Maintain communication silence. Something tells me the Maldovians didn't just stumble on this planet. Take us to the dark side of the third planet. We'll wait to see if the Maru contacts us and hope that they are okay down there."

Rhade piloted the Andromeda to the far side of the third planet, keeping just out of sensor range of the Maldovian ship. The Maru was already overdue for return to the Andromeda and the arrival of the Maldovian ship only served to heighten the anxiety of Beka, Rhade and even Andromeda.

"Monitor all communications from the planet."

"Aye Beka." Andromeda's avatar frowned as she began listening in to all active communication channels on the planet. "There seems to be some confusion on the planet. A large explosion at the edge of the main compound - - and talk of a high level political prisoner."

"Damn, I knew it! They have Dylan." Beka pounded her hand against the command console in frustration.

"How could you know that, Beka?" Rhade looked a lot less concerned than she felt for the safety of their friends.

"What other political prisoner could they possibly have on this planet that would call a Maldovian Cruiser here, Rhade?"

He stared then sighed loudly. "Damn."

"Exactly."

"So what now?"

"We wait - - and trust Harper, Trance and Rommie to get him the hell out of there - - before the Maldovian goon squad can collect their prize."

"And if they don't?"

"Then we fight."

Rhade nodded grimly before turning away from the brooding Beka.

<><><>

The room was brightly lit, the stark white of the area only making it seem brighter. The only spot of color in the entire space was the still body lying crumpled on the floor against the far wall.

"Rommie, watch the corridor." Trance walked quickly over to where Dylan lay. Kneeling down next to his body, she placed her hand on his chest. Closing her eyes she let the feel of him wash over her senses. She checked his breathing, noting the muscle strain in his diaphragm; his heart beat, strong but slow; his bones and muscles, sprains and strains but nothing broken. He was weak from dehydration and had obviously been beaten but he'd survive. A nod to Rommie was the only sign she gave that he was okay. "He's unconscious, Rommie. We'll have to carry him." As Rommie walked over to them she pulled another anti-grav vest out of her bag and fastened it onto him.

"You don't need that, Trance. I can carry him."

"I know that, Rommie. But if things get hairy out there and you have to fight - - I can't carry him without the anti-grav harness."

"Ah." Rommie bent and picked up Dylan, hoisting him over her shoulder in what Harper would have called a Fireman's carry. She smiled as the archaic term came to mind. Yet another Harperism to keep them all amused. It was amazing just how much useless trivia the young engineer carried around in his brain. She often wondered how he kept the useful information away from the useless without going completely insane. Once Dylan was settled, his long arms and shoulders dangling down her back, his weight dispersed evenly with one of her arms holding him behind the knees, Rommie turned. "Follow me."

"Wait!" Trance stepped in front of her, unholstering her forcelance. "Let me go first - - in case there's trouble."

Rommie nodded, letting Trance take the lead. As young as she seemed, Rommie knew Trance was really an "old soul" and was to be trusted. Proceeding cautiously, they moved slowly down the corridor taking another route out of the building, using Trance's computer extrapolation to guide them to another exit.

Another explosion rent the air at the opposite end of the compound from the previous one. As Rommie and Trance emerged from the building into the smoke-filled air they saw large armored aliens running to and fro, shouting about an invasion. Trance smiled as they slipped from the building. Her smiled faltered a little while later, though when they were spotted and a shout went up among the nearby soldiers.

Rommie set Dylan down quickly and took up a defensive stand in front of his body. Trance activated the anti-grav harness and lifted Dylan off the ground. "Rommie, hold them off. I'll meet you at the Maru."

"Aye, Trance. I'll be right behind you." She watched out of the corner of her eye as Trance disappeared behind the nearest dune as she fired on the advancing alien troops. Her emotions were nonexistent as she watched them fall one by one, until she stood alone once again with just a smoking forcelance in each hand. Taking one last look around and seeing nothing out of the ordinary, she holstered her weapons and moved out into the bleak desert toward where the Maru and her friends awaited.

<><><>

"Harper, we're coming in hot. Rommie's holding off the troops."

"Right-o, Trance." Harper picked up Trance and Dylan's signatures and tracked her all the way to the Maru. There were no troops following her. As she approached, he opened the hatch, giving her quick access to the ship. His eyes opened wide as she walked past him, towing Dylan behind her. "Uh, Trance?"

"Not now, Harper."

"But."

Trance turned to face Harper. "Harper! I don't have time for this right now. Dylan is injured, Rommie is coming. We need to be ready to take off the second she gets here. Can you handle that, Harper? I really need you to be able to handle that."

Harper nodded quickly. "Yeah, Trance. I can handle that." He turned to head toward the bridge then turned back. "I just thought you should know something. There's a Maldovian vessel heading our way. If we plan on getting out of here unobserved, we'd better do it quickly."

Just then Rommie ran onto the Maru and punched the control to close the hatch. "Then we'd better get moving. I don't think I was followed but we need to get out of here quickly. Come on, Harper. Help me up front."

"Aye, Rom-doll."

Trance turned toward the sleeping quarters as Rommie and Harper prepared to launch the Maru, pulling Dylan behind her. Once there, she positioned Dylan on one of the bunks and took off his anti-grav harness. Her medical supplies were scant on the Maru, but she had enough available medications to sedate him to take some of the pressure off the diaphragm injury. Other than that, cleaning him up and using a small portable tissue knitter on his external injuries was the best she could do.

<><><> <><><>

"Rommie, the planet just sent a message to the Maldovian vessel telling them of Dylan's escape. We'd better get moving."

"Hang on, Harper."

Harper activated the ship-wide com. "Trance, we're ready to go. Hang on back there."

