Contains spoilers for, and some dialogue from, "We're So Screwed" parts 2 and 3, also spoilers for "Incubator".
His legs hurt to the point where they are trembling. He has been forced to stand for an entire day, in the intense background heat of Katratzi, with metal spikes poking him in numerous places, in some places breaking the integrity of his cooling suit and letting more of the heat in.
This is not exactly how he'd expected to find Katratzi.
War Minister Ahkna stands in front of him, smiling a cold smile. She is, he notes, not as tall or imposing as Tauza. A full-blood Ruling Caste, then. She would have to be, to be War Minister.
"It is impressive how long you've lasted… for a failed hybridization. But surely you must recognize the futility of your efforts. Sooner or later, I will break you. Tell me what you know of wormholes, and you will go free."
She is, of course, lying. If he tells her what he knew of wormholes, which sadly isn't nearly as much as he led her to believe, she'd first keep torturing him in the belief that there was more there, and then eventually kill him once she was convinced he knew no more. On the other hand, he is lying too. He has told her he knows the secrets of wormholes in the first place because then she'll keep him alive.
It is true that eventually, he will break. Eventually, everyone does. But he has far more endurance than she gives him credit for. Perhaps he is significantly physically weaker than a Scarran, but his endurance is greater. Scarran children undergo grueling training as children, but not unrelenting torture and emotional abuse as he did. And Crichton will come for him. He is sure of it.
"Why… would I want to do that?" he asks, panting for breath but forcing a smile. "I find this… stimulating."
She makes a gesture, and one of the spikes stabs into him, directly into a nerve cluster in his back. The world goes white with pain, and he screams.
"Is that stimulating enough for you?" Ahkna purrs.
"Delightful," he gasps. "Do… that again."
She obliges. This time he has had a moment to prepare for the pain, to shut down some of his sensitivity right there. Instead of screaming, he throws back his head and sucks in his breath, letting his expression approximate a cross between pleasure and pain.
She can't actually break him. Long before that happens, Staleek will interfere. As ridiculous as Scorpius finds it, the man still thinks Scorpius is his spy, will still work to protect him. Scorpius has to carry his own weight, of course—Staleek can't protect him from Ahkna completely – but Staleek will keep him from being killed until Crichton shows up.
He has to focus on something to resist the pain, some problem to solve, some conundrum to consider. Entirely against his will, he finds himself focusing on the question of why Staleek is still protecting him.
He thinks of an incident that occurred during his scientific training in the Peacekeepers.
Scorpius knew better than to contradict a pure Sebacean teacher in front of a class full of Peacekeeper Techs, but after the class was over he approached. "Specialist Rana? Might I ask a question?"
Rana gave Scorpius a cool glance, returned to filling out paperwork for a minute, and then, after having clearly conveyed his opinion of a half-breed's status, looked back up. "Trainee Scorpius, isn't it?" As if he didn't know.
"Make it quick. I have another class coming in."
"According to your lecture, only members of the Scarran Ruling Caste can pass Ruling Caste genetic markers."
"That's not what I said. Males can only pass markers if they are Ruling Caste. Females can have one or two sets of genetic markers, and if they have one, they're borderline – the rest of their makeup and their family status determine if they are considered Ruling Caste or not."
This was actually not true. A truly powerful family might be able to conceal a girl's true ability for a while, but it all depended on sensitivity to Crystherium Utilia, the flower that Scarrans depended on for sentience. Scorpius didn't mention this; secrets were power, and in a world where he was despised, he needed all the power he could get. "But of male Scarrans, only those of Ruling Caste possess markers for that class."
"Was something about this difficult for you to understand, Trainee?"
"No, sir. But it does contradict my experience. After I escaped the Scarrans in my youth, I did spend some time studying them in the Uncharted Territories, the better to understand my enemy. And I have seen Ruling Caste markers appear in Scarrans who had no Ruling Caste descent."
"Then they got it from their mothers, who must have been Worker or Warrior carriers."
