2285/VII: ENEMY OF MY ENEMY
By John Hightower
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Forget what you think you know about us, humans. Forget the hushed whispers spoken from ignorant lips. Set aside the untruths of the Stagnant Ones, for they are beings of intolerance. Pay no attention to the fears of the crested Thralls, for their masters have deluded them. We are creatures of complexity. We live in Darkness but we know the Light. We know it and yet do not shy away. We seek those like ourselves.
We have found You.
You have potential, and we will help you achieve it. You will grow. With growth, there is sometimes pain. You will not understand now, but you will be stronger because of it. It is unfortunate, but you gain more wisdom from Strife than Peace, more from Defeat than Victory, more from Competition than Harmony.
You will learn more from embracing our Darkness than you will facing their Light. You will become far greater through Us than you ever will through Them.
If you survive, you will achieve Adulthood. You will come to accept that every generation is an improvement over the one before. You can be that next generation. You can be more than us...and our Adversaries. You can eclipse your Parents.
You will expand. You will rule.
Yours is a culture of names. Ours is not. If you must name us something, do not make of us monsters hiding in the Night, as our Adversaries have. Identify us through our purpose. Our language is too complex for your tongue, but you may use the translation. Like all translations, it does not convey the true depth of our beliefs, but it will suffice. Do not call us Shadows. Call us...the Dynamics.
Do not be afraid of us. Unlike the Glowing Ones, we know Love. We understand that you will never love us... but we love you.
And someday... when you achieve the greatness we believe you are destined for...we will meet again Beyond the Rim. And you will thank us.
This is all we want.
Into the Fire - Earth Year 2261
She was impressed...and it took a lot to impress her.
Shifting slightly in the center of her Void Singer, the dark overseer surveyed the debris left over after the short but fierce engagement that had destroyed the Ver'lann planet-killer orbiting the world known as Corianna 6. Exceeding even the Hub's estimate of their resourcefulness, the younglings had not only lured both her people and their competitors to this place but also had somehow managed to secure the assistance of the few remaining Neutrals. They had even held their own in the fight against their Elders...at least on a limited scale. She hadn't thought them capable of it, but if any of the Younger Races were...it would be the humans.
A satisfied feeling washed over her. The foresight of the Hub was proving correct and her people had placed their bet wisely. The humans might not be as technologically advanced as some of their contemporaries, but they were tenacious...more so than any of the others. Perhaps even tenacious and competitive enough to measure the time to their Ascension in tens of thousands of their years rather than hundreds of thousands...a mere second as such was measured in the cosmos. She might even live to see it...assuming the long sleep came again soon.
Yes, when the remnants of humanity dug themselves out of the coming Diaspora and assumed their rightful place in the galaxy's hierarchy, they would be formidable indeed...but that was the future. For the present, a small crisis...a niggling detail, really...had to be dealt with.
Once again, she surveyed the damage around her...damage caused by one of those niggling details. < Sheridan orchestrated this, > she speculated. <He is a Nexus, after all. No other possesses the audacity to defy and then attempt to fool both remaining Elder races. Only he could have conceived it. Only he could have brought it together and carried it out. No one else...not even the Thrall Associate who stands beside him...has both the imagination and the ruthlessness. >
That wasn't to say that Sheridan's Thrall wasn't a factor, of course. She was certainly a factor to the Adversaries, if no one else. There had been whispers among her fellow Dynamics that the Associate, originally placed among the humans to influence them into supporting the glowing ones, had renounced her allegiance to her masters for him. The dark creature hadn't believed at first. Ordinary Thralls could be turned through mind wiping...but one personally touched by the Adversaries themselves? Renouncement was unthinkable, yet their own human agents hinted at it as well...and the underlying reason would have made the creature laugh out loud had she possessed the appropriate mandibles for vocalization. Love. Their Associate...their counterpart to Mr. Morden...had fallen in love with the person she was tasked to manipulate.
<How that must have upset them,> the mantis-like alien mused. The Adversaries didn't appreciate random variables. It was so like the smug Ver'lann to formulate intricate, multifaceted schemes and then fail to take so obvious a possibility into account. Only the most liberal among them even recognized love as a valid emotional condition...at least in primitives... so they had simply ignored it. They should have destroyed their malfunctioning proxy as soon as her condition manifested itself but, knowing the Adversaries, they hadn't thought the changes in her behavior a threat to them until it was too late...too late to dispose of their broken tool without completely alienating the Sheridan-nexus and ruining their entire plan.
<And then there is Sheridan himself...> the creature mused, recalling their earlier interaction with him. In fairness, the Dynamic admitted to herself, they had made their share of mistakes also. They had listened too unquestioningly to Justin and Morden, trusting that none knew a human's mind better than another human. Naturally, her people had forgotten why humans interested them so in the first place: They were dynamic, also. They were one species, but every human was different. They even evolved at different rates. Most were as ignorant as any of the other lesser races, but some...like Sheridan...were more than capable of thinking holistically if the situation demanded it. Where the Adversaries had erred by overlooking simplicity, Justin's plan had been too obvious and primitive. In retrospect, it seemed logical enough...reconstitute a personality resembling that of Sheridan's former mate, integrate it into the shell they already possessed and provide her to him. In exchange, request a quid pro quo.
<The average human will not be able to resist this offer, they said...but we forgot there is no average human. Fools. Justin and Morden were fools. We were all fools...>
Well, that plan had failed...miserably...as had the hastily formulated subsequent offer of allowing him to keep his human female and, after thorough pacification, his Thrall lover as well. The mentally projected entreaty they had sent after him as he ran...images of the three of them mating...only stiffened his resistance. Their proposals, quite simply, had been too narrow in focus to tempt an advanced being.
<Mistakes...we are an Elder Race. We should have evolved out of making mistakes eons ago. But we apparently haven't.>
Beneath her, the Void Singer's central processor sensed the disappointment of his master and reacted, radiating waves of confusion through the ship. The Dynamic felt the response and corrected her charge. <No, it is merely regrettable, not upsetting. Do not be concerned...> Reassuringly, she reached out and caressed the primitive mind, strengthening its illusory environment and sending positive imagery through the neural link between them. The central processor, happy once more, re-integrated itself fully with the Singer and with a melodious hunting cry, sent the spidery vessel spinning through the crowded space around it.
And, the dark creature noted as her surroundings wheeled about her, the ether around the primitive planet they circled was becoming more crowded by the minute. With the temporary cessation of hostilities, the Sailships of the Adversaries had become mixed among the Dynamics' Void Singers, with the fragile, ungainly hulks of the Younger Races lumbering around haphazardly for good measure. For now, both Adult races were avoiding contact with one another and the younglings...but that would not last.
<Sheridan wanted this...does he think that merely bringing his Elders together will incite us to fight one another? He does not know the rules of the contest...and we have been through this many, many times...>
As she waited for the three-way confrontation she was participating in to play out to its inevitable conclusion, the destruction of Sheridan's clumsy fleet, the Dynamic female caught sight of a marginally less primitive vessel...one of the new White Star hybrids. Seeing the bastard craft mildly angered her. The ship was another example of Adversary cheating and far above the technological level of even the Thralls, but was still no competition against a Void Singer one on one. Absent telepathic interference, no crewed vessel could match the response time of the organic processors both the Dynamics and Adversaries employed. Idly, she wondered what the Thralls would say if they learned the source of the Adversaries' cores.
More than any of the other children, the Thralls feared her race. They knew the Dynamics used living minds to power their ships, and the Adversaries used that knowledge to their benefit, subtly playing on their gullible servants' insecurities to keep them from asking too many questions. To the creature, it seemed so obvious. None of the younger races that entered Adversary space ever returned...and the Thralls, pining away for their stagnant masters in the time between this contest and the last, had sent many ships looking for them. As they had so many times in the past, the glowing ones were misleading them...but for a race as intelligent as the Thralls were purported to be, that was a poor excuse. Certainly some among them must have wondered what became of the ships' crews? Or had traits as basic as curiosity been bred out of them? The Dynamics had always known, of course, but in the spirit of the competition they never revealed it. At least one side, after all, had to play fair.
To the overseer, that very fairness was the height of hypocrisy. The Thralls need not have feared those they considered the Ancient Enemy...at least not for that reason. Unlike their competitors, the Dynamics never used them in their ships. Experiments had shown that their minds, while more organized and efficient than most of the other younglings, were too inflexible and delicate. The melding process tended to induce catatonia even under the most controlled conditions, rendering them totally docile...and cores without aggressive tendencies were unfit for the Dynamics' purposes. Other races proved more adaptable and rugged. The processor in her ship, for example, had once been of the race known as Narn. They were a feisty, hardy people who definitely manifested the urge to kill, but their weakness was a lack of patience. Her core wanted to perform its mission, of that there was no doubt, but at the same time it required near-constant supervision lest it start destroying randomly in an effort to please her.
The creature, not for the first time, wished she had been fortunate enough to obtain one of the increasingly scarce humans. Although physically fragile, they enjoyed the hunt. Like the Thralls, the Immortals had altered their natural evolution long ago, imbuing them with many of the same genetic upgrades. Unlike their crested siblings, however, they had not been tamed by the Ver'lann and were unmatched in cunning and ferocity. When paired with a Singer, their agile minds, quick reflexes and predatory instincts made the vessels that took the place of their bodies nearly indestructible. Had she possessed a human core her ship would literally have devised strategy on its own, stalking prey and fighting with her as little more than a redundant passenger.
The overseer performed the Dynamic equivalent of a sigh. There was no helping it. She had what she had and she would make do. Sensing that the final phase was about to begin, she ceased daydreaming and turned her attention back to the current situation. By unspoken agreement with the Adversaries, the misguided children would be offered a final opportunity to choose a path before the slaughter began. Not wanting to miss anything, she decided it was safe to release her core mind to pilot the ship independently for a moment while she watched the first direct contact.
<This is surprising...the Adversaries have chosen to interact with Sheridan, leaving their Thrall to us?>
She did not understand. Sheridan was a random variable known to distrust both sides, both philosophies...but the Thrall hybrid known as Delenn...even if she had foresworn her masters, her indoctrination as an Associate was undoubtedly still in place. She was probably unaware of it, but the Adversaries had adjusted her to make her more compatible with them... gaining the ability to physically enter her and rape her psyche should she prove disobedient in the process. If they so desired, they could easily shred her identity and intellect, manipulating the leftover shell like a puppet to choose in their favor. The Dynamics, conversely, had no such influence over either rebel and had already failed spectacularly with Sheridan once. The glowing ones must realize that under the circumstances her people would likely fail to convince him a second time while success for them with Delenn, either willingly or as an automaton, was assured. Their choice of Sheridan made no sense unless...
<...Unless they want their offer rejected. They want both our propositions rejected...>
It seemed the Adversaries were cleverer than she thought. The offer of a choice to the disobedient children was nothing more than a subterfuge to lull them into lowering their guard. As a Thrall, Delenn would never accept the philosophy of her Ancient Enemy even if she were under no duress whatsoever. Her former masters knew she could be compelled into obedience, but they didn't want her obedient. They didn't want their philosophy chosen...instead, they wanted her NOT to choose the Dynamic way...and then they wanted her eliminated. As for Sheridan... rumor had it he had contributed to the dissolution of at least one Ver'lann, perhaps more. They did not take such atrocities lightly and undoubtedly wanted him for themselves. Uncontrolled, disgusted with both sides and war in general...he would reject any offer from either Elder race and could be dealt with thereafter. The situation had gotten too complicated, the younglings were restless and the Adversaries desired to clear the playing field...starting the competition anew.
<Somewhat extreme for them...but logical.>
Under the control of her core, the Dynamic's Singer looped and spun unnoticed through the void as she watched the simultaneous encounters play out. As she expected, the Delenn-thrall steadfastly countered every argument the Species Hub launched at her. Sheridan, for his part, fielded the lies of the Ver'lann Prime Imperial defiantly almost from the first words, angrily demanding that both Elder races recognize that their time was past. He even had the audacity to refuse to make a choice at all.
Had the Dynamic been able to shake her head in amusement, she would have. It was all for show. The first salvos of null-matter missiles were already streaking towards Sheridan's ship...
...And something, she abruptly noticed, was not right. Her own ship had halted dead in space.
As the two children continued their arguments, she sensed voices...a multitude of angry groans, cries and screams...coming through her neural link. Under normal circumstances, she could sense the chattering of her core mind as it piloted the ship and the background melodies of the others in the fleet through the Species Hub, the central consciousness that connected her people and gave them unity of purpose. She should not detect individual voices at all. To her credit, it only took a few seconds for her to figure it out. The Immortal One had intervened, projecting the encounters so all the younglings could see. Every child on every Younger Race ship was watching as the Dynamics and Adversaries prepared to betray their two leaders...and them.
< They can see. All of the primitives can see...and they are angry. But...the primitives serving Sheridan aren't the only ones out here...NO!>
Frantically, the Dynamic tried to retake control of her Void Singer from the central processor...the Narn hardwired deep beneath her within the ships' bowels. Sending a blistering pulse of energy down the neural link, she attempted to override her core before the Immortal's interference restored it to full consciousness. Through the Hub, she sensed other overseers of their fleet attempting the same. She was too late. Activity on the Hub became chaotic as Singers, now powered by self-aware younger race minds, fought to wrest control away from their masters. The first pulse she fired at her core successfully lobotomized her Narn but, as she had earlier noted, they are a feisty, hardy and aggressive people. The primitive's ravaged synapses retained enough residual capacity to send the spidery vessel spinning...directly into the path of a similarly uncontrolled Adversary Sailship.
The two vessels careened off one another, sending a shockwave of incompatible Adversary energy through the Void Singer. With a final curdling scream, the now insane Narn processor discharged all of his remaining life force in a searing blaze of light, effectively leaving the ship powerless and adrift. For the now-trapped Dynamic, the knowledge that the Adversary vessel's Thrall core had also likely expired was cold comfort as the tines of her ship disintegrated and the crumpled bulk of her vessel spun helplessly off into empty space.
From a distance, she sensed the Immortal reasserting control, overriding the Hub. With barely a whisper, he calmed the franticly struggling cores and gently released what remained of their psyches from this incarnation, leaving only the Elder Ones aboard the ships. Silent and unnoticed, she watched as the First of the First Ones gathered his chastised children and opened the way to the realm Beyond the Rim for them. An Adversary ship passed. Paying no notice to the curled, darkened ball that had once been a vessel of one of its competitors it linked with the damaged Sailship nearby and towed it along to the gate...to the place where they could be children again.
She wanted to see that place.
None of her ships would come by. Had the damage been minor, she would have been recovered but one of the tenets of Dynamism was 'Survival of the Fittest', and her ship...as much a part of her as her own body...was for all practical purposes destroyed. She was not fit to be included in the journey. She was dead.
It only took a moment, and then they were gone. The melody of the Dynamics, sung in the Dark between the stars for countless millennia, was silenced...except for one plaintive solo.
<Father, come back...please don't leave me here alone...>
Earth Year 2285
It was night cycle aboard the White Star Light Wanderer, the second cycle change since the small Ranger ship had departed Minbari space, and all was subdued. As the nature of hyperspace travel made the odds of a chance enemy encounter negligible, Delenn had dismissed all but Nashon and a few others to either rest or prepare for their arrival at Khon'dar. Those few still actively employed were up on the bridge, several decks above the ship's small captain's suite, the location where the only person aboard without any specific function was maintaining her vigil.
Sighing, Sister Ardenn of Valeria cupped her hand around the taper of her candle and blew it out. No matter the color of her robe, the young woman reflected, she was still poor at meditation. Her attempt at self-reflection had brought few insights...and no inner peace whatsoever. Rising from the floor, she dusted herself off and made her way back to the desk she had been occupying while perusing the records Delenn had provided. With a slight huff, she unbuckled her outer robe and shrugged out of it before settling into her chair, reluctantly eyeing the blank terminal screen recessed into the desktop the whole time. She had already frittered away nearly two days poring over the vids and reading the descriptions...or as much of them as she could stomach before becoming so distressed that she had decided to meditate instead.
Not wanting to read her Va'maia's old logs any further at the moment, she left the computer off and instead withdrew her letter of suppression. Scanning the document's deceptively beautiful calligraphy almost brought another sigh to her lips. After leaving Minbar, she had excitedly opened the envelope...only to discover a missive so carefully worded that it had required her, Delenn and a translation program to understand it. When all the formal, archaic Adrihi'e Irilenn favored was stripped away, little had been left. As she had prayed, she had indeed been granted permission to live outside cloister and take David as her mate...but the Mistress' benevolence came at a price.
Irilenn was leaving nothing to chance. Several troublesome restrictions had been included. The most glaring one involved the woman currently resting in the small bedchamber adjacent to the office she occupied, and it was the only one in the document not disguised behind artful language. Hastily scrawled under her signature chop, Irilenn had, almost as an afterthought, expressly forbidden Ardenn from serving Delenn in any capacity, official or otherwise...reemphasizing in no uncertain terms that the young Sister answered only to her. Ardenn knew little about the relationship between her former mentor and the woman who was once her mother, but the terse wording of the admonition, directed more at Delenn than her, was clearly intended as an insult. The older woman displayed little outward emotion upon reading it, but the young Minbari knew her companion well enough to recognize that the intended effect was achieved. "It does not matter," Delenn had sadly reflected. "I no longer merit an aide. Even were that not the case, you have grown beyond the position. I will still be your Va'saia, and that will be enough for me."
Ardenn was not entirely certain she shared her companion's assessment of her growth, but she did not argue the point. She could not have remained Delenn's aide much longer in any event. Due to both her Elevation and her and David's premature sexual consummation, she and the older woman found themselves in socially precarious positions regarding one another. She had actively manipulated her former mentor's son into participating in a serious breach of tradition and, although her intentions were honorable, neither she nor Delenn could pretend the indiscretion had not occurred. By ancient law, Ardenn understood she could legitimize her...it seemed so strange to call it a 'seduction', but that was how some would consider it...by publicly declaring that David had claimed her maidenhood and was thus her de facto mate, in effect forcing her way into Delenn's family. Delenn knew it too. Earlier, her heart-mother had subtly implied she would not contest Ardenn's claim if she chose to forgo the rituals and follow that course of action, and she was sure David would acknowledge the validity of such a declaration without hesitation. In the process, however, she knew the two of them would incense the Mir elders, make themselves look irresponsible, and put Delenn in the uncomfortable position of admitting she had known what was happening yet had turned a blind eye.