"Ready, Harper." Dylan had been strapped to the bunk for his safety and she held tight to the workbench at the side of the room as the Maru shot into space. They transited to slipstream immediately to avoid the Commonwealth ship, dropping a beacon for the Andromeda.

<><><>

"Pick up the beacon, Andromeda."

"Aye, Beka."

"Rhade, as soon as that beacon is on board, get us to slipstream."

He was already activating the pilot's station. "Will do, Beka."

"Beacon on board."

"Transiting to slipstream - - now."

Beka turned quickly. "Andromeda, decipher?"

"Aye, Beka. The Maru is on its way to Singapore Seven." The avatar closed its eyes for a moment, assimilating the information in the beacon. "We need to hurry. Trance needs medical supplies."

That comment made Beka spin around quickly, her eyes riveting on the avatar of the warship. "Medical supplies?"

The avatar nodded slowly. "Yes. Apparently Dylan has been injured."

"How bad?" Her sigh sounded loud on the suddenly silent command deck.

"I do not know. The message says to hurry."

Throwing her shoulders back, Beka threw off the unsettling news as she turned to Rhade. "You heard her, Rhade. Get us to Singapore Seven - - now."

"Aye, Beka." His muscles bulged as he guided the Andromeda on the fragile strings binding the universe together. "I'll hold this thread as long as we're able. We'll need to make two transits to get there, though."

"Make them short, Rhade."

A nod was his only answer as he concentrated on the task at hand.

<><><>

"Andromeda, where are you?"

"You looking for me, Trance?" Rommie poked her head into the room where Trance was sitting with Dylan.

The golden woman smiled sadly up at the android as she shook her head. "No. I was looking for the Andromeda. I really need the medical bay on the Andromeda, Rommie. Dylan's injuries need more care than I am able to provide here."

The android sat next to Trance on the bed opposite where Dylan lay. "How is it you were able to keep the crew of the Maru relatively healthy before you came to us, Trance?"

Trance smiled. "Not very well, I'm afraid. You remember Harper's case of Triangulum Measles, don't you?"

Rommie grimaced. "Yeah. Point taken, Trance."

"Besides, I've not kept this place stocked since we joined the crew of the Andromeda. It wasn't needed - - until now." She sighed softly. "I wish I had more to work with now, though."

Rommie took Trance's hand in her own and squeezed it gently. "He'll be okay, Trance."

Trance nodded. "They blinded him, Rommie."

The android's head came up quickly in her surprise. "Blind? Dylan's blind, Trance?"

Trance nodded again. "I'm afraid if I don't treat his eyes soon, the blindness may become permanent."

"You can't let that happen, Trance. Being blind would kill him. Well, you know what I mean."

Trance nodded and squeezed Rommie's hand. "Yeah, I know what you mean, Rommie. Dylan would hate feeling like a burden."

"Then we'd better hope the Andromeda found our beacon and is on their way here."

The golden skinned woman nodded slowly. "Every minute counts now, Rommie. Every minute that whatever poison those beasts put in his system stays there lessens the chances that I'll be able to reverse its effect. I've flushed his eyes with sterile saline but it isn't enough. We need an antidote - - and soon." Trance sighed and got to her feet. "The sedative I gave him will begin to wear off soon and I can't afford to keep him unconscious much longer."

"Why not?"

"If the Andromeda doesn't get here soon, I'll need to ration the sedative - - I can give him enough to make him comfortable, but he'll be awake."

"Oh." Rommie stood and wiped her hands on her pants, a very unnecessary and human gesture. "What can I do?"

Trance smiled sadly. "Help me bandage his eyes. The light will only further injure his optic nerves at this point."

"Right. Let me get the bandages."

"And gauze pads, Rommie. We'll need to double up the padding so no light can get to his eyes."

The two worked silently and soon were finished. Dylan's eyes were wrapped securely. Now all they could do is wait and pray the Andromeda would get to them in time.

<><><> <><><>

"Exiting slipstream."

The ship shuddered slightly as they exited into normal space. Beka looked around the bridge quickly then turned to Rhade. "How are you feeling?"

He quickly rolled his shoulders. "Fine. Prepare for slipstream." Only after programming the pilot's console did he speak again. "Transiting to slipstream - - now."

The ship shuddered as a diffuse light lit the bridge briefly. The view screen showed the ever-shifting threads of the slipstream as Rhade piloted through their tangles. An uninitiated viewer could easily become disoriented watching the display as the threads wound around each other and shifted directions at unexpected intervals. As it was, very few people actually watched the view screen display as the Andromeda was in the slipstream because it tended to make people sick. Pilots were a rare breed that the distortions didn't seem to bother. Therefore, Beka had no trouble watching as Rhade piloted the stream - - she just wished she were the one doing the flying.

After what seemed like an interminable time, Rhade's voice broke the silence on the Command Deck. "Exiting slipstream."

The ship shuddered as it transited to normal space then quickly resumed its journey, heading toward Singapore Seven and their crew.

"ETA, Rhade?"

"Four hours at full impulse."

"Make it less."

"Aye, Beka. I'll do my best."

Beka smirked at the Nieztschean before resuming her work at the command console. She liked having Rhade around and trusted him. It was a nice feeling having him at her back and she knew she could count on him.

<><><>

"How's Dylan?" The young engineer fidgeted nervously in the doorway, obviously unwilling to enter the sleeping quarters where the unconscious captain of the Andromeda Ascendant lay.

Trance looked up quickly and walked over to Harper. "He's going to be all right, Harper."

He nodded uncertainly. "Sure thing, Trance. Even I can see that." He gulped nervously and turned to go. Only Trance's hand on his arm stopped him.

"Would you do something for me, Harper?"

A quick nod was his only answer.