"No, sir, the pedigree of the mother was well known, and her genetic structure contained no such markers."
"Did you see the father's genetic structure?"
"No, but I could visually confirm that he was Warrior Caste, sir."
Rana sighed. "If he looked like Warrior Caste, then he was probably Warrior Caste. But then, he wouldn't be the father. The mother lied, Trainee. If the father was Ruling Caste, but out of favor, the mother would have lied about the cub's pedigree to protect it. Probably got herself a Warrior Caste mate and then lied to him about whether it was his cub or not."
"They seemed quite certain."
"They lied. We've studied the Scarrans for tens of thousands of cycles, Trainee. We're not wrong about their genetics. Go look it up in the database if you don't believe me. Now stop arguing with your superiors. Don't you have another class?"
"Thank you, sir. Forgive me for taking up so much of your time." There was absolutely no sarcasm in his voice. The ability to play at a humility he didn't feel had been beaten into him by Tauza, and he'd never lost it. Someday he would have rank and power enough that he would never again need to grovel to a pureblood simply for being a pureblood. But he wouldn't get there by being visibly offended at Peacekeeper bigotry.
Besides, if the Specialist was telling the truth… it was interesting.
All Scarran children were sensitive to the active ingredient of the crystherium flower. It was what made the species sentient, rather than the brute beasts they would otherwise be. Children fed regular doses of crystherium extract became sentient and moderately intelligent. Children who never received crystherium went feral, becoming monstrous creatures who could hardly speak. The Scarrans usually killed such mistakes to prevent their secret from being revealed. It was so deeply ingrained in the Scarran psyche to conceal their crystherium dependence that even Scorpius, who would prefer it if the species was annihilated, had never told anyone about it.
Around seven cycles or so, a child not of the Ruling Caste would lose that sensitivity. They would never develop very much past the intelligence or maturity of an early-adolescent Sebacean. Ruling Caste remained sensitive their whole lives, and so long as they took the drug would remain highly intelligent, with extraordinarily powerful minds. Although all Scarrans, even the mindless ones, had some psionic ability linked to their heat blast weapon, only Ruling Caste were truly adept with it. Failing to take their crystherium extract, however, would reduce them in intelligence back to a standard Worker or Warrior Caste Scarran.
Tauza had been one of the borderline females Specialist Rana had spoken of, half Ruling Caste. As a female, with one set of Ruling Caste genes, she had existed at the edge of the Ruling Caste – defined as part of it because of her crystherium sensitivity, but not desirable as a mate and somewhat looked down upon by full-Caste, which, Scorpius had always thought, was how she'd gotten such a low-status job as raising a weakling hybrid. He himself was obviously of Warrior Caste descent – the rapist that Tauza had shown him assaulting his mother had plainly been Warrior Caste.
But Scorpius' own genetic structure contained Ruling Caste markers. His researches in the technical databases confirmed what Specialist Rana had told him. And clearly they hadn't come from his mother.
He considered his childhood in a new light.
Until he had been seven cycles or so, Scorpius, like all Scarran children, had been fed crystherium extract once a day. His childhood had been very different, then, from what it later became. He had still been confined to his specially constructed environment, of course, but when he had been very small Tauza had treated him as any Scarran child was treated, with care and love as well as harshness. Most of the pain he had suffered in that early childhood had come from the endless medical treatments. Tauza had been tough on him, then, and demanded much, but she hadn't tortured him, she hadn't demanded things that were biologically impossible, and she hadn't constantly belittled him and called him worthless
Seven-cycle-old Scarrans underwent a grueling fitness test to prove their worthiness that killed about five percent of them. Since it had been immediately obvious that Scorpius would have fallen in the five percent, he had never been tested. Tauza had begun abusing him then, treating him as useless, worthless, weak… and stupid. Until he was seven, Scorpius had been pushed to learn as fast as he could, and with his intellect, that had been fast indeed. Then, although nothing had actually happened to his mind, Tauza had begun treating him as if he would be barely able to manage the duties of a Worker Caste low-level tech. . That was the worst of it – all the physical torments she inflicted would have been acceptable if they had resulted in Tauza respecting him. If she had once praised him, if she had acknowledged his intelligence, if she had honored the strengths he did have even as she tried to force him to overcome his weaknesses… he would probably consider himself Scarran right now.