Delenn had enough to concern her already, Ardenn realized, and she steadfastly refused to put the people she loved through a scandal even knowing that they were willing to weather it for her. In lieu of a public declaration, she had decided to discreetly begin the physically intimate phase of her and David's courtship by conducting the Shan'fal immediately upon her reunion with her beloved...perhaps before their ship even arrived back on Minbar. That ritual and all that followed would be a ruse, of course, with Ardenn trusting that those who knew the truth considered her and David's happiness worth a little subterfuge. Either way, the young Sister understood her mentor...her Va'saia...enough to recognize that Delenn deserved a less-distracted assistant than she would be while concurrently attempting to manage all of the complex rituals necessary to traditionally formalize her union with David.
There were other prohibitions in the document as well. They were less offensive than the first, perhaps, but potentially more burdensome over time. She was not allowed to reside anywhere other than Tuzanor, a city in which the Sisterhood had already demonstrated they would have no trouble tracking both her public and private activities. The scrutiny was no more than she had expected and living in the city of her beloved's birth did not bother her overmuch, but she recognized that the restriction might hamper David's position within the Anla'Shok. Most newer Rangers were initially based in Tuzanor or on Mars...places where they could gain experience in relatively non-threatening environments. Eventually, however, they were expected to accept more difficult postings as they became more seasoned. As a White Star Alyt, David could remain based in the City of Sorrows for a time, but his combination of audacity and good judgment as a commander had already been noted among the Ranger leadership. Offers to command larger ships and lead more time-consuming missions would eventually come. With most of the Alliance's capital ships berthed outside Minbari space, the young woman feared that her beloved might very well refuse a choice assignment because she would not be able to accompany him...and thus stagnate his career.
This was a problem, but not an immediate one. She had resigned herself to occasional separation as the price of loving an Anla'Shok long ago, but had assumed she would at least be able to live in his ship's homeport. Once the present crises were resolved, Ardenn reflected, she might discreetly approach her choice-mother. She was reluctant to insinuate herself in her beloved's vocation, but perhaps if Susan understood the nature of the problem she could help find a solution.
Then there was the admonition she was already violating, the one prohibiting her from undertaking any off-world travel without obtaining prior approval. Given the present circumstances, however, she doubted she would be recalled for it. If everything she had learned was true, Irilenn and the Sisterhood needed her and David together. He was the other half of their plan and was more important to it, perhaps, than Ardenn herself. The young woman had little doubt that Irilenn would sacrifice her in a heartbeat if doing so would keep him alive. Ardenn did not hold this against her. She would willingly make the same sacrifice, she knew, but for far different reasons.
The last major admonition was an unusual and seemingly innocuous one. She was to immediately notify the Mistress personally if she and David conceived. Its inclusion in her suppression was curious, since the only way she could give David a child was if she became like Delenn beforehand...and as the Mistress controlled the means of making that transformation a reality, she would by default be the first to know if Ardenn chose to become fertile. The moment she faced the Mistress and requested permission to undergo the Chrysalis would be the moment the Sisterhood truly insinuated themselves in her and David's lives...David...
Ardenn sighed to herself. What would he say when that time came? Now that she knew the truth, she had no doubt that the Chrysalis process was in her future...their future...if she wanted to remain outside cloister. Irilenn would bide her time, but eventually she would force the issue if she believed the young Sister was stalling. As for her beloved, he did not even know that she was suitable for the transformation. She had not told him she was a Child of Valen, had not even realized the connection between her mixed heritage and the Chrysalis herself until the Mistress had shown her. And even for one as young as she, the transformation was not without risk...dangerous and painful, perhaps even fatal. Three had successfully completed the process, but the fourth...
When he found out, would he even want her to undergo it? With all the Sisterhood's baggage attached, did she even want him to accept her back?
"Yes..." she breathed, answering her own question and assuming the selfish guilt that came with it. She knew she was being used and that she would be using David in turn, but she could not deny her heart. Thinking of him brought the precariousness of his situation back into full focus, and Ardenn berated herself. Here she was, worrying about her own piddling problems and pretending he was patiently awaiting her while he was probably in immediate danger. He might even be injured, or...<No.> Ardenn hurriedly quashed the thought. He was alive. They were both alive. In her mind, she repeated it over and over...a mantra to keep her from collapsing totally into despair. Not for the first time since boarding the ship he had named for her, the young Minbari found herself reaching out for him...trying to will him some of her meager strength. She did not have much to offer other than love, but after beginning to understand some of what he must be facing, she was sure he needed it far more than she did.
If she were to help, Ardenn realized, she needed to understand all, not just some...as ugly as that understanding might be. Placing her suppression letter aside, she hesitantly activated the computer terminal and retrieved the stark, frightening files she had turned away from before, resolving this time to view them as dispassionately as possible. Arrogantly in retrospect, the young Sister had declared that she was not afraid when Delenn retrieved her. Now that she knew something of their destination, she was. Not afraid for herself, as she had been while under the control of the Sisterhood, but afraid for her beloved...and she was discovering that fear for another could be far more paralyzing than personal fear. It had the added element of helplessness. Until they arrived, she was powerless to...to what? Protect him? Comfort him? Share his fate if such were required?
If such were required when the time came, she would do it...of that, she was certain. For the present, however, she was at a loss. She was not a Warrior or a Ranger. While it was traditional for those within the Order to learn unarmed combat for personal protection, most of the techniques she had mastered were defensive ones. She was forbidden from even touching a weapon. Even if she were not, she had no idea of how to use one. If the situation on Khon'dar were even half as bad as she feared it might be, she would be worse than useless. She would be an additional burden for Delenn and David's crew to worry about. Paging through the recorded misery of long dead people, she could feel her anxiety returning and the beginnings of a crying bout welling up inside her as she alternated between reading and silently praying.
<Oh, Valen...I should not have come, beloved, but I could never stay away. Think of me, David...think of me and I will feel it...>
Swallowing a sob, she turned the viewer away. It was no use...she could not look at the images without picturing his lifeless body laying among them. A second sob followed the first, and after crying quietly for a few moments she rose from her chair, padded over to the doorway of the sleeping chamber and peeked in. Delenn lay curled on the bed asleep, her hair slightly disheveled and her slender body clad in nothing more than a human male's white shirt...obviously one of her husband's. The tails hung to the older woman's knees and she had rolled up the cuffs to accommodate her shorter arms. Gazing forlornly at her former mentor, she acknowledged that no matter whether considered human or Minbari Delenn was indeed beautiful, both physically and spiritually. Her beauty made it even harder for the young Minbari to understand how she could possibly have been party to some of the events she had been studying.
She looked so serene and peaceful. Wiping at her eyes and sniffling, Ardenn ruefully wished she possessed the kind of control that her former mentor commanded. She was not handling herself very well and Delenn, functioning under even heavier uncertainties, seemed as steady as a crystal edifice. By the time they reached their destination, Ardenn knew, she would be an emotional wreck...
"Am I so fascinating in my sleep?" a low, accented voice murmured, startling the young Minbari out of her troubled thoughts. Stretching, the object of Ardenn's observations rolled over on her back and folded her hands across her midriff as she continued, "I was not drooling, was I?"
"No...ah, no. I was just checking on you," Ardenn stammered, embarrassed that the older woman had caught her in the midst of fighting off a crying jag. "I did not realize you could see me. I thought...um...I apologize for disturbing you." With an uncertain bow, she started to back out.
"You are not disturbing me," Delenn sighed. "Please stay." Ardenn paused in the doorway and the older woman conversationally continued, "Actually, I have been awake for some time. Were you in tears a moment ago, Ier'saia? What is on your mind?"
"On my mind?" the young Sister repeated evasively. Forcing a shaky smile she did not feel, she answered, "Ah...my skull, perhaps?"
"You understood me. I was merely inquiring as to your thoughts...if you wish to speak of them." Pursing her lips sadly, Delenn observed, "You were looking at me, but your eyes were far away. I do not think I have ever seen quite that expression on your face before."
"It is...nothing," Ardenn demurred. "I am fine."
"No, you are not," the older woman gently admonished. "Your heart beats so strongly, precious one, yet your soul is in shadow. You are exhausted, you are afraid for David and you are starting to lose your composure." Favoring her young friend with an understanding smile, she continued, "Fatigue and hunger magnify negative emotions, and you have neither slept nor eaten since we left Minbar. Depriving yourself will make our journey no shorter, nor will it make what we may find when we arrive any less difficult to address. All it makes is a tired and emotionally shaky young woman who will have all around her treading lightly lest they upset her. You do not want that...and neither do I. You need rest and food."
"I am not hungry." Turning, Ardenn went back out into the office and retrieved a small, crumpled wrapper off the desktop. Returning, she held it out to her companion and defensively announced, "See? I have eaten...something. I found it in David's desk drawer."
Delenn looked at the piece of twisted foil in Ardenn's hand, her brow ridge furrowing as she tried to identify it. "Ah, yes...so you have," she finally chuckled. "I stand corrected. Still, you are fortunate Anla'Shok Na is not here. She places great importance on a balanced diet and I do not think she would accept a bar of chocolate as an adequate meal...any more than she would a bowl of ice cream."
"Probably not," Ardenn acknowledged with a furtive smile as she wiped the last traces of moisture away from her eyes, "Although it was tasty enough. I noticed that it seemed to have a, ah, pleasurable effect on my metabolism. Eating it made me feel...well, warm and tingly."
"Just warm and tingly?" Delenn replied, pleased that she had drawn a trace of amusement from her otherwise depressed companion. "Then it is good you ate only a small amount. Had you eaten more, you might have found yourself needing some personal time. Cocoa is an aphrodisiac to us." Answering Ardenn's suddenly embarrassed expression with a smile as the younger woman looked askance at the foil, she continued, "John introduced it to me shortly after we met on Babylon 5...disguised innocuously enough as the simple 'chocolate chip cookie' as I recall. They were delicious and I ate many of them. Humans and Minbari were still fairly new to each other then, of course, so neither of us realized the effect they would have. I found that after eating several cookies I would experience the most imaginative and erotic fantasies, with him as the object. As this was before we had made our feelings known to each other I could not act on them, which resulted in my suffering through several rather uncomfortable Advisory Council sessions with my attention...ah, embarrassingly misdirected."
"You are discreet in so many ways, yet so...um, bold in others," Ardenn chuckled. "Given that, I am certain he figured it out...eventually."
Delenn laughed, the melodious sound seeming almost out of place in their darkened, silent surroundings. "Ah, Naill'zha...there is so much you have yet to learn about human males. They are not nearly as subtle as we. Had John been Minbari, he would have known I wanted him almost a human year before he 'figured it out', as you say. And poor Lennier...he had to suffer through all of what to him must have seemed inexplicable mood swings." A flicker of sadness passed across her face. "Or perhaps they were not so inexplicable to him," she quietly amended.
"Lennier?" Ardenn inquired, seeing that the recollection seemed to sober the older woman.
"Your predecessor," Delenn stated neutrally. "He is...no longer with us. Another conversation for another time." Her smile returning, she resumed as if nothing troubling had crossed her mind. "Well, as it happened, John did not learn of cocoa's erotic effects until I revealed them to him during the Shan'fal. He was surprised...oh, yes...pleasantly surprised." Glancing meaningfully at the younger woman, she added, "Once you and David become...ah, adjusted to one another, you may want to experiment with it. In small quantities, it can enhance your responsiveness and keep you from becoming drowsy afterwards, but do not overindulge. Too much and...well, if it happens, please show my son a little mercy. Even the most willing male requires a little recuperative time between encounters, and the Anla'Shok workday begins early."
Bowing slightly in acknowledgement, the young Sister murmured, "I will bear that in mind." Folding her hands in front of her, she leaned tiredly against the doorframe. From her position, she could see both Delenn and the viewscreen in the office. On it was an image of neatly stacked black bags in what appeared to be a subterranean chamber. The momentary smile Delenn's anecdote had elicited faded from her lips.
Delenn seemed to read her thoughts from her expression. Rising from the bed, she took the pillows and cleared a small space, laying the pillows on the deck opposite one another. Settling herself cross-legged on one, she reached over, retrieved a nearby meditation candle and lit it. Extending a hand, the older woman indicated the pillow opposite hers. "Well," she said briskly, "as it does not seem that you intend to heed my suggestion regarding sleep, would you at least honor me by keeping me company for a moment, Revered Sister?"
With effort, the young woman drew her eyes away from the terminal in the other room. Favoring Delenn with a sad smile, she answered, "I have already tried to meditate. It did not do much good."
"That is because you try too hard," the older woman observed, "but what I want to do with you is not meditation...at least, not in the traditional sense. I wish to perform the Te'mirka Fal with you." Indicating the pillow once more, she indulgently added, "Come...sit with me and I will explain."
Ardenn had no desire to spend more time staring at a candle, but did not see how she could politely refuse. With a barely suppressed sigh, she moved into the bedchamber and settled herself on the cushion Delenn indicated. Smoothing her robe, she crossed her legs in a mirror image of her former mentor, clasped her hands in her lap, and stared expectantly across the flickering flame at the other woman.
Seeing the skeptical expression on her former protégé's face, Delenn pursed her lips. "I know how you feel, Ier'saia...and I also know why," she began. "We are both afraid...but unlike you, I know how to reach out and touch my heart when I need to. I feel my beloved in my soul. He comforts me even now, even when we are physically apart. He holds me and gives me strength, as I do him. I am with him...and as long as I feel him I can control my fears and remain calm. This is not so for you."
Ardenn glanced down ashamedly at her hands. "Delenn...I have tried...David just seems so far away from me now. I know he is there, but I cannot seem to reach him. It has occurred to me that perhaps...perhaps I do not love him enough, or for the right reasons."
"I understand," Delenn knowingly noted, furrowing her brow and tapping her lips with her forefinger as she considered Ardenn's words. "But I disagree. You do love him, rightly and sufficiently, and to try analyzing why you love...to seek reasons, as you say...is disingenuous. Love simply is. Nor do we love by degrees...you cannot love partially. Either you do or you do not. No, Ardenn...your problem is precisely as I have stated: You have tried too hard. You have striven with every fiber of your being to reach out to him, I am sure...and this is the antithesis of what you should be doing. You are using your mind...trying to consciously will him to feel you. Our waking minds are cluttered, you see. We think. We process information, using some and discarding the rest, and this routine masks us; it masks our own souls. When we give in to fear, anger, or worry...emotions originating in our conscious minds...we fixate on them, seeing only the worst that can happen. This creates a barrier too strong for our lights to shine on those we love. This is what you are experiencing now. I will help you clear a path to David, if you will let me."
"I do not know this...this Te'mirka Fal? This mind relaxation ritual? How will this ritual you speak of help David sense my presence? I am not a telepath, and neither are you."
"Telepathy is a discipline of the mind, not the soul," the older woman explained. "This ritual aids in quieting the mind so the soul is unmasked. We understand the mind, but truly understanding the mechanics of the soul is beyond us...so do not try to. Accept that the connection between you and David is, has always been and always will be. Once you do that, all you need to do is find it. Now close your eyes. Just close your eyes and relax."
Eyeing the older woman critically for a brief moment, the young Minbari complied. Settling herself more comfortably on the pillow, she closed her eyes and tried to release the tension in her body. After a few seconds, she heard a rustle of cloth and sensed that Delenn had moved from where she had been sitting and was now kneeling behind her. She felt the older woman lightly begin to massage her, kneading the taut muscles of her shoulders and neck in a gentle, circular motion with her thumbs. "You have learned and experienced many distressing things in a short period of time, precious one...some involving me," Delenn murmured. "I want you to release them...set them aside for a moment, if you can. Still your conscious mind and simply listen to me. Can you do this?"
"Again you speak of 'trying'. Do not try. Just listen and let what will happen...happen." With that, Delenn began to chant softly, the odd yet soothing cadence of her voice making the words almost unintelligible to her companion. The language was not unknown, but the older woman's pitch was different...her words sung more than spoken...almost like a hauntingly soft lullaby. After a time, Ardenn found herself loosely following the rhythm rather than interpreting the words...her former mentor's voice, the dim lighting and the delicate, comforting caresses combining to make her feel strangely detached. Her breathing slowed, and a soft sigh escaped her.
The litany faded momentarily. "Do you trust me, little one?" the older woman gently asked.
"I trust you," Ardenn murmured, absently noting that her voice was slightly slurred but immediately discarding the observation as inconsequential.
"Good. You are almost there...your barriers are weakening, " Delenn whispered. "Just let them go...and trust me to guide you and watch over you."
Delenn's voice...her song...rose again, the melody clear yet far away now. As her mentor had indicated, the young Sister was not meditating. She was drifting...still fully awake, yet relaxed and no longer focused or thinking. Dimly, she was aware that the older woman's fingertips had left her shoulders and were now lightly tracing the ridges of her crest. The touch was far more intimate than anything anyone other than her beloved had done to her, but she welcomed it without a hint of resistance. The soft resonance coursed from her skull to her extremities with pleasant warmth...as sensual in its own way as David's caress, yet without the accompanying sexual arousal his touch created inside her. Delenn's explorations were not those of a lover...they were more akin to the comforting brushes a mother would give her distraught child. Without conscious thought, she felt herself going limp...settling back against her still murmuring companion. The older woman drew her in and, with a contented sigh, Ardenn surrendered...relaxing fully against Delenn's chest and tilting her head back to rest against the older woman's shoulder.
The ritual was working. The young Sister was now open to suggestion. Delenn ceased tracing Ardenn's crown and slid her hands around the younger woman's waist, interlacing her fingers across her abdomen and rocking her gently. "The merging of souls...love...is a most rare and wondrous occurrence," she breathed into the younger woman's ear, "and we are both so very fortunate to be experiencing it. When all else that makes us who we are is stripped away, love remains. Love is the anchor of our identities. It is not of this Universe, but exists throughout it. When love is true, it transcends these mortal shells we wear. It abides...stronger than fear, stronger than hate, stronger than anger, stronger than even eternity. It binds the parts of us that are...divine. I want you to believe this, Ardenn, because it is true."