"Would you sit with Dylan for a minute while I check on my supplies?" At Harper's panicked look she smiled gently. "It'll be okay. I just don't want to leave him alone - - in case he wakes up."

His tongue snaked out quickly to lick his lips. "Trance - - I'm not sure about this."

"Please, Harper. This is important. If he wakes up and no one is with him, he could panic."

Harper nodded.

"Harper, he was unconscious when we found him. He doesn't know he's safe."

"Oh." A soft sigh escaped his lips as he nodded. "I'll do it, Trance."

"Thanks Harper." She gave him a quick hug.

"Trance?"

"Yeah Harper?"

"Hurry back."

"I will Harper." She patted his shoulder as she hurried from the room.

Harper looked around quickly and nervously shuffled his feet. He hadn't moved from the doorway yet and, as he realized he was hesitating to approach the bed, he laughed softly. After taking a deep breath and letting it out slowly to try to calm his nerves, he took a slow step into the room. His hands were sweating lightly and he wiped them on his baggy pants as he walked closer to the bed where Dylan lay.

"Um - - hi Dylan." Harper shuffled nervously as he looked down at Dylan. As he ran his hands through his already rumpled hair he sighed loudly then sat in a chair by the bed. "You had me pretty scared back there, boss." He looked furtively over his shoulder before continuing. "I don't know what I'd do if something happened to you - - what we'd do. You are the important one here, boss - - and yet you continue to put yourself in danger before you'd let any of us get in the way of trouble." He snorted softly. "Not that I need any help on that score, huh, boss? I sure can find my share of trouble without any help from anyone else." He shook his head slowly. "Man, no wonder you didn't want me on this mission, Dylan."

"Not true, Harper." The voice was a low rasp - - dry and pained.

"Dylan? You with me, boss?"

Harper leaned forward and watched Dylan snake his tongue out to swipe at his overly dry lips. A pained grimace crossed his face as he swallowed heavily. Harper stilled his trembling hands as they reached for the bandages covering his eyes. A low whimper escaped his lips as Harper's hands pressed his into the mattress.

"Don't, Dylan. Trance bandaged your eyes."

"Why?"

"I - - I'm not sure. She said something about a poison."

Dylan nodded slowly and took a deep breath, wincing at the pain in his chest. "Where are we?" He felt along the bed with his hands. "Not on the Med Deck - - not my quarters."

Harper smiled. "You're good." He chuckled. "Actually, we're on the Maru. We're waiting for the Andromeda to find us."

"Where?"

"Singapore Seven. A Maldovian ship came into the system and we ran. We dropped a beacon and are just waiting for the Andromeda to catch up with us."

Dylan nodded and sighed. "Harper?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"Thirsty."

"I'll get Trance."

Dylan reached out quickly, grabbing Harper's hand. "No! Don't leave me." He sighed. "Talk to me."

"About what?"

"Anything."

"Um - - okay." Harper sat back and began talking softly. Dylan listened and eventually his breathing evened out and he slept again.

Harper was still rambling on about not much of anything when Trance walked back into the room. "Hey, Harper. Who you talking to?"

The unexpected interruption made Harper jump slightly and he looked over his shoulder quickly. "Oh, it's you, Trance." He gestured to the bed. "I was talking to Dylan."

"Oh? Looks to me like he's still sleeping." She smiled as she approached the bed.

A slow blush stained Harper's cheeks and he turned back toward the bed. The slow rise and fall of the sleeping man's chest convinced him of the truth of her observation and he lowered his voice in deference to the sleeping man. "Well, he was awake - - for a few minutes. Looked like he was in a bit of pain too."

"Why didn't you come and get me, Harper?" Trance sounded upset. He could tell how worried she was about Dylan.

"He asked me to stay with him, Trance."

"Really?"

Harper nodded. "He asked me not to leave him - - so I stayed."

She nodded. "You were talking when I came in."

He smiled. "He asked me to talk to him."

"Ah." She set her supplies down on the counter at the side of the room then bent over Dylan. The touch of her cool hand on his fevered brow made him shiver slightly and pull away from her touch with a low groan. "He's running a fever."

"He asked for a drink."

Trance looked alarmed. "You didn't give him anything, did you?"

"Hell no, Trance. Geeze, what kind of an idiot do you take me for?"

"Sorry, Harper."

"Anyway, I didn't have anything to give him." He ran his hands through his hair nervously, making it stand up even more than usual. "Would that have been bad?"

Dylan's condition was distracting her and Harper's cryptic comments were confusing. "What?"

"Would it have been bad to give him a drink?"

"Oh. Well, I know you usually only drink Sparky Cola and that would have been exactly the wrong thing to give him. The caffeine would only serve to further dehydrate him - - and would have exacerbated his headache." Trance spoke over her shoulder as she fussed over Dylan, wiping his brow and pulling the covers up to his chin.

"Ah." Harper had no clue what Trance was talking about but thought it prudent to hold his tongue.

"You said he looked like he was in pain?"

Harper nodded enthusiastically. "Yeah, he did."

She nodded again and administered a hypo-spray to Dylan. Harper was staring at her when she turned from the bed. "Sedative."

He nodded. "I thought we were running low on that."

"We are. He needs to rest, though. Besides, if we're here much longer there won't be much I can do for him anyway. He might as well be comfortable."

An audible gulp was heard as Harper assimilated Trance's proclamation. Before she could say anything else, he bolted from the room, leaving her to stare in his wake. Sighing. She turned back to Dylan, making sure he was comfortable before going back to work at the computer console in the room.

<><><> <><><>

"Trance?"

"Yes, Rommie?"

"We just made contact with the Andromeda. They are forty minutes out."

Trance sniffled back tears. "Thanks Rommie. We need to get Dylan to medical as soon as possible after docking."