He had thought it due to his failure to pass (or even take) the survival test. He had never connected it to his sensitivity to crystherium dropping off, and Tauza finally ceasing to feed it to him, because that happened to all Scarran children who were not Ruling Caste, so surely Tauza had expected it.
But if only Ruling Caste males could pass Ruling Caste markers… then Tauza had lied. Again. The Warrior Caste Scarran that she had shown him raping his mother, Wolesh, could not be his DNA provider (he never used the term "father" in his own mind.) And if Scorpius' true DNA provider had been Ruling Caste… Tauza would have expected him to remain sensitive to crystherium, and if the sensitivity weakened, she would have seen that as a failing of his hybridization, like so many other of his weaknesses were. She would have expected him to stop growing significantly in intellect, to end up topping out at around the intelligence of Worker Caste. Sebaceans, of course, continued to grow in intelligence and maturity until full adulthood, and he had continued to grow on the Sebacean pattern… but Scorpius had escaped when he was 12 cycles old, before Scarran children reached their full potential, and Tauza had known very little about who he'd become when she'd taken him captive the last time. No wonder she'd underestimated him.
It was horrible to think that his mother had been raped more than once. But it would explain much. Why had he been the only of 91 hybrids to survive? Why had so much been invested in raising and educating a being the Scarrans had considered hopelessly flawed, worthless? His incubator had not come cheaply, he was sure, and although Tauza might have only been half-Caste, still she'd been Caste, with undoubtedly better things to do with her life than raise a weak, useless creature. If they'd thought him so pathetic, and he'd been costly to keep alive, why hadn't they killed him?
Family, bloodlines, were vitally important to Scarrans.
The Scarran who had actually impregnated Rylani Dellos had to have been Ruling Caste. Had had the authority to keep his half-breed child alive, even after it seemed that the child would not be Ruling Caste after all, even after it became apparent that he was weaker than a Scarran and more vulnerable to heat than even a Sebacean. And, obviously, he'd wanted that secret kept from the child – perhaps even from Tauza. It had looked as if she was telling the truth, when she had shown him the rape and described the figures in the image as his parents. Maybe she'd thought it to be the truth. Maybe she'd known the truth once, but become convinced that the Warrior Caste rapist instead had been the biological parent after Scorpius had stopped responding to crystherium. Maybe he'd just been under too much stress to read her properly.
It meant there was another mystery regarding his birth… and now Tauza was dead, and could not be questioned. No matter. His revenge on the Scarrans did not change in importance. But should he ever have the opportunity to learn the truth… it was one more Scarran he intended to kill personally.
The bioloid Stark is far more vicious than the actual Stykera, but lacks power. Scorpius has been on the other end of the real Banik's power before. It was not painful, just deadly – an overwhelming wave of soporific peace, mind and body shutting down, blissfully cool, and a source of light beckoning him. Niem had saved his life, dragging him away from Stark and having Peacekeeper troops beat the Stykera for the attempt. This is excruciatingly painful, exactly what a Scarran would guess a Stykera's power would cause if used on the living, but it won't kill him.
He doesn't think it will, anyway.
But it's so hot, the pain and the stress and the blasting energy beating on him, making his temperature rise, making his limbs twitch and jerk and lose sensation as his rational mind loses control of his flesh. He begins to think that what he told Staleek isn't true, that Ahkna can in fact actually kill him this way.