"It is true," Ardenn repeated in a whisper, her lips barely moving. 'I believe you."
Nodding to herself, Delenn kissed the cerulean patch at the top of her entranced companion's head affectionately and continued, "When our souls are purely bound, we are always with our other halves...no matter the distances involved...because they and we are single entities. Sometimes, when we are at peace with ourselves, we can see them. When I am at peace, I can see John. I see a silver thread...a beautiful shimmering creation stretching through the darkness connecting us. If I follow that thread, I find him and we become one...separate yet together...and I know that no evil can touch our love, because we are greater than the surrounding darkness. We are the Light, and I experience our life as the light of the candle flame. Tell me what you sense now. Do not examine, just...observe."
"I...I hear music," Ardenn murmured, snuggling against Delenn's shoulder. "I hear the song of my soul...the song of the sea under a single star. And my shining star looks down and sings to me in return...a different melody, equally beautiful. I hear his answering song and I rise up to merge mine with his...because our duet is so much more beautiful than our solos can ever be...and no evil can touch our love."
"Your mind is now at peace, precious one. There is only you and the star. Open your eyes, see your star in the candle flame and sing to your other half. He will hear it, and you will both be comforted."
"There is only the star..." Dreamily, Ardenn opened her eyes. Nestling more comfortably against her companion, she gazed at the burning taper. Had she been trying to meditate, she would have striven to concentrate only on the flame. This time, she relaxed and allowed Delenn to hold her...not even focusing on the flickering light. After a time, the blurry glow became a bright-centered halo, and she thought she could hear soft music and the distant sound of the sea. In response, she let her spirit self drift closer, reaching out with her song...not forcing the encounter, but allowing it to happen. She could almost see him...he was afraid...it was dark...too dark...and he was not alone. There was something...he was not alone...
Something was wrong. Something was very, very wrong. The young Minbari's song became discordant as she sensed an unexpected third presence, one that blocked her from David. She sensed eyes...many, many eyes...all glowing like tiny flames and all focused on keeping her away. He needed her...now...but she was paralyzed.
A spectral shape briefly flitted across the light of the candle, dimming it.
Delenn felt the younger woman tense up just in time to keep from being thrown backwards when Ardenn screamed and jerked out of her arms. Her voice a continuous, frightened moan, the young Sister scrambled away clumsily to huddle in the corner, her face buried in her hands.
Just as quickly, Delenn scurried after her, totally confused. She had performed the Te'mirka Fal many times herself and had never failed to find at least some comfort from her troubles in it. Reaching the panicked woman, she knelt and cradled her in her arms, shakily stroking her crest again in an effort to calm her. "Ardenn! What is wrong? What did you see? Tell me..."
"David is...is hurt. He is in pain..." the young woman sobbed. "He is in darkness...and I cannot touch him...there is...another..."
"I do not know!" Ardenn whimpered. "In Valen's Name, I do not know! Another presence! A dark presence! It...it saw me and blocked the way!"
Delenn was all business now. "Calm yourself, Ardenn," she placated. "Take command of your breathing and calmly describe this...presence. What did you sense from it?"
"It was...alien," the young woman gasped, frantically trying to get her breathing under control. "Dark yet shiny like liquid metal...and it looked at me like I was...like I was barely worth notice! It was ancient, Delenn...old like a living relic, and its eyes...they glowed at me..."
Delenn paused momentarily. As she had earlier indicated, the Te'mirka Fal was not telepathy, merely a form of light hypnosis that capitalized on the natural connection between like souls, such as those of committed lovers. Still, sufficiently powerful telepaths could possibly sense the thread of the love bond, although she had never heard of it happening before. Nashon was the only telepath on her ship, but Delenn doubted he was that strong. Even if he were, he would need to be in line of sight with Ardenn to even have awareness of it. No, the presence would have to be co-located with David...if there was, in fact, a third presence. "And David was with this...creature?" she finally asked.
Uncurling from her crouch, Ardenn shakily wiped tears away from her cheeks. "I...I think so," she tremulously replied. Looking up at the older woman with red-rimmed eyes, she asked, "What...what was it?"
Delenn pursed her lips, thinking. Deciding to keep her own counsel for the moment, she replied, "Perhaps a manifestation of too little sleep and too little food?" Cocking her head, she ventured an apologetic smile at the younger woman. "I am sorry, Ardenn. I should not have tried this with you before you rested. You may have experienced a kind of waking dream...a troubling image your subconscious generated." Rising, she helped her still-shaky companion to her feet. "I am going to consider this. While I do, I want you to get some rest. In fact, as the Alyt of this ship, I am ordering you to."
Too agitated to resist, Ardenn allowed Delenn to lead her over to the bed, standing nervously as the older woman stripped her of her inner robe and undergarments and fetched her a shirt similar to the one she wore. "I found this in David's closet," she murmured conversationally as she assisted the shaken younger woman in donning it. "I thought you might like to participate in an informal human ritual alongside me. Their females often derive comfort from sleeping in their male's shirts while their loved ones are away. It has proven true for me and I hope it will for you."
"You said that no evil could touch us..." Ardenn whispered, a hint of frightened accusation in her voice.
"No evil can touch your love," the older woman corrected, cupping the Sister's cheek reassuringly. "And none has. You are indeed linked to David as I said, despite what you may have encountered...is that not so? Tell me...did you sense evil in the manifestation?"
Furrowing her brow, Ardenn replayed the momentary encounter in her mind. "I was...terrified," she finally replied. Searching for adequate words, she continued, "The presence exuded wrongness...as if it did not belong. I sensed...disdain for me. It...it found me...inferior...repugnant. But outright evil? I...no, I do not think so."
"Sometimes that which is unknown to us...alien or out of place, as you described...seems terrifying upon first consideration. As I said, you may have merely been facing a dark aspect of yourself...one you were unaware of. We like to think ourselves noble, but we all have the capacity for darkness within us. Confronting that darkness...bringing it out of hiding and into the light for the first time...can indeed be unsettling. Do not fear it...we all experience it sooner or later."
Ardenn was not entirely convinced, but the experience was still too close, too fraught with negative emotion for her to examine it objectively. "Perhaps...perhaps it was simply my own fear, then...as you speculate," she observed. "I pray that it was." Climbing into the bed, the younger woman murmured a soft 'thank you' as Delenn pulled the coverlet over her. Almost immediately, she drifted off into a fitful sleep as the older woman hovered protectively nearby.
Only when Ardenn was safely beyond chance awakening did Delenn venture into the office, settle behind the computer screen and bury her own face in her hands. She did not want her young companion to know how much her vision had shaken her. Wiping tiredly at her eyes, Delenn gazed forlornly at the image of Khon'dar's dead for a moment before deleting the scene.
<Darkness, glowing eyes and ancient,> the Minbari mused. It did not seem possible. Although scant, she recognized Ardenn's description all too well. If the young Sister's vision had any merit, observing that the situation had just become more complicated was an understatement of colossal proportions. "Computer," she intoned, "voice recognize Delenn of Mir."
"Voice recognition established. Command?"
She had studied the records so many times in her younger days...pored over them late at night, searching for ways to counter the beings that threatened all, and all under the cover of secrecy. At the end, she had closed the files, hoping to never have to view them again. <Never say never...did I not say that to Ardenn only a short time ago?>
Taking a deep, calming breath, she pursed her lips and then said, "Establish external data link and access the Interstellar Alliance main database, Babylon Five archives section. Unseal the security lockout I emplaced on Earth date 13 August 2261."
"Data link established. Archive record lockout for date specified has been nullified for classification originator only. Do you wish to set search criteria?"
"Yes. I desire all information that can be provided regarding the entities commonly known as the Shadows."
"You're not Ardenn," David whispered, tentatively extending a curious hand to probe the face of the obsidian-eyed creature that so resembled his beloved, but so obviously wasn't.
"You are correct, David," the apparition acknowledged. "I am not your flawed female creature. I am better...I am the woman you want her to be; one who can love you just as passionately, yet without all the tedious rituals and ossified restrictions that plague her species."
"I know...enough." Running a suggestive finger along the hem of the bedclothes, she continued, "Enough to know you are called David Sheridan by others of your kind, enough to recognize that you are more important than you realize. You have potential, David...and potential attracts. So...consider this body a gift from a prospective partner, one most anxious to please you. All you have to do is desire it." Peering intently into his face, she cocked her head mirthfully and added, "I so hope you do."
"Where am I?" the young Ranger breathed, ignoring the offer for the moment. His voice gathering strength as his shock wore off he continued in a rush, "What happened to me? How did I get here?" Raising his head from the pillow, he glanced around at his surroundings once more. Every detail of his small quarters in Tuzanor seemed to be mirrored down to the smallest detail. "I don't understand...I was falling...I don't understand any of this!"
"Calm, David," the false Ardenn soothed, stroking his cheek with gentle fingers, "Be calm. What is there to understand? Simply...accept it. Lay down your burden for a moment and enjoy the opportunity I represent." Lowering herself onto the young Ranger's chest, she nestled her head against the crook of his neck and began idly tracing the contours of his chest. "There will be time enough for questions later. For now, just let me be with you. I promise you will have no regrets."
David accepted the nude female's intimate contact stiffly, suspicious but not entirely certain what to do. He didn't feel threatened...well, not exactly...but countering attractive shape-shifting aliens with active mating urges wasn't a subject the Anla'Shok instructors in Tuzanor normally covered in any great depth. After a moment of tense silence, his erotically inclined companion sighed and began nibbling his earlobe. "My eyes," she murmured as she nipped. "You find them unsettling, I know. Please do not let them distract you. In all other ways this body is a perfect duplicate of the one you long for, and I can indulge you with it far more imaginatively than the possessor of the original." Reaching beneath the sheets, she slid a tentative, exploring hand up the inside of his thigh. "Can you forget that I am not...her...at least for a while?" the presence implored in a small voice. "No harm will come of it. You want this. Suspend your disbelief, set your pain aside and enjoy me. No one will ever know...she will never know. It will be our secret..."
David could feel his penis hardening despite his trepidation, almost as if it had a mind of its own. The creature lying next to him felt just like his beloved. She had her voice, her heartbeat...her sweet breath...as perfect in every detail as he could remember. Sensing that his resistance was weakening, the slight figure next to him growled hungrily in response to his obvious arousal and began rubbing her pelvis suggestively against his thigh. David could feel her oth'as stiffening and becoming moist, and he soon caught her mating scent...a welcoming hint of cinnamon in the air. <Seduced...> he hazily thought. <I'm being seduced.> Knowing about it and doing something to counteract it, however, were two different things...and, he noted guiltily, he wasn't even really sure he wanted to. She was so warm...warm, willing and most importantly, here. Lying in a recreation of his own bed, with a perfect copy of his beloved at his side readying herself for him, it suddenly seemed like forever since he'd crashed on this cold damned rock and he found he was having difficulty remembering the last time he'd held her...or the last time he'd been this warm. It was like anything before his arrival on Khon'dar had occurred in a whole separate life.
But it wasn't another life. He couldn't feel its effects yet, but he vaguely remembered something about inhaling a portion of the Dilgar death cloud. Yes, that memory seemed real enough, even if nothing else was. He was a dead man walking. For an instant, a barely perceptible one, David fell into despair. He wasn't ever going to see the real Ardenn again...
The creature at his side blew lightly into his ear. Sliding her hand up from his inner thigh, she found his partially erect shaft and he groaned with pleasure as she began rhythmically stroking and kneading. Her hand was too small to completely encircle him, but her touch was skilled and after a short time he was fully engorged. He was falling and he knew it...but for some reason he found that he couldn't muster the energy to care. It was like a blanket was muffling his judgment, silencing what should have been warning bells clanging loudly in his head. His Ardenn wasn't here. He no longer felt her comforting presence, as he had in the lift earlier. She had abandoned him for the Sisterhood and he was going to die anyway...so, why not?
From out of nowhere another voice...a dark yet beautiful one...echoed musically in his head. <Yes...take what I offer,> it sensually implored. <Enjoy her. What does it matter? Start down the path...and you will have all you desire before the end...>
"Hell...better to go out with a bang than a whimper, eh?"
<You may whimper if you wish...> the spectral voice answered.
Sighing softly, he closed his eyes. Tightening her grip, the apparition increased her stimulation, murmuring soft encouragement as David's hips began involuntarily thrusting against her strokes. Just as he neared climax, she abruptly released him and he moaned in protest. Moving completely atop him, the reflection of his beloved gazed into his face and through his frustration he absently noted that she was asking him something. His reasoning already hazy at best, he responded with an affirmative nod, not really concerned with what she was saying as long as the pleasure resumed. "Do I want you to...to what? Yeah...yeah, sure...you mean you even have to ask?" Whatever he'd acceded to seemed to satisfy her. Bowing her head submissively, she slid down his body and knelt between his legs. As she parted them and began teasing him to full hardness once more with her fingertips, he could do no more than watch as if he were a disinterested spectator. He wanted to surrender to the being before him so badly...but...but...
A light caress, like a faraway melody carried across the open sea by the wind, washed across his soul. He sensed it only vaguely but it was there...and he recognized the touch immediately. He'd just had a brush with his beloved...a thought of him in passing or...or perhaps an attempt to find him?
Now firmly ensconced between his thighs, the beautiful illusion paused, her dark gaze suddenly far away. Cocking her head as if listening, she casually murmured, "Ah, yes...we do seem to have an inopportune visitor. Hmm...tired, anxious, and...yes...frightened. This should be amusing." Her obsidian eyes hardening, the apparition's voice became that of the spectral presence he'd sensed before. <Look into the Darkness, insignificant thrall!> she announced into the air, her dark, melodious voice echoing unnaturally as she spoke. <Look into my eyes and be afraid! Fear me, child...fear me...and BE GONE!>
Almost immediately the tenuous link snapped, leaving David grasping futility after it. "I think she received my 'Do Not Disturb' message," his companion chuckled, using Ardenn's voice once more. "Such a timid creature you have chosen to carry your legacy. She ran away to cower at the first sight of me. Typical of her species." With a humorless smile, the apparition turned back to her task. "Forget her, David," she whispered, grasping him firmly once more and lowering herself, forcing his legs up and apart with her shoulders. <She is not worthy of you. Do not be afraid. Forget all but your desires. Forget everything but this...>
David felt the light caress of her breath and groaned as she parted her lips and began taking him in. Her mouth was radiating heat like a small furnace and, as her tongue swirled around him, he no longer thought of anything other than his need to have her completely. In response, he groaned and arched his hips up from the mattress. Caught by surprise, she gagged and pulled away slightly, glancing up at him before starting once more. Had she not done so at that moment, he would have been lost. When she looked, he saw that her expression was no longer aroused or seductive. It was triumphant...triumphant, calculating and cold. The imposter's true nature was only revealed for a fraction of a second, but coupled with the real Ardenn's contact it was enough to break the spell. Her touch stimulated him no longer...it was like ice, and her eyes were revealed as the emptiness of the Void.
This was wrong. She was...wrong.
"Oh, Shit..." What in Valen's name was he doing? Why wasn't he resisting? Like a sleeper suddenly awakened, he snapped back into reality and clumsily shoved the doppelganger away. He was better than this! He'd promised the real Ardenn she'd be the only one...and a Sheridan kept his promises even when they no longer seemed to matter. "Dammit! I don't know how you did it...but you scanned me pretty goddamn well, didn't you?" he fearfully snarled, rolling out of the bed and stumbling away. "You were clouding my mind! Weakening my judgment!" Breathing heavily, he pointed accusingly at his now-mute temptress and continued, "You got right in there...through the telepathic blocks, through the training, through all of it! So you know what I like, so what? That doesn't change anything! Do I want to...to do these things with Ardenn? Absolutely! But with you? Hell, no! I don't care what sort of illusion you vomit up! You aren't taking her place now and you never will!"
Propping herself up on an elbow, the image smiled diffidently at him and winked. "Your body was saying differently," she observed. "In truth, you did not require much prodding from me. The thought of having your female without the need to restrain your baser instincts...without worrying about frightening or hurting her...you were almost there even without my encouragement. Oh, yes, it tempted you."
"Yeah? Well, a lot tempts me." Grabbing what he assumed to be a recreation of his bathrobe off a nearby chair, David hastily wrapped himself in it and backed into a corner as the Ardenn-creature's dark eyes followed him. Tying the sash, he folded his arms across his chest defensively and grunted, "I guess it's a good thing I can control those so-called instincts."
"Do you control them? Do you really?" she archly whispered, favoring the young man with a knowing look. "Can we test your statement...with another activity you secretly like?" Rolling onto her back, the apparition stretched languorously and began trailing exploratory fingers across the sensitive blue paths of her breasts and hips. "Oh, well," she sighed delightedly as her body reacted, "As you have chosen not to participate, perhaps you will enjoy...watching." Caressing her pleasure centers with increasing intensity, her breathing quickened and after a few moments she started to squirm on the bed. "Ahh...the Thralls have such primitive physiology, yet it is so...yesss...so responsive..."
"Stop," David croaked weakly, finding his voice with difficulty and mentally cursing himself for it.
"Stop?" the apparition huskily breathed. "Oh, David, you wear such a noble face...but we both know that is not what you want her to do. Do not lie..." Dragging her fingernails lightly across her oth'las, she writhed and arched her back. "You want her to perform for you." With a needy moan, she drew her legs up and parted them. Her eyes half-closed, she gazed over, saw the dumbstruck expression on his face and smiled. "And so I shall...accommodate..."
"I said STOP!" the young man shouted, quickly striding over and grabbing her wrists. "I've seen more than enough! Don't you dare abuse Ardenn this way!"
"Ardenn? Abuse Ardenn?" the figure playfully laughed up at him, easily twisting out of his grip. "But this body is not her, you said...so why does it bother you so? Is this how you control your instincts? Through denial?" Her laughter subsiding, she continued, "Yes, it is through denial, human...through lying to yourself. I know your species. I know you and your people better than you do. You think you control your instincts and your wants but you do not. You merely suppress them, and poorly at that. Perhaps you can resist them for a time, but you will weaken. Your kind always does."