"Aye, Trance. I'll have droids standing by with a stretcher."

"Thanks." Her hands trembled slightly as she brushed the damp hair off the unconscious man's brow. "Hang in there, Dylan. We're almost home now."

When the announcement came over the com that they were finally docked on board the Andromeda Ascendant, Trance finally lay her head on the bed at Dylan's side and let her tears fall. The outlet was brief however and she was perfectly composed and in charge as the droids arrived to whisk Dylan away to the medical bay on the Andromeda. Trance followed the stretcher through the ship, leaving Rommie and Harper to field the inevitable questions from Beka and Rhade.

"What's with her?" Beka gestured over her shoulder at Trance as she walked away from them, following closely behind the stretcher carrying Dylan to the medical bay. The golden woman hadn't even acknowledged the presence of her crew mates before hustling off down the corridor.

Rommie sighed. "She's worried about Dylan."

"Really." Beka ran her hand through her hair nervously. "He'll be fine - - he's always fine." She looked at Rhade. "Right, Rhade?"

The Nieztschean watched the retreating stretcher and Trance's hunched shoulders. "Yeah Beka. He'll be fine."

Something in his voice bothered her and she shivered quickly against a sudden chill. "Rhade?"

He turned to face her quickly, flashing her a shallow smile. "He'll be fine, Beka." He looked away quickly as if afraid of being caught in a lie then strode away down the corridor.

"What the hell is going on with everyone, Rommie?"

"I don't know, Beka." She fidgeted for a minute. "He'll be fine, Beka. I'm sure Trance will let us know what's going on - - when we can see him." She gestured over her shoulder. "I have to go."

"Right." Beka turned to Harper and was startled that he didn't seem to be echoing everyone else sentiments about Dylan. "Harper?"

The young engineer startled as Beka's voice cut through the haze of his thoughts. "Huh?" His dazed gaze met hers before he cut his eyes away again. The anguish in them hit her like a ton of bricks.

"Harper?" She instinctively put her arm around his shoulders and pulled him to her. "Dylan will be okay. Really." She could feel the young man nod.

"Yeah, Beka. Dylan will be okay. But why was he there in the first place?"

Her confusion was plain on her face. "I don't understand, Harper. Dylan was there - - we were there because the Carnelians asked us for help. These goons were amassing weapons that could destroy worlds."

"Yeah, but why Dylan?"

Beka sighed. "Because he's the consummate 'good guy', Harper. He's the cowboy in the white hat, the knight in shining armor going to the rescue on his white stallion - - and the whole damned universe knows it." She snorted softly, shaking her head. "Gods, Harper. Dylan would help anyone that asked."

Harper seemed to be barely listening to her and she watched him carefully. Finally, he sighed and ran his hands through his already messed hair. "Yeah - - Dylan is the freaking superhero. But what am I?"

Beka threw up her hands. "Now I'm totally lost."

He shook his head sadly and turned away. "It doesn't matter, Beka."

She stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "What the hell are you talking about?"

"Dylan was there to destroy the weapons - - I'll give you that. And we did, by the way - - destroy the weapons, that is. I used them as a diversion so Trance and Rommie could get Dylan out."

"Okay. Where are you going with this Harper?"

He sighed. "I used my spare time to hack into Andromeda's records."

"You weren't on the Andromeda, Harper. You were on the Maru - - so how could you hack Andromeda?"

Harper blushed. "Dylan had been acting really weird - - for weeks!" Beka nodded in agreement prompting Harper to continue. "I - - I had Andromeda's security feeds running through the Maru so I could find out what was going on. The only thing was I hadn't had much time to watch the files until I was on the planet waiting for everyone else to accomplish the mission. I was a fifth wheel - - just sitting around on my ass doing nothing. I figured it was a good time to take a peek at the files."

"And?"

"And I found out why Dylan was there - - why he was on that mission - - and why I was sitting on my ass out of the way."

"What are you talking about?"

"Dylan made sure I was safe - - because he knew I was supposed to die on that mission."

Beka laughed. "Harper, how could he know that?"

Harper fidgeted. "He talked with Trance about having nightmares. He saw me being killed on a mission - - they talked about ways to keep me from being killed." He took a deep breath. "Beka, Dylan let himself be taken - - to save my life." He looked up at her with deep sadness in his eyes. "How can I ever live up to that, Beka?" Harper shook off her arm and walked away.

Beka watched him go, unable to help him understand that Dylan had to save him - - no matter the cost - - because that's what the knight always did.

<><><>

"So - - um, how's he doing, Trance?"

Trance looked up at the sound of her own name, not having heard anyone enter the medical bay. "Oh, hi Beka."

"Don't oh hi me, Trance. How's he doing?"

"Well, he's feverish - - and I'm not entirely sure why."

"What about his eyes?"

Trance stared down at Dylan then smiled up at Beka. "Beka, you're a genius. Thank you." She turned from where Dylan lay, monitors blinking above his head.

"Thank you?" She shook her head. "Thank you for what, Trance?"

"For making me realize what is causing Dylan's fever, that's what."

Beka rubbed the ache that was forming between her eyes. "You are one infuriating woman, Trance."

"I know, Beka." She looked up at her for a moment. "Is there anything else I can do for you? I really need to get back to work."

Beka sighed loudly and turned away. "No, Trance. I think you've done quite enough for me for now. Have anything good for a headache?"

"Do you have a headache, Beka?"

The concern in Trance's voice would have made Beka laugh, but she feared her head would explode if she tried. "I'm fine, Trance. Just help Dylan."

"Okay."

"Oh - - and Trance?"

"Yeah, Beka?"

"Harper knows about Dylan's nightmares."