And then there is a respite for a few minutes, as Crichton arrives. Hope floods back into his exhausted mind. He watches Crichton bluff Ahkna expertly – in fact, knowing Crichton, what he says about the nuclear device is probably true, although Scorpius is too weak and overheated to actually be able to see it. Crichton is here for him, he knows. Either because he is an honorable man, who will not abandon an ally, even one he despises… or because the neural clone woke up. It doesn't matter.
No, that's a lie. It does matter. He has spent an entire year looking after Crichton, despite the man's obvious hatred and distrust of him. He swore a solemn blood-bound oath with Crichton. The destruction of his life's work and his position within the Peacekeepers should have balanced a few days in the Aurora Chair and a bit of gloating in Tocot's office. If Crichton has come for him under duress… that would be disappointing, to say the least. And for some reason, in his weakened state, the thought of such a disappointment is actually painful.
But at least Crichton is here to save him, either way.
And then Crichton leaves, abandoning him with Ahkna.
It's all part of a plan. He has to believe it's all part of a plan. He can't imagine the plan, but then, one could go insane trying to think like John Crichton. There must be a plan. John will save him.
The torture begins again, and his certainty begins to drain away.
Fourteen cycles ago, Scorpius had been in an unusual position.
With his high intelligence and technical background, and with their general greater lack of concern for purity regulations, the Research Division had wanted him to serve as a weapons developer. With his Scarran heritage and knowledge, and his experience and contacts in the Uncharted Territories, the Intelligence Division had wanted him as an analyst and information gatherer working on the Scarran problem. He had split the difference by inventing the Aurora Chair, but most of the time, his two roles competed with one another.
His intelligence work had been suffering because of his heavy focus in weapons development, and Scorpius was too ambitious to let himself slide in either of his positions. So he'd dropped some feelers out to the Scarrans, implying that he might be dissatisfied with his position among the Peacekeepers, and perhaps his loyalty might be turned back toward those who raised him.
He hadn't expected anything serious to come of it. He had cleared the plan with his superiors, so it wouldn't come back at him and get him branded a traitor, but surely, the Scarrans wouldn't bite very hard. Surely, they'd want assurances that he wouldn't be able to give, eventually, or information more valuable than what his superiors cleared for him to give away.
He hadn't expected to get such a high-ranking Scarran as Staleek on his line. It had taken a few cycles to cultivate the man, but Scorpius had expected that. What he hadn't expected was how long he was able to keep up the game. The information he fed Staleek was by definition not worth much, or he wouldn't have released it. And Staleek proved to be a highly intelligent man, cunning and ruthless enough to fight his way to become Emperor of the entire Scarran Empire. The fact that Scorpius was able to keep Staleek convinced that he was a loyal double agent for ten cycles now was an absurdity. In fact Scorpius had been careful to check and doublecheck any information he got from Staleek, thinking that sooner or later, Staleek had to suspect, had to figure it out and try to destroy Scorpius for betraying him.
It had never happened. Even now, Staleek believed him.
Scorpius had carefully avoided thinking about why that might be, until now.
"What do you know about wormholes, Scorpius? Tell me," the bioloid demands, and if he tells the truth, he will die, but if he dies, the pain will finally stop.
For the first time since his escape from the Scarrans at the age of 12 cycles, Scorpius breaks.
"I know nothing!" he gasps.
"You're lying. You tell me!"
He lifts his mask again, bathing Scorpius in pain. Once again he gives himself away. "I said I know nothing… know nothing!" For all intents and purposes this is true; he knows nothing useful, nothing after years and years of research except that Crichton is the only one with the key to that particular lock. He is betraying his survival instinct to stop the pain. Tauza would be disgusted.
Neither Ahkna nor the bioloid believe him. The pain goes on, and on, and now he knows he won't die of it but shatter. He can't concentrate anymore, and it's becoming increasingly hard to remember, increasingly hard even to think. He needs a cooling rod, even after the upgrades Sikozu helped him with. He needs a cold shower, actually. He needs rest, just rest, an end to the pain, and if there is only one way to make it stop he is no longer capable of caring.