The dark-eyed apparition laughed again and David, flush with guilt and anger, drew his hand back. "Yesss..." she hummed deep in her throat, "Now show me your true nature. Lash out. Strike her, Anla'Shok. Give in to those instincts. " Rolling over onto her stomach, she wriggled her behind suggestively and continued, "What are you waiting for? Go ahead...indulge yourself. Perhaps your female really does enjoy taking a little pain with her pleasure. I promise she will not mind." Closing her eyes, she buried her face in the pillows and pleadingly mocked, "Oh, beloved! I have transgressed...please, discipline me..."
"No!" Disgustedly, David lowered his hand. "I don't want to hear your opinion on human instincts!" he shouted, realizing he was being manipulated but clueless about how to counter it. "I don't want to have sex with you! And I don't want you to have sex with yourself! You want to know what I want? I want answers...and you haven't given me any!"
The creature with Ardenn's body rolled over and sat back up. Eyeing the rapidly shrinking evidence of David's 'temptation' under his robe, she smiled coldly. "Ah! You ask for answers when you have not yet decided on your questions. Are you certain you do not want the sex? It is far less complex." Reading his answer from his stony expression, she rose from the bed and retrieved a smaller robe. "No...I suppose not," she muttered rhetorically, slipping the garment on and tying it. "It is your loss, not mine. So...what answers can I give that you will accept?"
"The truth is always a good start."
"Oh...you want the truth..." David's companion breathed in mock surprise. Knuckling her chin, she pursed her lips and furrowed her brow ridge. "Hmm...truth...such a broad concept...and one so open to interpretation. Which truth do you want to hear? Yours, mine or the one in between?" Shaking her head, she chuckled. "Were you wiser, you would ask for the facts and then draw your own conclusions from them. "
David suppressed his embarrassment, certain that his mysterious companion was laughing at his naiveté. "Okay...the facts, then. Where am I?"
"Yes...the personal questions always come first with this race," 'Ardenn' murmured to herself. "Well, that is easily enough answered," she continued briskly. "You are...here. You are comprised of matter, you have mass and you occupy space. Were you somewhere else, you would be...there."
"You're going to make this difficult, aren't you?" the young Ranger muttered under his breath.
"Most worthwhile things usually are," the Ardenn-double acknowledged. "In a sense, you are where you were. You were fighting on a precipice. You fell. I was watching, your tenaciousness impressed me, I was in a position to offer assistance and it suited me to do so. Ergo, here you are."
David couldn't resist rolling his eyes. "So here I am," he echoed, "So...you just caught me like a fly in your spider's web, eh?"
Cocking her head in acknowledgement, the Ardenn imposter smiled as if she'd just heard a joke only she understood. "An apt comparison...more so perhaps than you realize. Although unlike a spider I do not plan to feed off you...unless you change your mind and decide to request it." Licking her lips, she added, "You should have let me finish the first time. You would have found the experience quite beyond any clumsy lovemaking techniques your female knows...and you would not have even missed the tiny taste of you I took in return."
"A small...what? Ah, never mind...Ardenn's lovemaking skills suit me just fine, thank you," David countered defensively. "There's something to be said for learning together...and you're dodging. Just who or what the hell are you anyway?"
Apparently, he'd struck a nerve. A brief expression of distaste flashed across the false Ardenn's features, quickly erased. "Does it really matter? My identity is...irrelevant. If it helps, consider me an example of what your people can become if they are fortunate; an individual freed from the restrictions of individuality. I am both a thread in the tapestry and the tapestry itself. I am a scholar, a guide, an overseer, a slave, a companion, a lover...and most importantly to you, your savior...for the moment. You would do well to remember that." Smiling slyly, she amended, "But I am not trying to hold anything over you. I want us to...to cooperate, to compliment one another. I am here for you, David. You may think of me as...how do you say...your customer service representative? Yes, your...associate."
The creature had read Ardenn to a tee, even employing her speech patterns, and the mimicking was beginning to annoy the young Ranger almost as much as the words were confusing him. "My...associate? That doesn't tell me anything," David snorted. "You're trying to be cryptic, and I'm not buying it. If the Vorlons hadn't already left, I'd say you were a First One."
<Ver'lann? > the apparition hissed, brows furrowing. Spinning on her heel, she strode towards David, her black orbs glittering with unexpected malevolence. "No, David Sheridan...I will not lie to you as they once did. I am what you call a First One, but not a Vorlon. They are beings of silence, disciplinarians...masters of atrophy and false mystery. They are creatures that use others to circumvent independent advancement. They fancy themselves parents, yet they abuse and lie to their children. They are cheats. I am as far from the Vorlon as one can be. I am their equal...and opposite."
All the hints had been there. The eyes, the desire to fulfill his deepest wants...the evasiveness about her identity. But they had been gone for almost twenty-five years. Who would have thought? "A...Shadow?" David breathed in dumbfounded horror. "In Valen's Name...you're a SHADOW?" His mysterious companion turned her palms up in a Minbari shrug and, for an instant their illusory surroundings wavered. The cold, stale air of Khon'dar's mine returned and he glimpsed eyes...multiple eyes, burning like tiny fires in a gray half-light. He also saw himself; suspended like a piece of meat before a mottled mantis-like creature, a wispy organic filament snaking away from his captor and into his hair. He was seeing what the Shadow saw...he was prey, firmly immobilized. He was indeed the fly in the web.
<The distinction probably means little to you, Anla'Shok, > the dark melodious voice...the unaltered Shadow's voice, David realized...sang into his head, <But we refer to ourselves as Dynamics... > Abruptly, the illusion reasserted itself and he found himself back in his quarters. "...Not Shadows," the restored image of his beloved concluded. "Forgive my little subterfuge, but it is far more comfortable for us to interact in this fashion, would you not agree?"
David had never known real terror before, although its application was an element of his training. At that moment, the small part of his mind not in total shock realized he would recall this moment fearfully until the end of his days...a time that seemed to not be long in coming. Certain that he was about to be killed and knowing he had nowhere to run, he did the only thing he could do. By way of an answer, he cried "Entil'zha Veni!" and lunged at the false Minbari.
Although only half his weight, 'Ardenn' seized the frantically attacking human by the lapels of his robe and slammed him to the floor as if he weighed less than a scrap of paper. Gazing into his terrified eyes, the illusory Minbari straddled him much as she had before, this time pinning him between her thighs with near crushing force. "Oh, dear...those instincts of yours seem to have temporarily gained the upper hand," she tsked, reaching out to stroke his hair tenderly. "Shh...I am not angry, David," she soothed. "I understand you had to make the attempt once you deduced my secret, and I admire your courage...but now is the time for understanding between us, not conflict. Attacking me is pointless. You see me in the frail body of your Thrall lover, but you know it is only a projection. In reality I have many, many times her strength. You are determined and brave but you are not an Elder One. You cannot hope to overbear me with sinew and heart alone...and after we come to know one another better, you will no longer want to try."
"Bullshit! You're the Enemy...the Ancient Enemy! You're the enemy of everything I stand for as Anla'Shok! Our entire reason for being is to guard against your return!" David hissed as he helplessly squirmed, trying to toss the creature aside. He might as well have been fighting the tide. "But you can be defeated!"
"Not by you...at least, not under these circumstances," the creature observed. "But it does not have to be that way. You have been misled. I am not your enemy. We never were. We were Humanity's greatest benefactors as a race and I mean you no harm personally." The young man beneath her twisted once more and the Shadow Ardenn added, "Just...stop and listen. Please?"
Surprised at the creature's soft tone, the young Ranger's efforts tapered off somewhat. Sensing that the panicked man was calming, the illusion cupped his cheek affectionately. "Better, youngling," she murmured, "Much better. I know how hard this is for you. Your unreasonable rage is not your fault. In your race's prehistory, those you call Vorlons poisoned the minds of your people and others, making you see them as beings of light and beauty and us as creatures of evil and damnation. They programmed you to fear us, to fear the dark...but that is just the beginning of their lies. You young ones were the recipients of so many others...so many distortions that you should despise them for what they did to you. The truth...the fact is we protected you and always wanted only the best for our children."
"Only...the best FOR your children?" David wheezed, stilling his body with Herculean effort. Breathing hard, he gasped, "Or only the best children? You...killed whole races! Destroyed planets! You make the...the Dilgar up there look like...like termites!"
"We loved you so much," the Shadow sadly countered, "So much more than our Adversaries, who did not even recognize love as a valid emotional state. We stayed behind for you when our contemporaries went beyond. We stayed for love, but the Adversaries..." the creature choked, biting back the words she was going to say with effort. When she continued, she said, "They stayed because they enjoyed controlling others. Think you that they cared about those they considered lesser beings? Think you that they wanted to help those they completely seduced, such as the race of this Thrall whose form I now wear? The crested ones...they were just convenient tools, pets that loyally served their masters but proved disposable when their purpose was served. Please believe me, unlike the glowing ones we wept over each civilization sacrificed. But evolution had to continue...
"You want me to believe you?" David interrupted incredulously. "Believe...you? Then stop lying to me!"
"I am not lying. We are not liars. Truth is perception, and we allow others to interpret our words as they wish."
"I'm not speaking of your words! You lie to me with this illusion you've created! You aren't who you appear to be, and this place isn't home! If you want me to listen, release me from it!"
"David...that would be most unwise."
"Why? You're afraid I won't be able to handle you in your true form? I know what a Shadow looks like!"
"No." Sighing, the doppelganger rose from atop David and stepped away. "That is not my worry. I allowed you a brief vision of your true condition. I hold you this way not from malice but for your own good. You are damaged. Your physical injuries are not life threatening, but you will feel the pain of them if I accede to your request. And then there is the pollutant you absorbed. While we are connected I can hold it at bay and extend your life, but I do not have the capability to counteract it. If I release you, it will begin to infiltrate your body. Left unchecked, it will kill you just as surely as it did those who once worked here."
"Then I'll just have to take my chances," the Ranger muttered. "I won't tolerate you defiling Ardenn by appearing as her any longer. Do it."
"As you wish." The young man's illusory companion nodded and David experienced a brief flash, much like the afterimage of a bright light inside his eyelids. There was a pop, a sucking sound, and he felt the stab of cold air against his body. Without warning, he slumped to what was now bare rock, vomiting bile and curling into a fetal position when the heaving led to stabs of pain wracking his rib cage. Inside his lungs, he could feel something...cloying...like thick syrup that no cough could dislodge. As the Shadow had indicated, the cloud was taking hold.
In his head, David heard the rich, vibrant female voice once more...surprisingly, he found it vaguely reminiscent of his mother's. <You have what you wanted. Do not say you were unwarned.>
"Hurts...like...hell," the Ranger grunted, arms clasped about his ribs. "But...it's real...at least..." Glancing up, he tried to continue, "Now...what? In Valen's Name..."
The sight before him shocked him into momentary speechlessness. Not a meter away from him squatted the dark, spindly manifestation of his worst nightmare...a living Shadow. He'd been exaggerating before. Although he'd heard descriptions of their appearance he'd never seen one...there were no images other than rough sketches in ancient texts and few still lived who had firsthand knowledge. His parents had both seen, but neither cared much to describe them in any great detail. Now, seeing the Ancient Enemy in the flesh for the first time, David understood why. He was finding it difficult to even glance at the creature without trembling.
<Your revulsion is artificial,> the vaguely insectoid being supplied, her glowing, multifaceted eyes peering at him intently. < As I said, your race was conditioned by the Adversaries to fear us, so we rarely appear to younglings in our natural forms. This is why it would have been better had the illusion remained. >
"No...no," David stammered, fighting to keep his voice steady and not entirely succeeding. "I...I prefer it this way. At least we know where we stand."
With a wave of her forelegs, the Shadow chattered and squeaked, and David heard the beautiful voice once more. <We do not. You still think me evil. This is not a good way to begin an association.>
<An association? > She had used that term before. Now that he knew with whom he was dealing, David realized what she meant...he was to be turned, his personality erased or modified into one more malleable. The young Ranger started edging backwards, intending to leap to his feet and run but unsure if he was strong enough. To gain time, he decided to keep the conversation going as long as he could. "Who says I'm going to uh...associate...with you?"
<Why wouldn't you? The benefits of formal Association are far more than you can grasp without experiencing the wonder of it for yourself. The Adversaries have always had an Associate among the Thralls when they were active, and we had one of our own among the humans. This is no different, and I think you are mature enough to recognize that the Adversaries were no better than we. >
"That's not true. The Vorlons...everyone recognizes that they were misguided now, but they weren't murderers."
The Shadow chattered and folded her forelegs. <We are back to truth again? > Inside his skull, David heard a sound akin to laughter. <The Adversaries were merely misguided? So young you are. So many misconceptions you need to unlearn. You mentioned the Dilgar before. Is it not curious to you that their star would go nova without warning...just as almost their entire race was gathered there?>
"You're suggesting that the Vorlons...killed off the Dilgar? The Vorlons?"
<And others,> the creature squeaked, her voice translating into melody. <The Ikarrans...you have heard of them? They died at the whim of the Adversary also, when in their harsh judgment that race's technology outstripped their social development.>
"Yeah?" the Ranger retorted, grasping for counterarguments. "Well...what about the Markab? That one was yours, and far more recent!"
Her eyes dimming, the creature replied, <No...it is not so, David. We had nothing to do with their extinction. The Markab society was too inflexible for their technology to save them. Races do die naturally, and when they do we allow it to happen. We observed...but did not interfere.>
"You hide. You manipulate. You made others kill while you skulked behind the scenes! The Centauri..."
<The Centauri created their own demise,> the creature finished. <Their desire was to regain their lost glory and prestige...the 'Grand Old Days of the Republic' as their ambassador called it. They did not take into account that the universe around them had changed. They achieved their potential at a time when few of the other younger races had attained spacefaring capability. This time, they rose again only to find many resisting them that could not have before. The wars that followed were inevitable...we assisted them as they requested, but those were their conflicts, not ours. We never forced anyone do anything they did not want to do. We merely offered them the opportunity to fulfill their desires and subsequently reap the results. We provided the younger races we befriended a choice, an option the Adversaries never allowed. Sometimes, our children's selections resulted in advancement...and sometimes not. Either way, natural progression was facilitated. It is survival of the fittest.>
"Natural progression?" David moaned disbelievingly. "Survival of the fittest? So, you're Charles Darwin now?"
<The strong must become stronger, and in this cold realm the weak are the only source of sustenance. It is regrettable, but occasionally the field has to be plowed under so new, better crops can be given a chance. Even the Adversaries understood this. Your race, though...they were and still are among the strong. In the Dynamic universe my brethren and I strived to nurture, humanity would have survived and thrived. >
"We have survived and thrived...without you."
<By allying yourselves with those who will eventually weaken and hinder you,> the Shadow countered. <Your race has made a mistake. The Thralls fade. They, like their masters, are the past. Humanity is the future. We knew this, the Adversaries knew it and the Thralls know it as well. They wish to achieve Adulthood but know they cannot, so they seek union with those who can...in fact it has already started. You are the first result of their manipulations.>
"I must have been disappointing, then," David snorted. "There isn't enough Minbari in me to fill a thimble. As for fusing Minbari and humans, we aren't genetically close enough to produce children naturally."
<You seem so sure, > the Shadow noted, rising from her squat and extending her legs. David had begun to crawl again, and she lazily began strolling after him, the points of her limbs clicking on the stone. Weaving oddly from side to side as she crept closer, she continued, <Were I you I would not be. As you deduced, I scanned you. I know what you are. You are more than a mixture of Thrall and Human, David, much more. I sensed his essence in you, and that makes you a bridge between the children, a bridge that may allow unhindered passage both ways...and this makes you either very blessed or very dangerous. >
"His...essence?" the young Ranger confusedly repeated, beginning to crawl more quickly. He knew he must look like the biggest coward this side of Epsilon Three, but he didn't care. The...thing...was clearly stalking him. "Whose essence? What in the hell are you talking about?"
<Why, the Immortal, of course,> the Shadow answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. <In addition to your younger race heritage, you carry an undiluted fragment of our Father within you. Quite possibly you are the only being still living in the Physical Realm to manifest him so strongly. >
"Your...father? I thought your race was the oldest."
<We are the oldest among those you recognize as First Ones...yet there were beings that came before. When your Human parent visited our homeworld, he was killed...or, more accurately, he came as close to death as one of your kind can without crossing over. The last of the Fathers gave of himself...imbued him with regenerative energies...to restore him. When he later mated, the ancient's gift crossed the divide between him and the degenerate creature he foolishly chose to impregnate. You now have it. >
David recognized the event the Shadow was alluding to. When his father deemed him old enough, he had told him the story of his 'death'...and of the being he encountered in the gray nether realm in between. "Lorien?"
<That is one of the names he is known by when dealing with those who differentiate between individuals in that fashion. The Father, the Immortal, the Progenitor...Lorien. He has others as well. > The Shadow, nearly on top of the retreating human now, paused at the look of surprise on David's face. <You did not know? How interesting. Even the most primitive human instruments would detect the anomaly. I detected it without any at all. Your father, at least, would have to know even if his breeder does not.>
"Okay...so what are you saying? I have a twenty-year lifespan? I hate to derail your logic train, but I've already passed twenty."
<True,> the creature acknowledged. <But you are not dependant on the Immortal's essence to sustain you. Your father was. Within you, the gift is dormant but...> the Shadow knelt down and put her glowing faceplate near David's face and hissed, <You need to understand this, human. Your race and the Thralls are direct descendants of the Fathers. In a time so long ago that even my race was bound to a single world, the old ones ranged throughout the galaxy...modifying new life using their own as a template. Those that arose from their efforts became much like children of the same father but different mothers...but not all were created with equal skill. The Ancients made mistakes as they learned. The Thralls, those you know as Minbari, were an early attempt. Humans came later, when the process was better understood. This is why the Thralls become fewer in number while humanity expands. They are not as adaptable as humans and the insistence on purity they inherited from the deluded teachings of the Adversaries weakens them further. Thralls no longer evolve, and a race devoid of the occasional mutation is doomed to extinction unless it introduces new, dynamic changes...or reintroduces very old ones. You possess both, and the essence you carry can be passed along to any offspring of the ancients you mate with...just as it was to you.>
"Okay...yeah...um, whatever you say..." David tried to edge away once more and the creature leapt atop him, pinning him beneath her. <I recommend you cease trying to evade me if you wish to have a future!> she hummed, eyes blazing.