A very loud sigh made the first officer turn around. Trance stood by Dylan's bed with her head hanging. "Dylan didn't want him to know."

"I know, Trance. And even though Dylan had Harper's best interests at heart, Harper doesn't feel worthy. He's really not handling this well."

"Thanks for letting me know, Beka."

"Is Dylan going to be okay, Trance?"

"I hope so, Beka."

Beka nodded once then turned and left the medical bay, leaving Trance and Dylan alone once again.

Trance sighed. "We knew he'd find out, Dylan." She worked as she spoke, talking more to soothe her own nerves than anything else. "Poor Harper. I knew he'd be upset about this." The hypo-spray she was assembling was finally finished and she injected it into Dylan's neck. After setting the gun on the bench at the head of Dylan's bed, she picked up a wet cloth and bathed his face. "I sure hope this fever breaks soon." As she spoke she unwound the bandages from Dylan's eyes. The small flashlight she picked up next was used to check his pupil reflexes. "Damn." She turned from the bed and rummaged around in her medicine stores, mixing a couple of compounds together in a small flask before turning back to the bed. As she talked to Dylan, she put a few drops of the mixture into his eyes, rubbing his eyelids gently to cover the entire surface of the eye. It was a potent mixture and he grimaced at the sting. Seeing his reflex she smiled. If it hurt a little, it was working.

The medicine she had mixed was designed to be absorbed through the eyeball and into the optic nerve - - much like the poison that was sprayed into his eyes on Fulsom's Folly. Her concoction, however, was designed to flush out the effects of the poison and help to repair the damage it had caused. Only time - - and many more applications - - would tell if it would work or not. Until then, she could only wait and hope.

As Trance contemplated her patient, Dylan began to stir. A low groan was her first clue that he was waking. She placed a cool cloth over his eyes to help filter out the ambient light of the medical bay. "Andromeda, dim the lights in here please."

"How low, Trance?"

"Keep going - - Stop! Thank you."

The hologram of the ship's avatar blinked out, leaving Trance alone with Dylan in the near-darkness of the room. "Enhance oxygen levels on bed four to 20% above normal." She watched the digital display over the bed as the oxygen levels adjusted to her patient's needs.

A deep sigh from the bed alerted her to Dylan waking from his slumber. She placed her hand gently on his shoulder as she bent over him. "Dylan? It's Trance."

"Trance?" His voice was raspy.

"Yes, Dylan. It's Trance."

"Where?" He licked his dry lips.

"We're back on the Andromeda. You're on medical."

His nod was visible to her enhanced sight and his hand came up to touch the cloth covering his aching eyes. Her hand covered his for a moment before she gently placed his hand back at his side.

"My eyes?"

"Damaged - - by some kind of poison. I think I've found a cure and have begun the process of flushing it out of your system."

"You think."

She sighed softly. "Nothing is absolute, Dylan. But already I can see an improvement in your optic nerve responses."

Again he nodded slightly before clearing his throat painfully and wincing.

"Thirsty?"

"Yes."

"Here, let me help you." She propped his head on her arm, lifting a cup to his lips. "Small sips, Dylan."

He took a couple of small sips then laid back again with a sigh. "Thank you, Trance."

She took his hand in her much smaller one and squeezed gently. "Harper knows."

A soft sigh escaped his lips before he asked. "How?"

"He thought you were acting crazy so he monitored the security feeds - - caught us talking."

A low rumbled chuckle told Trance Dylan was amused. "Sounds like Harper." Dylan shifted on the bed and winced. "So why didn't he say anything?"

"Apparently he was running the feeds through the Maru and finally got a chance to watch them while we were rescuing you."

"Ah."

"Yeah - - ah."

"So now what, Trance? Is he very pissed?"

She nodded and smiled. "Yeah - - he's upset. He thinks he's not worthy."

"That's why I didn't tell him in the first place, Trance."

"I know, Dylan." She patted his shoulder. "Get some rest."

"Okay." He sounded exhausted. "Will you?"

Trance smiled again. "I'll be right here, Dylan. Rest." Even with the low lighting Trance could see when Dylan gave in to his exhaustion and let sleep overtake him once again. "Sleep well, Dylan." Taking advantage of his sleep, she administered another hypo-spray, sending him deeper into oblivion before working on his eyes again, adding drops of the medicine to flush away the poisons. She had waited until he was sleeping again because of the intense pain the strong medicine caused as it was absorbed into the optic nerve. As it was Dylan flinched as the medicine worked its magic even though he was deeply sedated.

<><><> <><><>

"How is he, Trance?"

The voice startled her and she turned toward the door quickly. "Harper! I didn't hear you come in."

He shuffled nervously in the doorway. "I know. Um - - how's he doing?"

She smiled. "Better. Come on in, Harper."

" I - - I don't know."

"Come on, Harper. Sit with me for a minute. I could use the company. Dylan's not much of a conversationalist right now."

Harper laughed softly as he glanced at the unconscious man lying on the medical bed. The blinking and beeping of the scanners over the bed sobered him pretty quickly and he looked away again.

"Harper. Come in."

He stepped hesitantly into the room, letting the doors whisk shut behind him. Trance's outstretched hand beckoned him further into the room and he studiously avoided looking over at the bed where Dylan lay, bathed in a dim golden light, a heavy cloth covering his eyes.

"Anything you wanted to talk about, Harper?" She watched him out of the corner of her eye as she continued to work at the bench in the room.

"Um - - not - - not really, Trance." Harper fingered the various vials sitting on the counter as he tried to avoid Trance's knowing gaze. She allowed him this luxury as she continued her preparations.

His inquisitiveness finally got the better of him and he watched Trance, trying to determine what exactly she was doing. After a couple of minutes he could stand not knowing no longer. "Trance? Just what is it you're doing?"