And then Staleek enters the room, and the torture stops again.
"What is happening in here?" Staleek demands.
"You wanted the information taken from him." Ahkna's tone is defensive.
"Alive," Staleek growls. "I said alive. And have you learned anything?"
"No, not yet, but I…"
"Crichton has destroyed a Stryker and found a way into the caverns… but you have achieved nothing. Get out!"
"This is my jurisdiction," Ahkna complains.
"Not unless I say it is. Now get out, all of you. I'll get the truth from him."
Ahkna and Stark leave with the soldiers. Staleek walks up to Scorpius. "I thought you said she couldn't harm you."
The need not to show weakness in front of Scarrans is normally a rational decision, a conscious choice because Scarrans despise weakness and he must maintain respect. This time, there is nothing rational about the need. Scorpius cannot show weakness to Staleek any more than he could bear to show it to Tauza, and for the same reasons. He is alone, his life is in this man's hands… and he wants, he needs, to be seen as strong, to be seen as worthy.
"And she couldn't!" Scorpius gasps out, the thickness of his tongue and his difficulty breathing giving the lie to everything he says. "I'm fine. Quite fine. I've caused enough harm in my time to mimic it well."
"We still haven't found a way of disarming Crichton's weapon… but he has demonstrated a convincing command of wormholes."
Of course he has. "I can separate him from the bomb," Scorpius says, trying desperately to convince Staleek that he is useful, and that Staleek has an excuse for letting him go. He knows Staleek will take any good excuse to let him go. Right now he really doesn't want to think about what he suspects the reason for that is. "He trusts me… more than he realizes. Just bring him to me!"
"Will you? Or will you betray me?" Staleek grabs him.
A distant part of Scorpius' mind wonders if this is finally the time when Staleek realizes the truth, when the Scarran's apparent talent for self-deception fails. It would be rather poor timing, if so. "I've served you for ten cycles as a spy," Scorpius says. "Why would I betray you now?"
If Staleek is no longer in denial, he will realize Scorpius has been a pretty useless spy, as spies go. If Staleek is no longer in denial, he will realize Scorpius has been betraying him for ten cycles, and intends to do it again, if he lives long enough. "Betray me, and you will die in this machine… but deliver Crichton's knowledge to me… and all the power you seek will be yours."
No. Thankfully, Staleek is still in denial.
Scorpius watches the Scarran Emperor leave the room. An overwhelming sense of despair fills him, even though he has just, hopefully, successfully manipulated the man, again. He will live, and be free. But the cost is crushing him.
The only explanation there has ever been for Staleek's willful blindness… is that Staleek raped Rylani Dellos all those years ago. Staleek is his biological father, and has known it all along.
This is not what fills Scorpius with despair. He's suspected it, though avoided thinking about it, for years. But he is alone, and Crichton walked away without freeing him, and the Stark bioloid is actually capable of making him prefer death, and Staleek and his stupidity are the only things that might save him, the only things he can rely on.
He is supposed to hate Staleek. For being the Emperor of the hated Scarrans, and far more so if Staleek is his Scarran parent, one of those who raped his mother. He should want the man dead. He should be burning with rage and the desire for revenge.
But all he can feel is the desperate need to make Staleek think he is useful, is strong, is worthy of being Scarran. Even though he doesn't want to be Scarran. Even though he hates the Scarrans. Even though he despises his own Scarran heritage. Even still.
He wants Staleek to do what Tauza never, in the end, did, and acknowledge him a worthy child. And the fact that that still exists in his psyche, that when broken down this far he still wants acceptance from the Scarrans… from his father…
He'll keep going. He'll try to save Crichton, stop the Scarrans, get the wormhole knowledge, do something to the crystherium fields here on Katratzi… something. Something to hurt the Scarrans, something to make them pay. But his heart isn't in it. In the place he thought his greatest strength lay, in the deep burning core of his hate and revenge, he has seen a terrible weakness… and that hurts more than any physical pain ever has.