"Let me go! I'll die before I let you seduce me with your...your skewed philosophy!"
<You do not understand. I said I do not lie. You are free to interpret my words as you wish, but you will hear them. Look behind you.>
Hesitatingly, David glanced away...only to see fathomless darkness. He had almost crabwalked off the edge of a cliff. The Shadow hadn't been trying to recapture him, only restrain him.
<This marks the second time I have preserved your life.>
"Why bother?" the frightened man retorted. "All this crap about essences and Immortals...what the Hell does it matter? I'm dying anyway!"
<You are as loud as a rutting Thrall. Before you surrender so noisily to death, practice silence for a moment and listen. > Glancing up, the creature lifted a foreleg and indicated a roughly oval aperture about thirty meters above their location, which David now realized was a small, stony ledge poking out from the cavern wall. Dim light...clearly artificial...streamed through, and the mixture of dust and chill mist interacting with it cast a gray pallor over their resting place. <Do not be so quick to offer yourself in sacrifice. Your life energies are indeed fading, but are not yet extinguished. While you breathe, you may overcome that which afflicts you. >
David did as he was told. After a moment, he heard faint sounds coming through the opening. They were voices...voices speaking in an alien tongue. "The Dilgar?" he whispered. "But...I fell. This pit is supposed to be deep..."
<The cavern is deep,> the Shadow acknowledged, <Almost as deep as this world's heart. I said that you fell...but I did not say you fell far. Perhaps this ledge would have stopped you without my intercession...or perhaps not. > The creature paused for a moment, almost as if she were hearing her own words for the first time. When she continued, she said, <We all fall. That is the way of Life. That is the way of competition. We continue to win until we encounter those who can defeat us. Sometimes the best we can desire is that we not fall very far when that occurs. >
"Shadow wisdom..." David muttered. "And this has something to do with me?"
<Wisdom is wisdom, no matter the source. I am the last of my kind. You are the first of yours. We fell. We were defeated, in a sense...not by the Adversaries, your parents or their fleet, but by a universe that outgrew us. Or one we outgrew. Both observations are accurate and true, but I do not know which is fact. Someday it will be the same for you. You will achieve your potential, you will fall, and no one will remain to catch you. > Above them in the chamber, something tumbled to the ground with a metallic clank. Rising from atop the young man, the Shadow crept over to the cavern wall and tilted her head up at the opening, rubbing her forelegs together. After a moment, she looked back at David. <You desire to impede the primitives above. Why do you want this?>
"The pollutant you identified in me...there's a lot more of it in that chamber. If the Dilgar succeed in getting it out of here, they'll use it, probably on Earth or one of the other major human worlds. I can't allow that to happen."
<I understand. You want to counter your adversary, yet you are in no condition or position to affect them. Perhaps you are sufficiently whole to climb out, but you are certainly unfit to engage in personal combat. It would seem that you face a dilemma. > With what the young Ranger interpreted as a mental shrug, the Shadow effortlessly scrabbled onto the wall and, hanging perpendicular, began creeping off into the surrounding darkness. <It happens. Still, you humans are resourceful...for younglings. I will observe you for a time. It should be interesting to see what sort of solution you develop.>
"Wait!" David called after the creature. When she paused, he continued, "You're just going to leave me here?"
<Of course. Using your female's image to evaluate your susceptibility to temptation provided me idle amusement for a time, but as you do not desire a true joining we are finished here. As recompense for entertaining me, I intended to let you have your freedom. Still, I have not replenished myself with anything living in many of your years. If you would rather I did so, I can make the process beautiful for you...>
<Anything...living? Yuck...> Quashing the mental image that flashed through his skull, David thought fast. He needed to stop the Dilgar, but what the creature said was true. He was in no condition to fight, but... "No, I don't want to be um...ingested. I also don't want you altering my mind or poking interfaces into my skull. But that doesn't mean we can't...uh...come to some sort of mutually beneficial understanding?"
In the darkness, the Shadow hesitated. <A cooperative arrangement without formal Association? > Reversing herself on the wall, she faced the young Ranger fully. <Interesting...that would require an exchange of services. You have a proposal for me to consider?>
"Uh...yeah. What you said is true...I mean factual. I'm in no condition to take them all on even if I could get back up there. But...are you capable of, ah...neutralizing...the Dilgar? There are five left, if I remember correctly."
<You wish for me, your Ancient Enemy, to actively assist you...a member of an organization dedicated to countering my kind? How times have changed. The primitives are armed?>
"Yes," David confirmed, nodding. "They've got directed energy weapons...lasers. Look, there is a danger. They'll start shooting the moment they see you."
The Shadow paused. <They will not see me. You see me only because I allow it.> With that, her eyes dimmed...the only visible sign that she was considering David's request. <Perhaps I can do as you desire, > she finally acceded, <But we give nothing freely. It is not our way. What are you prepared to offer in return for my assistance?>
This was the crux of the matter. David feared he was making an unholy deal with the Devil. If Mother ever found out... "Well...uh...what do you want?"
Maybe it was just the brightening of the eyes, but the young Ranger swore he could sense amusement in the creature's response. <You would try to parley with me as we do others, Anla'Shok? I want everything you have, and all you seem to have is...you.>
The young Ranger involuntarily flinched away, realizing that the Shadow had intended something like this all along...and he had just played right into it.
<I offered you a permanent Association, David,> the Shadow explained. <Not so long ago, others of your kind fell on each other, soiling their hands with the blood of their brothers to accept such. You refused it...yet I am willing to compromise. Would you consider service as the heart and mind of a Void Singer sufficient? You would wield nearly unimaginable power...but your life as you know it would be over. >
A brief vision of himself hardwired into a Shadow ship flashed through his head and he blanched. "To save a world...if...if that's what it takes..."
<You value a world of strangers more than your own life? How altruistic. Were these different times that would be my price. Unfortunately, there is little left of my ship. It is far too decayed to benefit from a new core. >
David breathed a sigh of relief. It was short-lived.
<Your Thrall lover is coming to this place. Thralls are irrevocably corrupt and mean little to me. Is her life in trade for my services sufficient?>
The young Ranger simply stared at the creature, not quite believing he had heard correctly. Realizing that he was being toyed with...or tested in some manner...he resisted getting angry. "What does Ardenn have to do with this? If the life of a Minbari means so little...why would you want it?"
< To do what you consider worth dying for, I want what you consider worth living for. So...will you give me your Thrall? You valued a world of lives more than your own. Is hers any different? >
"Your question doesn't matter. You said you offered choices to the younger races. Ardenn's life isn't mine to give you, so any response I make is meaningless. You'd be violating your own philosophy if you took her life without giving her the opportunity to choose for herself."
<An exceptionally clever observation, > the Shadow noted, <More so because you are correct. > Turning away, she started up the craggy cavern wall towards the chamber entrance. Just before reaching the lip, she looked back and concluded, <It would seem we are at an impasse, but...as you have nothing not already spoken for, perhaps another might? >
"What do you mean?"
<There is one service you can provide, David...a small gesture of your gratitude, in reality. You did not come here alone. I know the Nexus came with you. When this task is complete, you will allow me to accompany you to the upper chambers. You will intercede with your father on my behalf and arrange an audience between the two of us...alone. You will tell no others about me, only him.>
"What do you want from him? Revenge? He won't go down easily...and you won't be the first 'First One' he's taken on!"
<I am far more cognizant of your father's capabilities than you. What I want from him is not your concern. You merely need to arrange the meeting. Your payment will be complete at that point. Should you fail this simple task, I will reveal myself to your Thrall and offer her the opportunity to choose between your life and hers. I am certain that if she feels for you as you do her, her decision will not be a difficult one.>
"No! I won't agree to that!"
<You do not have to, > came the reply. <As you indicated, her life is not yours to give so it is not your decision to make. Our arrangement is all about risk. I assumed risk when I saved you by allowing one who considers me the enemy to live. Now, you ask me to risk again. I will not do so without you providing collateral. To secure your portion of our agreement, you will entrust me with a life more valuable to you than your own. > Pivoting away from the speechless human, the Shadow vanished right before his eyes. Only her voice remained.
<You have indeed fallen, Anla'Shok...but not very far. Had I wished it, you would have fallen much, much farther...>
Activity in the mine's lowest chamber was chaotic. The tectonic activity in the mine had disabled the main fusion reactor, causing the primary lighting to go out. Under the less intense glow provided by the mine's emergency generator, three of the four remaining commandos sweated and grunted, straining to load heavy crates onto a magnetic lifter they had located outside the chamber entrance. Their commander, Strike Leader Bha'laa, was paying little attention. Her frigid gaze was fixed on the fourth soldier.
"Either tell me you have secured a communications link to our surface elements, or tell me why you still live!" Bha'laa hissed. Grabbing her nervous subaltern by the collar of his body armor, she continued, "It does no good to secure even the few samples of our blessed Sister's weapon we can carry if I do not know where to take it! Our scientists can replicate it, but they need to have it first!"
The subaltern bowed his head submissively. "I have tried, Strike Leader. The quake we experienced has disrupted surface communications completely. I have monitored some communications from our forces higher in the complex, but they were garbled and incoherent. They did not respond to my hails."
Bha'laa cursed. "That bastard Subcommander Mha'bur! He's hoping we're trapped down here. Do not expect him to answer...at least not until he's sure we will find a way out even without him." With effort, the Strike Leader calmed. "Let him be for now. When the proper time arrives, War Marshal Ghe'dan and I will celebrate our victory over the Alliance while watching him squirm on the impaling stake." Pulling a datapad from her tunic, she became all business once more. "According to the schematics, there is a maglev ore train with an independent power source about a kilometer up the passageway capable of carrying our cargo...but the corridor between here and there is steep. It's a pity I dispensed with Sheridan's pilot so quickly. Even injured, we could have used his strong back, and perhaps afterwards he would have provided me some idle amusement...<Feel my presence>...what was that?"
The subaltern glanced around. "What was...what?"
"I thought I heard...something," the Dilgar female murmured. Turning to her companion, she sharply inquired, "Did you scout the entire chamber? Perhaps Sheridan hasn't run away after all."
"There is no place for him to hide, Strike Leader," the subaltern replied with a shrug. "If he were in here, we would have seen him."
<You cannot see me. You are nervous. >
The ranker was correct, but Bha'laa was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and the feeling was illogical. Even if Sheridan were nearby, he was only one human. He was no real threat, but...
<There is no threat...only the promise of Darkness. >
Suspiciously, she turned full circle, certain that someone or something was watching her. She saw nothing, but the unnerving sensation did not go away. In fact, it was gaining intensity.
<Your nervousness is becoming fear>
"I take nothing at face value!" she snapped at the trooper, her voice shrill. "Have the commandos get their gear back on and scout the chamber!"
<They cannot help you. No one can help you. >
"Respectfully, Strike Leader," the subaltern replied, a trace of worry in his voice, "there is no one..."
"There is! I feel it!" It made no sense...her discomfort was fast becoming edginess...and there was still nothing to be seen. She heard another sound behind her, like a faint grating of metal on rock.
<I am closer now. Look behind you. >
Spinning once more, she found herself looking at the crevice she had shoved the Anla'Shok pilot into earlier. But there was nothing there...just a dark, empty pit. He could not have survived...
<The fall is a long one...what might you have awakened? Come to the edge and see. >
Turning back to face her commandos, she caught the hastily smothered smirks. Could they not feel it? Rather than complying with her command, they looked at one another and then their subaltern for confirmation. No matter the circumstances, she could not have her authority challenged in that manner. "DO IT OR I WILL KILL YOU WHERE YOU STAND!" Bha'laa screamed, pulling her sidearm out and waving it.
<They will die. You will not...and you will envy them their release. >
The troops scrambled, nearly falling over one another in an effort to get to their combat equipment. Edging away from the increasingly skittish Strike Leader, the subaltern donned his helmet and directed the soldiers to fan out, all the while watching Bha'laa out of the corner of his eye.
One by one, the troops sectioned off the chamber and began combing it. One picked up David's discarded denn'bok and cast it aside. The Ranger weapon clattered to the floor, causing Bha'laa to jump nervously.
<Just a sound...only a sound, and yet you fear. It will not be long now. >
Another soldier picked through the wreckage in the lift tubes, finding nothing. The third trotted over to the passageway leading out of the chamber, disappearing around a turn as he checked their egress path and returning shortly thereafter, shaking his head.
<He should have continued on and never looked back. >
Bha'laa's subaltern sidled over to the crevice, grabbing a rocky outcrop and glancing out into the darkness. "Nothing here," he reported. With an arm wave, he began collecting his soldiers. "Respectfully, Strike Leader...it's time to collect what we have and get out of here. We may be able to reestablish communications once we get to the train."
Bha'laa, nearly paralyzed with fear at this point, barely nodded. Forcing strength into her voice she didn't feel, she gestured at the lifter with a trembling hand and said, "Very...very well, you may proceed..."
<The Darkness comes. Cry for the Light you will never see again. >
Around the Dilgar, the chamber dimmed, drawing a chorus of startled exclamations from the soldiers. "The emergency power is failing!" the subaltern cried. "We have to move now, or we'll be trapped in the dark down here!"
<You are already trapped. >
Oblivious to the words of her companion, Bha'laa clapped her hands over her ears. "Make it stop!" she screamed. "Something's in here with us! It's all around us!" Jumping between her commandos, she yelled, "Weapons at the ready! Area coverage! Open fire!"
The troops, having felt nothing, didn't understand what their commander referred to, but they understood her orders easily enough. Forming a phalanx around her, they quartered off the chamber and began lasing with their rifles, efficiently covering the entire open area with grazing fire.
"We're wasting time!" Bha'laa's subaltern shouted over his shoulder as he fired. "We need to leave before the power completely..."
Bha'laa felt a whisper of wind against her cheek and the subaltern's sentence was choked off. Twisting to face him, she found only an empty space where he had been standing.
<Look up. >
Tremulously, the Strike Leader complied. In the dim light, she saw the subaltern's boots thrashing about in the empty air...his body dangling seemingly from nothing. As she watched, his kicks subsided to involuntary twitches...and then all movement stopped. After a few seconds, the body jerked roughly and tumbled back to the floor, a jagged stump where his head had once been. The head followed an instant later, bouncing and rolling across the floor.
<His end was easy. >
Bha'laa cursed and screamed as the subaltern's head rolled to a halt against her leg. One of the commandos muttered an epithet. Tossing his rifle aside, he bolted for the now-darkened and shadowy passageway across the chamber. He did not even make it halfway before an invisible presence jerked him off his feet and slammed him violently to the floor. Bha'laa could see no detail, but from the soldier's expression, he could. The commando could not even muster the strength to scream...at least not until he pulled his own dagger and began disemboweling himself. His hand held the blade, yet it seemed another was controlling it, and the trooper's death cries were horrible to hear.
<He cries not from the pain, > the unseen voice whispered in Bha'laa's head. <I allowed him a glimpse of me. You will get more...much more...>
"No..." Bha'laa breathed in disbelief. Beside herself with terror, she reached out to grab her two remaining soldiers...only to find one of them gone. Spinning, she caught sight of him just as he seemed to float over the edge of the crevice...tracing the path of the Anla'Shok she had earlier dispatched to the same fate.
<He will live long enough to realize what has happened to him...but not much longer than that...>
Bha'laa had experienced enough. Her mission, her position and her bearing forgotten, she clasped her one remaining companion's arm with strength only sheer panic can bring, small fearful sounds emanating from her throat. There was only one way out...the passage. Beside her, the last commando was having the same thought. Almost as one, they began sprinting for the exit.
They had barely gotten three steps when the Dilgar female felt the wind beside her again. She was jerked to the floor as her companion was torn from her grasp and flung with dazing force against the roughly hewn wall. Bha'laa started to scramble after him, but was caught around the ankles by an invisible set of hands and dragged backwards. Still clawing the floor, she looked at the immobile, whimpering soldier huddled against the wall as a weight settled gently atop her and pressed her flat, pinning her arms and legs. "What...what do you want from me?"
<That remains to be determined. Shall we see what you have to offer...together? >
Where there had been formlessness before, something was taking shape. Lying on her stomach she couldn't see it, but her paralyzed commando obviously could...his whimpering ceased as he stared at whatever was above her, totally slack-jawed and eyes wide with horror. She felt multiple limbs wrapping around her...long, thin and holding her pinned to the floor in a macabre hug. A human would have said she was pinned like a spider pins a fly. Bha'laa didn't have that frame of reference, but she screamed in sheer terror nonetheless.
Above her, the creature examined Bha'laa impassively for a moment before turning her attention to the trooper huddled against the wall. The crumpled Dilgar was barely breathing, unable to take his eyes off the scene before him. <Yes, look...> the Shadow hissed at the terrified soldier. <Look well and remember. Think about nothing but what you have seen...and what you have not. Think hard about the Dark places...and what lies in wait for the unwelcome that stumble into them. Remember all of this...and NEVER RETURN! FLEE! >
"Do not leave me here..." Bha'laa tearfully whimpered. "Please..."
The panicked commando needed no further encouragement. Leaping to his feet, he bolted for the passageway; heedless of the increasingly desperate entreaties of the helpless Dilgar woman he was leaving behind. He did not look back.
The Shadow's gaze followed the trooper out. When the echo of the fleeing Dilgar's stumbling footfalls faded in the distance, she looked down at the moaning and trembling woman beneath her. <You will not be leaving this place. There is no way out. You were a huntress...now you are prey. >
Where their bodies touched, Bha'laa could feel something moist and wormlike squirming against her spine, ripping through her body armor and her clothes. She tried to struggle as a sticky sensation made its way up her back, but her assailant held her easily. The last thing she felt was a pressure at the base of her neck before terror finally overcame her and consciousness fled.
"Transition to normal space in ten minutes," the Light Wanderer's navigator intoned for the benefit of the bridge crew as he passed the updated hyperspace beacon plot to the helmsman. Turning to face the impassive Minbari woman seated in the command chair, he continued, "The jumpgate is without power and appears to have been so for some time. Allowing for drift, I cannot guarantee that the beacon coordinates are completely accurate. We may have to travel some distance in normal space to reach our destination."
"I understand," Delenn replied. "Just get us as close as you can." Turning to Nashon, who stood immediately to her right, she quietly continued, "Have the crew occupy their stations, and bring our defenses to full readiness. Our arrival may be opposed."