She smiled slightly before turning to him. "I'm trying to figure out how to modify these nanobots."

"Nanobots? You're modifying nanobots? And you didn't ask for my help?"

The incredulous look on his face was priceless and it was all she could do not to laugh. "I didn't want to bother you, Harper - - and I was trying to do this - - to help Dylan so no one would find out just how bad his injuries are."

"Bad? I thought you said he was getting better."

She nodded sadly. "He is. It's just - - he's not getting better as quickly as I was hoping and every minute the poisons are in contact with his optic nerves the less the chances of a full recovery." She sniffled softly and hoped she wasn't overdoing the sad-sap routine. "I couldn't bear telling him he was going to be blind forever, Harper. Can you imagine what that news would do to him?"

Harper looked over at Dylan quickly then turned back to Trance. He cleared his throat. "Well you should have come to me, Trance. Come on - - move over." He elbowed his way in front of her and began studying the modifications she had begun. She watched him frown then begin to shake his head. "Well, you're doing okay here, Trance - - but I can make it so much better!" His hands began manipulating the tools on the workbench as he talked, telling Trance exactly what he was doing and how it would enhance the functions of the nanobots.

They worked together for hours, only pausing for Trance to check on Dylan's progress - - and once for Trance to silence an alarm and administer more fever-reducing medications. The look on Harper's face then was all the proof she needed - - Harper needed a serious boost of self-esteem. She sighed loudly as she wondered just how to help the young engineer realize his true worth.

It was hours later when Harper finally announced that the nanobots were finished and ready to be injected.

"Are you sure?"

His rapid shrug and sheepish smile didn't alleviate her doubts, but his words did. "You betcha, Trance. These babies are going to eat that poison right off the optic nerves." Harper held up a small tube and stared intently at its murky contents. Then he lifted another. "And these babies are going to repair the optic nerves - - making them good as new." His rambling caused him to run out of breath and Trance nearly giggled as he was forced to stop talking long enough to take a deep breath.

"So let's get the hypo-spray ready. I really don't like the readings on Dylan's monitors."

"Aw crap! Let's go."

The pair readied the hypo-spray and then Trance said a little prayer before injecting its contents into Dylan's neck. The monitors continued bleeping out their disjointed rhythm as Trance watched intent on any little change in his status.

"What's that one, Trance?"

She sighed. "Dylan is experiencing increased pain levels. It probably means the nanobots are doing what they're supposed to be doing."

"Huh?"

"For some reason, the removal of the poison causes great pain. It must have something to do with its makeup."

"Can't you give him something?"

She shook her head slowly. "Unfortunately, no. He already has more sedative in his system now than he should have. Even with his altered metabolism, the levels in his system now could easily kill him. Any more would surely be fatal."

Harper watched Dylan writhe on the bed - - unconscious but still at the limit of his pain tolerance. His young blue eyes welled with tears as he took his friend's hand in his. "Why Dylan? I'm so not worth this." A hand lightly descended on his back and he flinched away from the touch, angrily scrubbing at his leaking eyes.

"Yes you are, Seamus Harper. Dylan knew exactly what he was doing when he went into that warehouse. He believed you were worth the sacrifice. How can that trust be so wrong?" Her hand caressed his back once again, lightly before withdrawing. "Look - - Harper?"

His listless voice was soft in its anguish. "Yeah Trance?"

"Could you stay with him for a few minutes?"

"What? Me? Um - - no." Harper got to his feet quickly. "I - - don't think that's a good idea, Trance."

"Oh - - okay, Harper. It's just - - I really have to go though and Dylan - - well, if he wakes while I'm gone…"

Harper sighed. "Fine Trance. Go!" He waved her from the room, but not before she planted a light kiss on his cheek.

"Thanks, Harper. Call me if you need me."

"Yeah, whatever. Just hurry back."

A smile was his only answer and she slipped from the room. He hovered nervously by the bed for a minute, looking anyplace but at the still figure lying under the medical scanners. A low groan startled him and he jumped nervously, looking around quickly to see if Trance had returned. After ascertaining that she was still absent from the medical deck, he stepped closer to the bed and looked down at Dylan for the first time. A light sheen of sweat had broken out on his brow and his hands were clutching restlessly at the light blanket covering him.

Harper glanced up at the scanners over the bed and wished fervently that he knew more about what they meant. "Andromeda?"

The hologram of the ship's avatar shimmered into view. "What can I do for you, Mr. Harper?"

"Well, Trance left me here to watch Dylan but I really don't know what I'm doing."

Holo-Rommie smiled indulgently. Trance had already asked her to monitor the captain and she knew he wasn't in any immediate danger. "He's okay, Harper. His temperature is a little elevated but it isn't time to administer any more medication. He'll just have to ride this out for now."

"Um - - is there anything I should be doing?"

"A cool cloth on his forehead might help reduce the fever and make him rest easier. Other than that just keep an eye on him until Trance returns."

"Thanks."

"Anytime, Harper." Holo-Rommie shimmered out, leaving Harper alone with Dylan once again.

<><><>

"Dylan is feverish."

Trance nodded as she continued to turn the soil around the large tree at the center of the hydroponics garden. "It's too early for more medication."

The hologram image smiled and nodded. "That's what I told Harper."

Trance nodded again. "What else did you tell him?"

"To put a cool cloth on Dylan's forehead to help with the fever."

"Is the latest sedative wearing off?"

"Yes. I estimate another ten minutes before he starts to awaken."

"Good. Harper needs this time with Dylan. They have issues to resolve."

Holo-Rommie seemed to hesitate before asking her next question. "Trance? How are Dylan's eyes?"

"Better."

"Will he regain his normal vision?"