"As you command," the Minbari replied. After repeating Delenn's instructions, he turned back to the waiting woman and said, "We updated the ship's registry database with Dilgar schematics from the archives of the humans, but those records are over forty cycles old. They may have developed new capabilities in the interim. Even if they have not, one of their capital ships will be more than a match for us."
"Perhaps in weaponry," the acting Alyt noted, raising her voice for the benefit of the other Rangers manning the bridge, "but not in maneuverability, speed...or dedication. Those advantages will be enough." Lowering her voice so only those close to her could hear, Delenn added, "If the Dilgar are still here as I expect, this will be the first real test of your crew in a combat situation, Shai. My husband made a career out of turning inferior tactical positions to his advantage, and I like to believe I learned something of his technique over the cycles. As long as our people remember their training and work as one, I am certain we can do the same if necessary. Remember, though, we are here to perform a rescue, not to fight. Any battle delays us...and whether we emerge victorious or not, an avoidable delay at this point serves only our adversaries."
To Delenn's left, a soft voice asked, "But...you do expect a fight?"
"Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, as your Va'maia would say," Delenn replied, glancing over her shoulder at the new arrival. "And...Ardenn, I would like to know why you are on the bridge. There is nothing you can do here, and I seem to recall asking you to wait in a life pod."
"There is nothing I can do there, either." Ardenn responded. "If the worst does happen, what would be my fate were I to eject? Become marooned on a planet where I would freeze to death, drift in space until my oxygen was exhausted or perhaps be taken prisoner by my beloved's tormentors? None of those alternatives sound feasible. I prefer taking my chances alongside you."
"You have many strengths, Ier'saia," Delenn muttered, "But obedience is not one of them. I asked you to go to a life pod as much for my own peace of mind as for your safety. I would order you now but I doubt you would heed me." Shaking her head in resignation, she decided to give in. "Very well, you may remain, but have no doubt that taking a chance is indeed what you are doing. If you will not listen to any of my other admonitions, at least humor me by finding a place where you can..."
"Normal space transition commencing!" the navigator called out, cutting the older woman off. Ahead of them, the vortex parted, its crimson swirls giving way to normal stars. Almost instantly, the ship lurched violently to one side, as if struck by a giant hammer. "...Secure yourself!" Delenn finished through clenched teeth, clasping her armrests to hold herself in her seat.
The warning was too late. Beside her, Ardenn's crimson and white robes billowed unceremoniously and pooled around her waist as the unprepared young woman was first lifted off her feet by the sudden impact and then thrown backwards to land spread eagle on the deck. Ignoring her dazed companion for the moment, Delenn shouted, "Nashon! What has happened?"
"A moment!" With effort, David's second struggled to the navigation station, scanning over the navigator's shoulder as the ship continued to rock violently. After a few seconds, he turned away from the display and announced, "The beacon has indeed drifted, Delenn...only not further away as we speculated! We have overshot the gate location and emerged closer to the planet than we intended! We are in some sort of asteroid field!"
"Not asteroids, Shai...wreckage!" Delenn corrected as she struggled to maintain her seat. Reflecting that her perch would be far easier to maintain if the chair were not adjusted to her son's height, a setting that left her feet dangling like a child's, she clumsily gestured at the viewport. Outside, an obviously artificial chunk of debris slid by. The remnant seemed to drift slowly, its speed only becoming apparent as it closed. "Helm, evasive maneuvers! Switch to tactical scans until we clear this area!"
With barely a nod, the helmsman complied. In front of her, a hologram depicting their immediate area formed and hundreds, if not thousands of obstacles appeared in their path. Recognizing that there was no way she could manually pilot the ship through the dense debris field, the Ranger turned control of the vessel over to the computer. The computer plotted the most efficient course and took helm control while the well trained but slower Ranger reoriented herself. Immediately, the ship's shaking and shuddering subsided, giving everyone aboard a moment to catch their breath.
"Damage?" Delenn asked once she felt it was safe.
Scanning the instruments, her son's second replied, "Minimal. We suffered only physical impacts. It felt worse than it was. Autorepair is engaged and we are still at full capability."
"Good. Find us a relatively open area within this field, bring us to a full stop and engage stealth measures," the Minbari woman directed. "Once that is accomplished, commence surveying the planet's surface and continue the tactical scans. I want to know the moment any active contacts appear." Without taking her eyes off the forward viewport, now filled with drifting flotsam and the large brownish-white disk of Khon'dar, she lowered a hand and helped Ardenn struggle up to a sitting position. "We made an ignoble entry, but we have arrived. Are you all right, Sister?"
"I...I think so," Ardenn stammered, shaking her head to clear it.
"Good. There is a human saying...knocked right out of one's socks. I think you have just experienced it."
"Pardon?" Amusedly, the older woman looked down at her companion for a long second. In response, Ardenn looked at herself. "Oh..." she breathed, realizing what Delenn meant. Blushing, she futilely tried to untangle herself from the disheveled bundle of fabric her robes had become and cover her exposed legs and midriff. "I, ah...it appears I have made an ignoble entry as well," she muttered as she tugged at the hems. "I do not think David will appreciate my providing his crew with an eyeful of my undergarments."
"I will not tell if you do not...but put the matter in its proper perspective," Delenn quipped with a chuckle, "Were he seated here instead of me, would you have been wearing undergarments at all?" Ardenn's eyes widened, tacitly acknowledging the validity of the observation and the older woman continued, "Now you know why I do not wear everyday robes when traveling on White Stars. Maneuvers can be abrupt, and it only took me a few instances of finding myself with my skirts around my neck to learn my lesson...although in retrospect I doubt John minded the distraction. As for you, I think the crew was probably too preoccupied to notice...but if any did, it was only to acknowledge their Alyt's good fortune in capturing the heart of one so well-formed."
"I suppose it is too late to find a tailor?" the Sister rhetorically murmured, indicating Delenn's coverall as she struggled to her feet. Working to refasten the hasps holding her inner robe together, she continued, "Now...what happened? Why have we stopped? I thought you said any delay served our adversaries?"
"Any avoidable delay serves our adversaries," the older woman corrected. "This delay, unfortunately, is unavoidable. We are in the middle of an uncharted debris field. Apparently, a battle occurred here...a recent one."
"One involving Entil'zha John and David?"
"Probably," Delenn responded, suddenly somber. "John has a talent for creating chaos among his enemies, one your future husband has inherited. This looks much like their handiwork." Pointing out various objects drifting by the viewport, she continued, "Some of these remnants are of Minbari design, some are human and...some I do not recognize at all. Those are likely Dilgar. Susan told me they ambushed the Wind Sword ship here and the human devices were no doubt left over from our earlier war. However it came to be, this is as good a place to stop as any. The wreckage provides additional camouflage while we seek signs of habitation below."
"We are seeking signs of habitation? But you have been here before. Can we not proceed directly to the colony?"
"Patience, Ardenn," Delenn sighed, "I know you are anxious to be reunited with David and I feel the same way, but think for a moment. There is no surface beacon to guide us, and without at least a preliminary survey I have no more idea about where to land than you do." Resting her hand on Ardenn's, she continued, "I was last here nearly thirty cycles ago and I traveled as a passenger on board a warcruiser. I was not involved in locating our destination. I have visited many worlds in the interim and to my eye one seen through a viewport looks much like another. Under normal circumstances, I would have the crew perform a high-speed orbit of the planet and do a global scan...as there is only one colony, it would be easily located...but these are not normal circumstances. Such a maneuver now would undoubtedly lead to detection and engagement."
"Respectfully, Revered Sister...forgive me for interrupting, but saying we are 'cloaked' is inaccurate," Nashon noted without looking away from the instrument he was manning. With a trace of amusement, he continued, "It is a term coined in a human fantasy vid centuries ago that has unfortunately found its way into our language." Straightening, he turned to the two women. "Until recently, humans and most of the less advanced races used fusion power, a process that radiates a trail of free electrons and protons as a byproduct. Those emissions can easily be traced to their source. When they first encountered us, they could not detect our gravitic powered ships...there were no emissions for their sensors to follow. Because human understanding of gravitics was only theoretical at that point, their military incorrectly assumed we had some special device that jammed their detection equipment, a device they named a 'cloak'. In reality, we had no such technology, and they wasted many resources and much time during the war attempting to counter something that did not exist. When Alyt Delenn ordered stealth measures, she was instructing that we shut down any non-gravitic systems so we would be hidden from ships using fusion-keyed sensors."
"But we can still be detected," Delenn added. "While space is vast and we are small, we remain physically visible. We can be seen through simple electro-optical sensors if they chance upon us. Additionally, gravity's characteristics are a universal constant. In nature, it always attracts in a predictable way. When we move under gravitic power, we artificially manipulate that attraction, using gravity to pull us to destinations that run counter to the natural constant. This creates an anomaly around the ship...a small disturbance in the local gravity field somewhat analogous to a dimple on smooth glass. A properly equipped adversary can use that dimple to target..."
"We have something," a crewmember announced from the sensor station. "Shai, I need you to confirm this."
Excusing himself with a slight bow, Nashon motioned the Ranger away, taking his place and examining the data scrolling across the screen. Delenn and Ardenn, conversation forgotten, watched as his expression grew more pensive. Glancing up at the waiting crewman, he finally nodded. "I concur with your assessment."
"You have found the colony?" the older woman finally ventured.
Straightening, the Ranger faced the two. "That is...not precisely correct. We seem to have found...ah, we have detected the remnants of a major event on the surface."
"What sort of...event?" Delenn asked in a low voice, her trepidation growing.
"A nuclear event. The computer is still performing its analysis, but preliminary indications are that a high yield atomic device was recently detonated on Khon'dar...at most, within the past day. We are detecting debris, excessive dust in the upper atmosphere and residual radiation commensurate with a surface detonation of several hundred megatons." A crystal on the control board winked and the Minbari Ranger glanced down at the screen, assimilating the new data. When he looked back up, his features were pained. "The computer confirms, although the readings are unusual. The radiation signature is that of a human device, an industrial one normally used by Earthforce ships to clear asteroids from space lanes. This colony would have no need of them...they are not designed for surface use and this system has few asteroids. There are no Earthforce ships in the vicinity and our adversaries likely did not emplace it, so its presence is a mystery."
"Not a mystery, Nashon," Delenn corrected neutrally. "John no doubt brought it with him when he journeyed here after the war. Show me." Nashon touched a crystal and the tactical hologram disappeared, replaced by a schematic of the planet below. The brown band of Khon'dar's equator looked normal enough at first glance, but on closer inspection a mottled, dirty cloud...a still expanding ugly blemish...marred the surface. The edges had expanded to cover some of the icebound regions as well, making the contrast even more distinct.
Delenn's heart froze, her eyes fixated on the scene. She barely felt Ardenn's grip tighten around her fingers, not even needing to look at her companion to tell what she was...what they both were thinking. "I do not care about stealth anymore, Shai," she woodenly murmured. "Plot the most direct course to the surface."
The Ranger looked down at the floor. "Respectfully, if that was the colony location, there will be little left to see. I fear Entil'zha and our Alyt may have sacrificed themselves."
"You are wrong. They are alive," the Minbari breathed, willing herself to believe it. Imagining her son and husband dead...crushing the rebirth of happiness they had only so recently experienced...no, she refused to consider it. Glancing up at her companion, she saw that Ardenn's expression had gone completely slack with shock, her eyes vacant. The young Minbari was already building her barriers, preparing to retreat into the grieving process. Delenn knew that place. Once there, the return journey was a hard and painful one. Rising quickly, she grabbed the limp woman by her shoulders and shook her lightly to get her attention. "They are alive, Ier'saia!" she hissed into her ear. "Remember the records I showed you? The darkness you sensed David was in? The mines...Susan told me John and David were trying to get to the mines! If they succeeded in reaching them, they might be safe there! I told you that if anything happened, you...would...know! You and I both would know! You have to believe!"
"I cannot...help it," the glassy-eyed woman stammered. "I have been through so much to reach this point. I am trying not to...to lose hope, but it is becoming so...dark. Please, go to the colony and find them. Find them now."
"Revered Sister, that would be of no benefit," Nashon began. "The colony no longer exists. It would be better if we..."
"No! Do not tell me it is better to go home!" Ardenn hissed, jerking out of Delenn's hands and whirling on the Shai. "David would never leave one of you here, alive or dead! And you will not abandon him! I will not allow it! Take me down there! You can watch while I dig through the rock with my bare hands if that is your pleasure, but I will have either my beloved or his remains...and if I must stay in this place to make that a reality, I will!" Glaring at the Ranger for a long second, the sob she was holding in burst forth. She spun on her heel and faced her former mentor, tears starting down her cheeks. "I believe, Va'saia," she shakily declared, "for as long as you believe. After that..." Leaving the statement unfinished, she dashed from the bridge in a flutter of robes.
"I was not advocating departure..." Nashon softly called after her, but she did not hear. With a sigh, he shook his head resignedly and turned back to the silent Delenn. "I would never leave David or Entil'zha behind. If she had let me finish, I was going to tell her that it would be better if we did not spend time looking in the colony site. Forgive me for being blunt, but if Entil'zha and David were there they are certainly dead. Instead we should narrow our search to those places in the vicinity where they might have survived, such as the mine you mentioned. We have time for no more than that. Once we commit, the enemy will begin tracking us...in truth, they undoubtedly noticed our arrival and are only waiting for us to move so they can ascertain our precise location. When we reach the surface and begin searching, it will be just like Fulmer's Colony...this ship will be a nearly stationary target. I am willing to assume the risk, but we cannot stay long and if we are unsuccessful I cannot leave anyone behind...even if it means defying a Revered Sister's wishes."
"I concur...and I will explain matters to Sister Ardenn when she calms," Delenn assured him, pasting on a mask of calm efficiency to cover her own misgivings. It was a skill she was practiced at...perhaps too practiced. "Do not think badly of her, Nashon. She is new to her office and does not yet recognize that her words are considered directives rather than requests. Her outburst was that of a desperate Sala, not a command. Please forgive her for misunderstanding you." Taking her seat once more, she continued, 'Now, it would seem that we have our task before us and, as I will not permit a Sister of Valeria to dig through rubble with her bare hands, it behooves us to find her missing Ranger...and mine...quickly. Is the atmosphere around the blast area navigable?"
"The shockwave dissipated some time ago, but there will be residual weather effects. Handling the ship under such conditions should not present too much difficulty, but the blast area is ringed with peaks and plateaus. Locating the proper place to begin is our most immediate concern."
Tapping her lips thoughtfully with a forefinger, Delenn briefly considered the problem. John's logs would be of no use...they were his personal records and, although highly descriptive regarding the events in the mine, they contained little technical or navigational data. "The mine ingress was in a mountainside...I recall that much," she ventured. "Remnants of the colony dome were visible, but that frame of reference is no longer available. I shall have to trust my intuition, it seems."
"A human approach," Nashon noted. "Intuition has served David well on occasion."
"Humans are not without gifts in certain areas," the temporary Alyt agreed. "Intuition suffices when logic fails. Let us see..." Taking her seat, the Minbari woman's brow furrowed as she pondered what their next course of action should be. "Nashon," she murmured, alighting on an idea, "Human business enterprises are always concerned about profit and loss, and mining is a business first and foremost. It stands to reason that the mine's owners would want their ore source as close to their processing and transportation hub as possible to reduce costs. Assuming the colony center was the origination point of the explosion, we should select the mountains closest to the epicenter. We will begin our search there."
Grunting painfully, David leaned against the rock wall near the abyss entrance as he tried to get his breathing under control. The climb from the ledge below had been excruciating, and the pain wasn't just from his broken rib or the beating he had taken. The cloying, syrupy sensation in his lungs...it was almost like a living thing inside him, simultaneously fatiguing him and making it difficult to breathe. Except for his injuries, he was in top shape...normally he could climb any distance and run for kilometers, but he was already weakening. Barely able to see the Shadow in the dim light of the chamber, he gasped, "I only see...two bodies here and a third said...hello as he passed by. You let...two of them go?"
There was a pause before the response came. <One went free. One must always go free. It is our way. >
"What do you mean 'your way'?" David asked, furrowing his eyebrows suspiciously. The Shadow's voice had subtly changed, as if the creature was preoccupied...pleasurably preoccupied. And there were other sounds, sounds that defied immediate identification. "I don't get it," he continued, his skin starting to crawl as he heard what he thought was a frightened moan coming from the creature's direction. "If any reach the surface, they'll bring others down here. We'll be right back where we started."
Another pause. David was sure he heard a muffled cry and labored breathing. He hadn't noticed the Shadow breathing before. <You do not understand Terror, human, > the creature eventually answered, a contented tremor in her voice. <We are the masters of it. If all are killed, you have dispensed with your enemies but there is no terror...only a mystery. Terror is much like disease. It needs a carrier to spread...someone to tell others. The one I freed knows only enough to be afraid. If he finds his way out, he will tell his people the little he has seen. Some will not believe, but some will...and they will tell others in turn. With each recounting, the story expands and becomes more ominous. > The husky voice dropped an octave, and David could almost detect a purr in it. < Even now there are stories, legends on your kind's homeworld that speak of monsters...undead creatures that prey on humans in the night...that started as much less. Those legends still terrify even though you have intellectually stopped believing them. No other primitives will dare disturb this place now...>
"Yeah? Well, I'd like to get out of here as well." Sidling away from the mouth of the abyss and trying to stay as far away from his companion as possible, David stumbled across his denn'bok and fell to the floor. Retrieving the weapon, he used it to lever himself to his feet before staggering towards the exit passage. The Shadow was up to something, and the young Ranger was sure he didn't want to know what it was. "I'll just let you go about your...uh...whatever you do down here. Thanks for the help."
<We are not that easily separated, David, > the Shadow breathed. <I have done as you wanted. Your adversaries are vanquished and your people are safe from the pollutant...but there is still your part of our agreement to fulfill. >
"I agreed to arrange a meeting with my father for you," the Anla'Shok retorted, "and I will. I can't promise you how he'll react and if you think I'll let you hurt him...well, once I've done what you want, I'll be done like you said. After that all bets are off, and I'll never let you get close to Ardenn. Never."