Her hands stilled in the rich soil before resuming their movement once again. "It looks promising, Rommie."

"Promising."

"Yes. Promising."

Holo-Rommie nodded and shimmered out, leaving Trance alone once again in the hydroponics garden. Her voice rang out softly as she began to sing a lilting melody, asking her people to help heal her friend. Healing spells were common on some worlds, and who knows, maybe it would help.

<><><>

The washcloth was cool as he placed it on Dylan's fevered brow. The unconscious man shivered involuntarily and Harper pulled the covers up to his shoulders. "You're gonna be okay, boss."

Pacing kept him from bouncing. It also kept him from thinking too much. Thinking about the man lying so still on the medical bed behind him. The man who was willing to give up his life to save his. The question was - - why? Why would Dylan be willing to risk everything to spare his life? Once the thoughts began he found it impossible to stop them. The questions - - the imaginings of what Dylan must have gone through for him. What he must have knowingly gone through. It was mind-boggling. Harper stopped pacing and turned toward the bed - - staring at the still figure upon it as he ran his hands through his unruly hair. "Damn it, Dylan - - why?"

A low moan from the unconscious man made him jump. Harper looked around wildly, hoping to see Trance, but she was not there. He stepped to the side of the bed just as Dylan spoke.

"Trance?" His raspy voice startled Harper and he hesitated to speak or to move until Dylan reached for the cloth covering his eyes.

"Wait." Harper reached out and stilled Dylan's hand. "Don't Dylan. You shouldn't take that off."

"Harper?" Dylan licked his dry lips.

"Yeah, it's - - it's me, boss." Harper fidgeted.

"Trance?"

"Um - - she had to - - do something. She asked me to stay with you."

Dylan coughed softly. "Oh - - good." He licked his lips again. "Harper?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"Thirsty."

"Oh. Lemme see. Um - - water?"

Dylan nodded. "Please." A grimace crossed his face as he tried to swallow.

Harper nodded and grabbed a cup. Holo-Rommie materialized in front of him as he was looking around for the water.

"No water, Harper."

Harper jumped at her sudden appearance. "Geeze, Rommie! Don't do that!" He patted his chest as if staving off a heart attack. "Dylan is thirsty."

"Ice chips."

"Huh?"

The hologram scowled. "Ice chips, Harper. He has to stay lying flat while the nanobots are working - - unless you want to see him screaming in pain. He won't be able to swallow water in that position. Give him ice chips."

"Ice chips - - right." His eyes scanned the area quickly. "Um, Rommie - - where? Ah crap. She's gone." The hologram had shimmered out while he was looking around the room. Harper sighed and went to the refrigeration unit to get ice for Dylan.

"Harper?" The voice was soft and strained.

"Be right there, boss. Just getting you something for your throat." He filled the cup and hurried back to Dylan. "Here you go, Dylan."

Dylan began to push himself up.

"Wait!" Harper stopped him with a light push against his chest.

"I can't drink lying down, Harper."

"I know, but Rommie said you can't sit up yet. Something about pain - - lots of pain. You gotta lie there until the nanobots are through."

Dylan sighed. "I really need a drink, Harper."

"I got something better for you - - ice chips."

"Ice chips." His voice sounded disbelieving.

"Hey, don't knock it 'til you try it, Dylan." He scooped up a few chips on a spoon. "Come on - - open up." Carefully he fed Dylan some of the ice, smiling when Dylan groaned his approval.

"Thanks, Harper."

"Hey, no problem, boss. More?"

At Dylan's nod the young man fed him more of the ice chips, smiling at Dylan's obvious enjoyment of the cold treat. Harper let Dylan set the pace, ready with a spoon of ice chips as Dylan asked, but not forcing more on him until he was ready. After a few minutes he noticed Dylan was not asking for more of the ice.

"You okay, Dylan?"

A small, curt nod was his only answer.

"Okay." Silence filled the room until Harper could stand it no longer. "You need anything else?"

A small sigh filled the air as Dylan shook his head 'no'. Harper blushed as he realized he was pestering Dylan and he fell silent. His knee jiggled as he fidgeted on the stool by Dylan's bed and he looked around the medical bay for something - - anything to keep him occupied. After a minute he risked a glance at Dylan and noted that he was breathing deeply and regularly. The read-outs on he medical scanner above the bed indicated the patient was asleep.

Harper sighed softly and stood, stretching to ease the kinks in his back. He walked around, finally stopping at the workbench where he and Trance had modified the nanobots. After rummaging around for a couple of minutes he busied himself with further modification formulas that he thought may enhance the abilities of the nanobots in the future. Keeping his mind busy and off the man lying on the bed behind him would stave off the feelings of anger and frustration he had been feeling since learning of Dylan's sacrifice - - feelings he neither understood or could contain with any degree of success.

It was about an hour later when Harper first heard Dylan stir behind him. He wiped his hands on his pants before turning toward the bed where Dylan lay. His eyes widened in surprise as he realized Dylan was still sleeping - - and seemed to be in the throes of a nightmare.

"Oh crap." The young man looked around nervously. "Trance, where are you?"

Another drawn out moan from the man writhing on the bed seemed to unfreeze his muscles and the engineer stepped forward hesitantly. A couple of quick steps brought him to the edge of the bed and he wasn't too surprised to see his hand shaking when he reached out to touch Dylan's shoulder.

"Dylan?"

The dreaming man awoke with a start and pulled away from the touch instinctively. "No!" He sat up abruptly, the cloth covering his eyes falling away, leaving him staring sightlessly around the room. His gasps filled the room as he struggled with the unbounded fear his nightmare had triggered. Suddenly he brought his hands to his head and screamed out his agony as sharp stabs of pain shot through his eyes and into his brain. He bent forward, cradling his head in his hands as he began to retch uncontrollably.