<The prospect worries you? > the creature hissed, eliciting a sharp, short gasp from another presence. <Good. Your protectiveness of her pleases me and, although it is wasted on a Thrall, it gives me greater assurance that I will not be betrayed. You will wait until I complete this task and then I will accompany you. The way is long and exertion speeds your weakening. I would not want you to expire before I receive payment. >
"I was afraid you were going to say that," David muttered under his breath, now absolutely certain he didn't want to know what the Shadow was doing, but morbidly curious nonetheless. The battle between his judgment and his curiosity reminded him of a comedy he had seen as a child...a cartoon. One of the characters was told that he could push any button on board his spaceship, all but one...a large, red button labeled 'Universal Destruct'. The character, a comical anthropomorphic animal naturally, spent the whole journey resisting the urge to push the red button only to lose out to his curiosity in the end, destroying the universe in the process.
<Don't push the red button...don't push the red button...> David thought. Another cry...a low hungry moan of either pleasure or pain that definitely wasn't originating from his companion...came from the Shadow's location. Mentally cursing himself, the young Ranger punched the red button and began limping back the way he had come. "What in the hell are you doing over there?"
<Come and see. >
All David could see as he approached was that the creature was squatting, her spindly legs curled tightly around an object beneath her. What appeared to be torn clothing and military accoutrements lay haphazardly scattered about, looking as if they had been forcibly flayed off of whoever had worn them before. Moving closer, he nearly stopped breathing when he discerned first one, then two legs poking out from underneath the Shadow's darkly mottled carapace. The pose looked almost...sexual, the legs facing the floor as if the creature had taken a lover from behind. Other than a gentle fluttering sound coming from gill-like folds on the shell, his companion was silent. As he watched, the creature rocked slightly...eliciting a shuddering wail from beneath her...and the young Ranger nearly jumped out of his skin when a foot began twitching. Fighting down the bile rising in his throat, he whispered, "In Valen's Name...tell me you're not..."
<She accepted the offer you declined, although the parameters I provided her were somewhat...different, > the Shadow rasped, obviously enjoying her task. <You need to observe, because you will have a decision to make shortly. >
"Watch a Shadow engaged in a rape? I don't think so." David barked, backing away. He wanted more than ever to get away now, but he couldn't see a way to escape. The creature would easily catch up to him once her violation was complete.
<You did not specify how your adversaries were to be neutralized. Like others among the Younger Races before you, you failed to phrase your request carefully...and you misunderstand once more. > In his head, the Shadow's voice hardened, and she added, <But you need to learn. Come see. >
It wasn't a request this time. Trepiditiously, David stepped around from behind the creature. The Shadow was nearly immobile, her eyes flickering dimly. She appeared to be almost at rest, only an occasional tightening or relaxation of her legs in response to the movements of the figure beneath her indicating she was active at all. Forcing himself, the young Anla'Shok looked down and gagged. The Shadow's insect like abdomen was fused to her victim's bared back, a glistening, brownish appendage emerging from a crevice and embedded along the length of the Dilgar's spine. The... probe...was slowly pulsing and thinner tendrils radiated out from it, tracing paths around her waist, her shoulders, the base of her skull and up into her hair...some even finding their way into her ears, mouth and nose.
As his stomach's heaving subsided, the Dilgar woman tensed and moaned, turning her head to look straight at him. <This is not a rape, > the Shadow explained. <I am not linked to her in the way you envision. Still, like rape, violence is the catalyst of this encounter. She is unwilling...but I offered her no alternatives and her resistance is weakening. Do you recognize her? >
"Yes," David breathed, horrified. "Her name is Bha'laa. She's the leader." It was almost as if he were rooted in place, his eyes transfixed on the trapped woman. The Dilgar's eyes were wide and vacant. Her mouth was moving, alternating between panting groans and bared teeth as her expression transitioned between animal passion and extreme pain. As he watched, she gagged and a thin line of spittle began at the corner of her mouth, trailing down to pool on the stone floor even as her hips ground against the creature's legs in a manner that clearly indicated a weird kind of arousal. Whatever it was, it wasn't anything David could empathize with. "What are you doing to her?" he whispered.
<She is bound in an illusion...one a creature accustomed to dominating others would normally find horrifying. She seems to have unusual hungers, though...even for one of her kind. >
Bha'laa moaned through clenched teeth and tried to raise her buttocks off the floor, only to have an unseen hand force it back down. "No...you're raping her, all right," David spat, totally at a loss about how to stop what he was seeing. "My definition's pretty broad."
Although he could not hear it, David sensed laughter. <Actually, Anla'Shok...you are the one she sees. I am merely providing the imagery...along with a few enhancements. Surprisingly, a part of her finds this illusion pleasurable. Your fighting skills must have impressed her. >
"You're using...me...to make her react like that?" Briefly considering what his image was likely doing, David almost retched again.
<It seemed a just choice given her treatment of you. I hope you are not offended. >
Swallowing hard, he asked, "Is this what you did to me when you appeared as Ardenn?"
<Our joining was gentler, less...invasive, > the creature answered. < Entering your mind was not as traumatic as what you see here. You carried a part of us before...one of our minor servants...thus all that was required between us was a single connection. > Unconsciously, David fingered his neck, remembering his keeper, and his companion continued, < My merge with this primitive serves a different purpose than the one you experienced. I told you that your race has legends of monsters that prey on the unwary. Like many legends, those have basis in fact. > Beneath her, the Dilgar woman writhed on her belly, keening and panting as the Shadow tightened her legs to maintain the contact. <Ah...better. She has surrendered to the illusion. Her energies are flowing forth. >
David involuntarily took a step back, understanding dawning. "You're draining her...feeding off of her," he stammered.
<That is not how she experiences it, but it is the desired end state. I have not renewed myself in a long time. >
"You're going to kill her."
<That is the decision I require of you, > the Shadow answered, <And it is time you made it. > Beneath her, the Dilgar she clutched tensed. Rising up on her forearms, Bha'laa threw her head back and howled inarticulately at the chamber's ceiling. Even after the wail subsided, she held that position...her back arched, body taut and motionless, tear tracks trailing from the corners of her eyes as she submitted to treatment only she and the Shadow could see. <As the Immortal Ones strengthened others by imbuing them with their life essence, we strengthen ourselves by drawing it away. She has given as much of herself as she is consciously able, and I now hold her at a threshold beyond which her essence will not renew. If you desire, I can increase the intensity of her experience and finish her...or I can release her. If I do so, she will recover. >
Small, choking sounds began emanating from the Dilgar female's throat, causing David to shudder in revulsion. "Why are you asking me?"
<Consider it a test...but I caution you against pity. I explored her thoroughly and, were she in your place, she would choose your demise without hesitation. Her species serves neither the Darkness nor the Light, only themselves. They have no higher purpose, and hold all others in contempt. > The creature paused, seeming to try to divine what the Anla'Shok was thinking before continuing, <Had she not been rushed, your fate would have been far worse than falling into an abyss, David. Her pleasures have pain and violence both to others and herself at their core, and you would have served her as a plaything until she bored. In the end, death still would have come...and you would have welcomed it. >
David mulled over the Shadow's words for a long moment. The Dilgar had tried to kill him without a second thought. They were the enemy...and this one was their leader. If he spared her, she might return to make more trouble but he wasn't an executioner. The Anla'Shok killed, but not in cold blood. "We have to be better than our enemies," he murmured. "Release her. Let her live."
For a moment, the Ranger thought his companion would disregard his decision. <Mercy...> the Shadow noted, a trace of disappointment in her voice. <An unfortunate blemish in an otherwise strong race. Humans still have far to go before they attain Adulthood...yet I gave you the choice. I will honor it. > As if a string had been cut, Bha'laa suddenly flopped to the floor. Canting her head, the Shadow gazed down at the exhausted Dilgar and David could see the tendrils disengaging and slowly drawing away. After a moment, all but the main probe running from the base of Bha'laa's spine to her skull disappeared. The slimy main appendage then lifted from her back and, with a snap, broke away to vanish inside the creature's shell, leaving its squirming tip embedded at the nape of her neck just below the hairline. To the Ranger's astonishment, the tip burrowed its way deeper into the woman, stopping only when the very end remained visible.
"What is that?" David exclaimed. "What in Valen's name did you do?"
<I said I would release her. I did not say she was free. > Uncurling her legs, the Shadow rose and pivoted away. <I could have rewarded you just as easily. Be thankful I did not. >
The young Ranger was about to ask more questions when a groan caused him to hesitate. At his feet, a groggy Bha'laa shook her head and attempted to rise. David started to help her, and then remembered who she was. Stepping away from her instead, he watched warily as the Dilgar female rolled over on her back and sat up, crossing her legs and burying her head in her hands as if awaking from a hard night. Glancing up, she saw David...and the creature standing behind him.
David could see the memories flooding back into her. Her features twisted into an ugly expression of sheer terror and she squealed. Scrambling to her knees she grabbed her tattered clothing and, holding it to her chest, struggled awkwardly to her feet. Neither David nor the Shadow made a move as she backed towards the chamber egress, turning to run only when she reached it. As she disappeared around the bend, David murmured, "I hope I don't regret my decision. She might get back to her people."
<She will not go far. She is now bound to me...a possession rather than a possessor. Beyond that, her disposition is no longer your concern. >
David turned to make a comment...only to find his companion had disappeared. <You may go, > he heard the voice echo in his head, <There is transportation nearby that will return you to the upper levels within a few hours...but do not think that because you do not see me, I am not present. Until our agreement is fulfilled and I meet with the Nexus, I will be... shadowing... you. >
"I have one...no, two...ships trying to angle in on us!" the Light Wanderer's targeting officer shouted from his station. "Main guns are powering up and they're launching fighters!"
"They do not appear to be well organized," Delenn muttered, eyeing the disposition of the ships on the tactical hologram critically. "Their egress from hyperspace was too far out to surprise us."
"The enemy ships were likely themselves taken by surprise when the detonation occurred," Nashon noted, alternating between the targeting and navigation stations. "They withdrew into hyperspace to assess the situation, and probably had to reverse course when we appeared. As the humans would say, we have the bounce on them."
"The jump on them," Delenn corrected. "Are we in their range?"
"I do not believe so." Pausing at the navigation station, Nashon scanned the readouts and did a quick mental calculation. "If we do not deviate, I think we can reach the surface before the enemy closes. Helm, maintain course and speed."
Delenn started to concur, and then hesitated. To the targeting officer, she asked, "Are the enemy ships close enough to one another to mutually support?"
"Negative. Each is out of the range of the other's main batteries."
"Good," the Alyt declared. "Nashon, I am countermanding both your order and my own advice. Alter course toward the nearest adversary warship and engage it as we come into range. Ignore the fighters...we will be by them before they can react. I desire two oblique passes...one as we approach and one as we reverse course."
Nashon did not understand, but passed the change nonetheless. As the helmsman keyed in the new coordinates, the navigator announced, "two minutes to weapons range," as the Shai stepped back to the waiting woman. "Delenn," he whispered, "I admire your courage and none has greater respect for your abilities, but no matter how skillfully captained, we are not strong enough to destroy a Dilgar ship of the line on our own. They will strike back and the Light Wanderer's organic armor is not trained to repel their weaponry." With a hint of discomfort, he added, "I can sense that the situation on the ground has upset you more than you are revealing, but you said it yourself - we do not have time for this. We need to evade."
"I am not a Warrior, Shai," Delenn replied just as quietly. "I have never purported to be one...but I am married to one and I know what I am doing." Gesturing at the enemy ship steadily growing in the viewport, she continued, "John once told me that a wounded adversary is worth his weight in gold...much more so than one who is killed. When you kill an enemy, he is simply dead...and the dead attend to themselves. Enemy wounded, conversely, require other enemy to attend to them and in that manner two or three combatants are removed from the battle rather than just one." Her expression becoming more determined as they closed on the Dilgar, she concluded, "I do not want the ship before us destroyed. I know we are incapable of that. I want it sufficiently damaged to require the assistance of its companion."
Nashon nodded, seeing where the Blessed Delenn was leading. With both ships involved in damage control, neither would be bombarding them from orbit while they searched the surface. Rather than replying, he looked over Delenn's shoulder at the weapons and targeting officers. "Do we know the locations of a Penetrator's sensor array, engineering sections and life support?"
The targeteer pulled up the schematics and nodded, "We can target the sensor array and some of the engineering sections. Life support and their primary drives are too deeply buried in the superstructure. I recommend the long range communications pod as an alternative."
"Very well...do so," Nashon directed.
"You did not target weapons," Delenn observed when the Shai turned back to her. "Is that wise? When John wanted to disable the Earth fleet, he specified them."
"Entil'zha was intimately familiar with the weak points on Earth vessels," Nashon explained, "and he had equally competent Earthforce personnel advising him. In that case, they were able to determine the exact attack points necessary to disable those systems in advance. In this case, we do not have that depth of knowledge. Weapons ports are hardened on any warship, and unless we know exactly how they are protected they are difficult to destroy. Sensor arrays, conversely, are almost always exposed, delicate and easy to find...and without sensors, their targeting is severely degraded anyway."
"I see. It appears we have learned something from each other," Delenn noted, gazing past the Shai to see out the forward viewport. The Dilgar vessel was close enough to make out rough details. It was evident that the approach of the attacking White Star had not been what the enemy ship's captain was expecting. She could see the much larger vessel attempting to alter course so their close-in weaponry could be brought to bear.
"Ten seconds," the targeting officer intoned. Almost concurrently, beams of light began lancing from the target ship's guns, buffeting the White Star with ionized gases but otherwise passing behind them harmlessly. The enemy ship, caught flat-footed, could not tack fast enough to face them. The Light Wanderer would be past the Penetrator before they could get a firing solution.
This was what Delenn had hoped for. "Shai, this is the full systems check I promised you. Stand by."
The Penetrator, growing ever so slowly in the viewport before, suddenly ballooned as its path and that of the attacking White Star converged. "Helm, maintain course, pivot ninety degrees to port, down angle thirty!" she shouted. "Bring all weapons to bear on targeted systems and fire! One hundred percent power!"
Now following their original course but facing perpendicular to it, fiery bursts of pure energy lanced from the Light Wanderer's nose cannon and wing mounts, raking across the side of the Dilgar warship as they passed. Gouts of flame and secondary explosions rocked the far more massive warcraft as her crew unsuccessfully strove to respond to the Ranger ship's flyby with their close-in defensive cannons. In an eyeblink, the White star was past the Penetrator, screaming away from the ship's now exposed stern at maximum velocity.
"That pass eliminated their communications array!" Delenn's communications officer shouted. "They've gone dead on all frequencies!"
"Invert and reverse course!" Delenn commanded. "Concentrate all fires on their engines!"
Rather than banking and approaching the ship in a wide arc, the White Star twisted along its center of gravity, came to a near-instantaneous stop and launched itself back the way it had come...now upside down in relation to the vessel it attacked. As she closed on the Penetrator's stern, every weapon was discharging into the Dilgar's aft sections, punching through the relatively delicate subsystems servicing the warship's gravitic drive. As she watched, Delenn knew her ship did not have the penetration capability to permanently disable the enemy's engines...all the critical systems being deeply buried in the hull...but they could take them off-line for a time, and that was all she wanted.
Again, they seemed to approach the vessel slowly...an illusion of distance, not speed. Her aft was on fire, and although the damage appeared more substantial than it actually was, Delenn allowed herself a moment of self-indulgent satisfaction. <You attacked my world, > she reflected. <You came skulking out of the night and disrupted my life. You have harmed people I love...and that I cannot forgive. > "Helm, revert to standard plane orientation and pivot ninety degrees to starboard, up angle fifteen. Take down their sensor array!"
The Penetrator shot towards them once more. The Light Wanderer flipped on its axis and pivoted to face its enemy for a stern to bow flyby, again raking the superstructure of the enemy ship as they passed. Atop the vessel, a large domelike protrusion erupted in a blaze of light.
"She's starting to heel over!" one of the Rangers shouted triumphantly. "She's showing us her belly...trying to protect her damaged areas!"
"That is not it!" Nashon shouted, pointing out the viewport. From the lower tines of the Penetrator, missiles were streaking out, aimed not directly at the White Star but ahead of it. As they reached points near the Light Wanderer's trajectory, they exploded, scattering thousands of bright sparkles. "They are deploying sandcaster canisters!"
"Evade!" Delenn shouted.
Before the word had even cleared her throat, a steady thrumming began to echo through the bridge. Outside the ship, millions of tiny tungsten pellets had been emplaced ahead of them...and at the Light Wanderer's speed they could not be avoided. At first sounding like a gentle rain, it quickly gained in intensity until individual impacts could no longer be discerned. "It is too late!" Nashon yelled, "We will have to ride it out and hope the hull can withstand it!"
Delenn gritted her teeth at the grating sound and prayed. Most of the impacts would be along the underside of her ship's port wing...highly damaging, but as that section was unmanned perhaps no lives would be lost. She did not want to find her son only to tell him that members of his crew...his friends...had died while under his mother's dubious command. She had so many other things she needed to talk to him about, so many things to answer for...so many cycles of unnecessary silence on her part. If she found her son and her beloved husband, she promised whatever higher beings happened to be listening, she would reveal all. There would be no more secrets between them, for good or ill.
John would understand. He already knew far more about her than she had previously suspected...and the only thing that surprised her about that was that she was not really surprised. In retrospect she should have realized a long time ago that he was too inquisitive to have married her blindly. John had done his research before deciding he loved her enough to overlook the shameful events in her past. But David...there had never been a reason for him to delve too deeply, and she had never been very forthcoming on those infrequent occasions when his curiosity was aroused.
She prayed for his life...and also that he would not walk away hating her when the truth came out.
After a moment, the peppering began to subside. "I think we are clearing the obstacles," Nashon murmured, snapping the Minbari woman out of her troubled musing. His head swiveling around the bridge, he began calling out for status reports. After a moment, he nodded and said, "We have been fortunate. There are no losses among the crew. Our port wing is badly mangled, but still capable of atmospheric operation on a limited scale. The weapons pod affixed to it is inoperable...if it is even still there at all. There are several hull breaches below decks that are sealing themselves...and it appears your tactic was successful. The other Penetrator has changed course and is now moving to render assistance to the craft we just engaged."