Harper reached out quickly. "Dylan, lie back." His words were calm and soothing, belying his inner turmoil at the sight of Dylan struggling against the debilitating pain. "Come on, boss. Let me help you."

Harper was finally able to get Dylan prone again, lying curled into a ball on his left side. The older man was still retching from the pain lancing through him and Harper looked around frantically for something - - anything to help him. His eyes fell on a hypo-spray gun sitting on the medical scanner over the bed and he picked it up gingerly. "Rommie, is this safe to give Dylan?"

Holo-Rommie shimmered into sight in front of him and nodded sagely. "Yes, Harper. Trance filled that with pain medication just before she left."

"Thanks."

"Inject it directly into his carotid artery, Harper."

The young engineer swallowed heavily around his fear and nodded. "Right. Carotid artery." He stepped forward and pressed the hypo-spray gun against Dylan's neck. "Hold still, Dylan. This should make you feel better." He pressed the trigger of the gun, sending a large dose of pain medication into Dylan's blood stream.

Dylan stiffened as the drugs hit his system then sighed as he relaxed back against the bed. Harper helped him to roll onto his back again, taking his place one the stool at the side of his bed.

"Dylan?"

A soft questioning sound answered him from the body on the bed.

"You okay now?"

A small nod answered his question. Harper was quiet for a moment. He fidgeted on the stool, making it creak softly in the quiet of the room.

Dylan sighed and opened his still sightless eyes. "What is it, Harper?" His words were slurred and he licked his lips.

"Why did you do it, boss?"

Dylan's eyes drifted closed and he struggled to open them again. "Do what, Harper?"

"Why did you sacrifice yourself to save me? I'm so not worth it, Dylan." He had been looking at the ceiling as he talked and now he looked back at the bed, only to find Dylan had succumbed to the drugs and was asleep once again. He sighed loudly in the still room. "Figures."

<><><> <><><>

Days passed. Days in which Dylan lay prone, staring sightlessly up at the ceiling on the medical deck, unable to move without debilitating pain shooting through his head. Days in which Harper refused to visit Dylan but hacked repeatedly into the medical scanner's computers to monitor Dylan's progress. Days during which Beka paced the Command Deck wondering what would happen if time found Dylan unable to return to his duties.

Finally Trance deemed Dylan ready to move - - to a semi-reclining position. She talked soothingly to him as she raised the head of the bed, warning him that he might experience some discomfort as his body adjusted to the change in position. Dylan took deep breaths as he felt himself moving. True to what Trance had said he began to feel a bit queasy as his head was raised and he groaned softly. Trance stopped the movement of the bed and leaned over Dylan.

"Are you okay?"

He nodded slowly. "Just a bit queasy."

"That's pretty normal, Dylan. Why don't we leave things the way they are for a few minutes? If you start to feel worse just let me know and I'll lower this again - - deal?"

"Deal." Dylan reached out and Trance took his hand in hers. "Thanks for everything, Trance."

"You're welcome, Dylan. I'll be right here if you need me."

He nodded again, blinking away the sudden moisture in his eyes as the frustration of his situation hit him yet again. A blind starship captain - - just great. His sigh was loud in the room and Trance smiled sadly over her shoulder. His sight would get better - - it just had to. She was a bit alarmed that there was no discernible change as of yet, though. She'd thought the nanobots would have affected repairs much quicker than they seemed to be doing.

After a few minutes, Trance raised the illumination in the room a few degrees. She bent over Dylan's bed. "Dylan, I need to check your eyes. Can you look this way for me?"

He trained his sightless eyes to where her voice was coming from and opened them wide. As she bent closer he suddenly gasped softly.

"What is it, Dylan?" She stood up again. "Does the light from the meter give you a headache?"

"You're beautiful, Trance." He stared up at the golden glow outlining her dim form and smiled.

"You - - you can see me, Dylan?"

He nodded and blinked away unshed tears. "Yeah - - just a golden glow around you, but I can see!"

Trance grasped his hand and their laughter filled the room as they celebrated Dylan's breakthrough. Dylan's recovery progressed smoothly and within a few days he began to regain his sight. Harper had been keeping his distance and Dylan seemed to remember little of what had transpired between them in the medical bay. Trance allowed Dylan to move back to his own quarters with the stipulation that he take it easy and get lots of rest. She checked on him periodically throughout the day and made sure he was in bed early at night.

It didn't take long for Dylan to become bored with the isolation and inactivity and he whined to Trance until she allowed him to visit the Obs Deck one afternoon. His vision had come back to the point of being able to see where he was going, but he still couldn't read a flexi or see who was at the other end of the corridor if he was walking thorough the ship. Each day he noticed improvements, but the slowness of his progress was very annoying to him and as he stared out into the expanse of space he felt his frustration grow.

A tentative hand on his arm made him spin around, turning from the view of the passing stars. He could just make out the smiling form of Trance smiling at him.

"Trance." He turned back to the vast expanse of space.

"Hi Dylan. How are you?"

He shrugged noncommittally and continued to stare out the portal. "Okay I guess."

"And your sight?"

"Getting better." He let his head drop for a moment. "But it's just so damned frustrating! I still can't do anything useful."

"Being here is useful. Your crew needs to see you and to know you are recovering."

"Um hmm." He sounded dubious and Trance smiled. He sighed again.

"What you did, Dylan. That was important."

He nodded then turned to her with a smile. "Was it fate, Trance - - or destiny?" He was teasing her, knowing she didn't believe in something that couldn't be changed - - like fate.

She smiled back and him and gestured to Harper over her shoulder. "His fate - - your destiny." She winked and left him to ponder the vast expanse of space.

END