"Very well," Delenn responded. "That maneuver may have secured us a few uninterrupted hours. They will still be here when we depart...but we will address that problem in its own time. Resume our original course." As the Shai repeated the order, another thought occurred to her. "Nashon? Where below decks?"
"The hull breaches," Delenn indicated, her voice suddenly uncertain. "Where were they? Did anyone report that Ardenn was in his or her location? Was she accounted for as well?"
"I...I did not consider her, Delenn. We will search the ship immediately."
"You do not need to," Ardenn murmured from behind her, drawing an obvious sigh of relief from the older woman. "I was just outside the bridge when the engagement began." Stepping around from behind her former mentor, she remorsefully faced her beloved's second and continued, "I was returning to...to apologize to Shai Nashon for my rash words. When I saw what was occurring, I thought it best to stay out of the way."
Nashon bowed. "They are already forgotten, Su'sala A'schlect. I am pleased you are safe."
"None of us are safe," Delenn gently corrected. "Our most difficult task still lies ahead." Raising her voice slightly, she asked, "What is our time to the surface?"
"Assuming no further interference...fifteen minutes to atmospheric entry, another ten to the blast area," the navigator answered.
"And an indeterminate amount of time to locate the proper landing site," Delenn sighed.
"Maybe not," the sensor officer announced from his station. Keying a new image of the detonation area onto the forward display, the human Ranger twisted a crystal on his control board, narrowing the viewing area. Once he achieved the proper magnification, he said, "I may have found a clue. See the row of dots below?"
The Minbari woman peered closely. She could make out little detail, but what she saw looked like black specks tucked neatly into a small, secluded valley. Whatever they were, the bulk of a large mountain had protected them from the worst effects of the explosion. "What are you showing me?"
"I was a GROPO before I was called to serve in the Rangers," the human replied, "And unless I miss my guess, that's an assembly area for GROPO drop ships. You can't tell it at this magnification, but they've been there for a while. Earthforce retired that lander class over twenty years ago and there's no reason for them to be there now."
"Yes there is," Delenn breathed, a rare smile lighting her delicate features. "Anla'Shok, were I not a married woman I would kiss you. That is what we are looking for." Looking back to her Shai, she said, "Nashon, take us there."
Nashon merely nodded, the helmsman already complying with the Alyt's wishes. When Delenn had his attention once more, she continued, "The mine I mentioned, Shai...when we find it, only Minbari should comprise the rescue team. It contains a poison deadly to humans. How many of our people are available?"
The Minbari arched his brow slightly at the new revelation, but chose not to remark on it. "We are evenly balanced. Eighteen."
"Nineteen," a quiet voice interrupted.
Delenn pretended not to hear her young companion, sensing that another unavoidable battle was coming. "Eighteen," she repeated, considering the magnitude of the task. "The mine is vast, but I do not want to risk our human Rangers. We will have much ground to cover if we do not find John and David quickly, but it cannot be helped. Summon the senior human crewmember to the bridge. He or she will assume temporary command. Have the Minbari crewmembers meet us at the armory. It is very cold on the surface...we will need to draw thermal suits in addition to weapons."
"Delenn..." Ardenn began.
"Do not even ask, Ardenn," the acting Alyt stated, cutting the young Sister off. "You are remaining on the ship." As the young woman started to protest, Delenn continued, "Listen to me...if Dilgar warriors made it into the mine, they are likely still alive and capable of fighting. They will not be able to tell the difference between an armed Anla'Shok and a noncombatant...and they probably would not care if they could. The Rangers are trained for this sort of activity, and walking in dark places is an element of their oath. Your being there, well-intentioned though it may be, would be a distraction for them."
"But...but they do not need to protect me! I can help you!" the Sister heatedly declared. "I need to be there! I am responsible for myself! I can decide what risks I am willing to take!"
"Not in this matter," Delenn responded. "In this, I have the final say, and I say you are staying on board. This is not a request...you have no other option." Her young companion hung her head and Delenn softened somewhat. Reaching out, she lifted Ardenn's chin with a finger and smiled wanly. "Over the course of my life, I have said many times that no person is indispensable," she murmured. "But that is only partially true. You are indispensable...to me, to David, to John and Susan. You are not a petitioner trying to gain entrance into my family...you are family already, and too many in my family are at risk now. I will not risk another."
"I...please...I need to be there," Ardenn huskily murmured.
"You need to be obedient in this, Ier'saia. Trust me."
"I...I understand." With a heavy sigh, the Sister composed herself, clasped her hands in front of her and looked Delenn in the eye. "I am not happy with your decision, but if that is your wish...I suppose I will return to David's quarters, then. I can monitor your activities from there...and perhaps I will rest for awhile." Forming a triangle with her fingers, she bowed formally, turned and left.
Delenn quietly watched her former aide depart. "Tell the Rangers that remain on board to watch her closely, Nashon," she warned once the young woman was out of earshot. "She relented far more easily than I expected. I suspect that she may be contemplating sneaking or cajoling her way off the ship so she can follow us once we depart."
"Seeing how you gained command of this vessel, it would seem to be a family trait," Nashon agreed. "But your reasoning in restricting her was sound and logical. Were one such as she to accompany the rescue team, our searchers would undoubtedly be more preoccupied with protecting her than seeing to their own safety or the search."
"I hope she is not too upset," Delenn commented, shaking her head sadly. "I did not mislead her. Some people are indeed indispensable, and in my small circle she is one of them...but not because she is a Sister. Institutions such as the Sisterhood can survive the loss of individuals if their foundations are well grounded...but families are not institutions." Rising from the captain's chair, she smoothed her wrap and briskly continued, "I wish I had the time to help her understand that now, but I do not. We need to prepare. We should be going."
"One moment," Nashon indicated, holding out a hand to stop her as she turned to depart. Glancing at the deck uncertainly before looking back up, he continued, "Delenn, as I said, your reasoning was sound and logical. It also applies to more than one person on board...so I pray you understand why I similarly cannot allow you to leave the ship."
"What?" Delenn barked. Her voice lowering dangerously as she realized what was happening, she continued, "You would turn my...my own words against me?"
"Only for your own safety. You are a skilled Alyt and you are Anla'Shok...but you are not expendable. Like the Revered Sister, in the environment we now face you are an untrained noncombatant." Seeing that his Alyt's expression was darkening rapidly, he bowed submissively and added, "Please do not argue...our decision is final."
"Our decision? You speak for everyone in this?" Looking around the bridge, the temporary Alyt saw each Ranger present nod in agreement. None would look her in the eye. "You are relieving me? You swore yourselves to me!"
Nashon bowed so deeply it was almost a cringe. "No! No...please understand...you still command until David is on board, Su'zha." Rising, he continued, "Forgive us for conspiring behind you, but the crew decided on this as soon as we learned your true motive for volunteering to act as our Alyt. We promised to follow you into fire and we will sacrifice our lives if necessary to recover those you love...but we cannot and will not needlessly expose either you or the Revered Sister to the enemy. Institutions can survive the loss of individuals, as you said, but you are no longer an individual. You are a symbol, times are unsettled, and were anything to happen to you now the repercussions could be catastrophic for millions."
He was serious, Delenn saw. They were seriously not going to let her accompany them, even if they had to blatantly defy her. "Shai Nashon...listen to me," she implored, unable to keep a hint of desperation out of her voice, "It is important that you let me come along...vitally important." Hanging her head, she continued, "I...I have not told you everything. I could not, not while Ardenn was present to hear. She has been through so much...as you saw, her emotions are already on edge. For her to learn what I suspect would drive her into panic."
Nashon eyed her suspiciously. "While it is your place to decide what information you share and what you withhold, our Entil'zha teaches us that a lack of it can kill. I mean no disrespect, Delenn, but I think you more than anyone would realize that. Perhaps it is time you unburdened yourself."
"Very well." Taking a deep breath, Delenn halting stated, "There may be something...more...in the mine than Dilgar soldiers. I suspect there is another presence residing there...a dark presence. A...a Shadow."
"One of the Ancient Enemy?" Nashon rejoined in surprise. Ignoring the other gasps from around the bridge, he continued, "Did they not all depart many cycles ago?"
"I thought so...until a few hours ago."
Glancing at the faces of the rest of the bridge crew, the Shai saw his concerns mirrored. Had anyone other than the Blessed Delenn herself uttered that statement, he would have dismissed it as a jest. "If they have not, this would have been good to know before now. How did you come by this information?"
"Ardenn had a...a vision." Her Shai's expression shifted from concerned to skeptical, and Delenn hastily explained, "I realize how it sounds...what you must be thinking, but Ardenn has never encountered a Shadow before. I have, and her description was accurate enough to concern me."
"A concern...a suspicion," the Shai noted, shaking his head. It was indeed a jest...a sad attempt by a suddenly desperate woman to cajole him into letting her have things her way. "Based on the...the dream of a young woman you characterize as 'on edge' right now? Forgive me for saying this, but the Revered Sister's emotional state is not the only one that concerns me at this juncture...yet I concede there are many things in the cosmos that defy explanation. If there is even a chance your suspicion is correct, it is all the more reason for you to remain in relative safety. Should we encounter this...creature...we are Anla'Shok. We will deal with it."
"Deal with it?" the Minbari woman hissed. "You do not understand! They are not called Shadows without reason! They can bend minds to make us see around them! Darkness is always their companion and they strike like the wind! It will not let you know it is there, Nashon! Even as a telepath, you will not sense its presence until it is standing before you, and you are the first person it will try to eliminate! I can help you defend against it!"
"How, Delenn?" Nashon shot back. "Were you along, our Anla'Shok would throw themselves upon you at the first hint of such a creature, offering themselves up to shield you rather than defending themselves! Explain to me how you can help when you are buried beneath a pile of bodies!"
"I...I cannot," Delenn stammered. "Please, I can...warn you. If the Ancient Enemy came near, I would simply...know. Let me come...I need to be there. Please."
"You say you need to be there," Nashon repeated, shaking his head sadly. "Sister Ardenn says she needs to be there. Were my own loved ones in danger, I would say the same. Just as you are doing, I would say anything...anything and everything I could think of to be included in their recovery. I know it is hard to stand aside and wait, but it is for the best. Do not do this, Su'zha...do not plead. As you asked the Revered Sister, I ask you...please trust us. Trust us and stay where it is safe."
Delenn wanted to scream...but there was no way she would let the assembled Rangers see her frustration. "Very well," she bitterly spat, "It seems my Ier'saia will have some company in her vigil." As she turned to storm from the bridge, she added, "You walk in the Dark places, Shai. Remember that. I will pray for you...and I will pray that events prove me to be as addled as you think I am."
After Delenn left, Nashon plopped into the center chair and forlornly rested his chin in his hand. As the ship began to vibrate slightly from first contact with Khon'dar's atmosphere, one of the crew asked, "Do you believe her, Shai?"
Nashon was silent for a long moment. "I believe that she believes, and she is not known for having delusions," he finally sighed. "As for what I believe...I no longer know. We will ready ourselves as best we can...that is the only thing we can do."
"Want to hear another one?" John Sheridan wheezed, limping around a boulder to take up another firing position.
< I seem to be a captive audience, > a sexy female voice answered.
"That's the spirit," John huffed. "Okay...there's this guy named Joe, and his arm is hurting really bad...so he says to his boss 'Hey, I need to take off work to go see a doctor'. Well, Joe's boss, smelling a major health insurance claim coming, says 'Man, that's going to cost a lot of money. Why don't you go down to the drugstore and use that new computer diagnosis machine they have? All it takes is a urine sample and it's only ten credits'."
<And what did Joseph do, Commander Sheridan? >
"Bomb, since this is probably going to be my final resting place, you may as well call me John," the human answered. "Anyway, Joe decides it can't hurt, so why not?" Sighting down the barrel of his captured Dilgar rifle, he saw a flicker of movement and said, "Ah...hold that thought," as he fired a short burst down one of the Cathedral's side passages. Whatever he'd seen startled and darted away. "Damn...missed," he grunted. "So, Joe takes his urine sample down to the store, finds the machine, deposits his ten credits and pours the sample down a funnel at the top. The machine chugs and burps, and a slip of paper comes out of a slot that says, 'you have Tennis Elbow. Buy this brand of ointment at the counter and rub it into the affected area."
<Was it the correct diagnosis, John? >
"Oh, yeah...it worked like a charm. Joe was amazed...so amazed that he decides to test the machine with something really hard. So...he goes home that night and gets a cup, puts in some tap water, a stool sample from his dog, urine samples from his wife and son, lubricating fluid from his flyer...and then he masturbates in the concoction for good measure."
<A challenge. We computers like a good challenge, John. >
"You don't have to say my name with every sentence." John muttered, glancing away for a moment. "You're still scanning that side passage, aren't you? You know, the one those buggers tried before? I don't want any of those little bastards sneaking up on me."
<Secondary shocks from the surface detonation you authorized have cluttered this chamber with debris, and my sensors are configured for anti-handling sweeps, not point scans. I am fulfilling your request as well as I am able, but I make no guarantees. >
"Not that it matters, I guess," the former Earthforce captain mused. "Even if the Dilgar overrun me, they don't have any place to go. Their transport ships are trashed. Their forces on the surface are dead. Hell, the whole colony site is a lake of glass now." He chuckled, but there was more sadness than mirth in it. "You know, I always was better at breaking things than building them. What a legacy." Looking over at his conical companion, he continued, "I'll bet the mushroom cloud looks like a big brown pimple on a white butt from space, huh?"
The bomb's processor whirred for a moment. <Given the outside ambient temperature, planetary rotation, gravitational gradient, surface topography and the passage of twelve point seven-three hours since detonation, the visible effects have expanded to cover 72,412 square kilometers. Such a cloud would be easily visible from space...and you have accomplished your mission. You should feel a sense of fulfillment. >
"Oh, yeah? Well, what do you know? You're a machine. What joy is there in that?"
<I do not have a frame of reference to answer you. I have never been a human. There is beauty in fulfilling your function. My partner device had no artificial intelligence, but I am sure its simple processor felt the joy of culmination. In the end, it achieved...greatness. >
"I'll...uh, take your word for it," John muttered. Risking a glance around his rock, the lone man scanned for movement. Not seeing any, he continued, "Now...where was I? Oh, yeah...the joke. So, the next day Joe takes his witches' brew back to the drugstore, deposits his ten credits just like he did before, pours it in and steps back to watch. The machine chugs...stops...and then starts chugging again. After a couple of minutes, a slip of paper pops out of the slot. You want to know what it said?"
<The suspense is taking up almost all of my free memory. >
"It said...your water is too hard. Get a water softener.
Bomb's processor whirred again. <This commercial medical system sounds like an exceptionally efficient machine. It would have likely treated you better than you treated yourself. >
"You missed the...punch line, Bomb," John grunted, rolling back to rest against the rock. Looking down at his tattered thermal suit, he eyed the hasty self-administered first aid job on his leg. At least it didn't hurt anymore. The cauterized slash had gone numb...unfortunately taking the rest of the leg with it. After setting off the rock buster he'd left on the surface all those years ago, he'd pretty much resigned himself to staying in this place so the bum leg didn't matter. As long as David got out...that was all that remained important. That...and Delenn...
"Oh sweetheart...I'm doing it to you again, aren't I?" he found himself whispering. John didn't want to think about her. Not now. Pushing the melancholy creeping up on him aside, he forced levity into his voice and said, "Hey, Bomb...have you heard the one about the camel, the Minbari Warriors and the whorehouse? Get this...a squad of Minbari are stuck out in the middle of the desert with nothing but this camel, see? And they get assigned a new Alyt..."
<Stand by...I am detecting movement from several avenues...at least twenty contacts. We are about to come under attack. >
"This is it, then," John growled, his joke forgotten. The image of a warrior caste Alyt humping a camel had seemed a lot funnier before he knew the Minbari, anyway. Groping his way to his feet, he hobbled over to a better position. "They've finally figured their way around in those secondary passages. They're going to try to overrun us from multiple directions this time."
<Shall I initiate detonation sequence? All systems are nominal, and I have waited a long time to perform my mission. >
"No," John answered without hesitation, "I brought David into this...I'm going to get him out of it. He should've climbed to the surface by now, but no amount of climbing will get him away if you blow your stack. We're going to delay as much as we can."
<Then you had better commence. They are coming. >
Almost before the echo of the device's words had faded, the battle cries began. From several egress points across the chamber, Dilgar commandoes surged forth. Had the Cathedral been uncluttered, John would have found picking targets easy...but the effects of a five hundred megaton blast, even one muffled by three kilometers of rock, had found their way in. Huge boulders had torn free from the arched cavern roof and their remnants now littered the floor. The Dilgar, as cognizant of their value as cover and concealment as members of any other race, were using them to creep up on the lone Ranger leader's position. John did as well as he could under the circumstances...keeping his head low and choosing his engagements with care...but they were steadily pushing closer. "I think they're going to get to me this time," he muttered to himself.
<Reinforcements are coming down the main passage. >
John tried to look in that direction but a crisscrossing hail of laser fire kept him down. "Some must have gotten under cover before the blast effects reached the mine! Fuck!" Tucking his rifle to his chest, he pulled back behind his boulder and considered his options. They were coming in from two directions now...the side passages and the main egress to the surface. He had nowhere to go, even if he were capable of managing more than a limping shuffle. If he moved even fifty meters, his back would literally be against the wall. Either way he turned, someone was going to get him in the back.
Once that happened, they might get curious about his chatty electronic companion. If that occurred, David didn't have a chance. "Bomb! Disable anti-handling protocols and set your core to maintenance mode!"
<That is tactically unsound. You will leave me vulnerable to tampering and render me inert. Are you certain? >
"Better to have them deactivate you than have you go off and blow my son into orbit! The enemy isn't going anywhere! Just do it!"
<Shutdown sequence initiated. >
No sooner had the indicators on the device's shell flashed from red to green that a shadowy figure loomed up, just catching the corner of John's eye. A trooper had gotten up on him. Twisting frantically, the former commander of Babylon Five knew it was over. <God...sweetheart, I love you so much. I'm so sorry about this mess, but I can't let them take me. Just find David...and remember that wherever you are, that's where I am...>
He was just bringing his rifle to bear when the interloper aimed his weapon and squeezed the trigger.
To Be Continued...
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