2284/V: LOVING WITHOUT RESERVATION
By John Hightower
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Earth Year 2284
"Dad, wake up."
John felt someone gently shaking his shoulder. "Uh…What?" Momentarily disoriented, he sat up and looked around. It took him a few seconds to remember where he was as recent events came back to him. He was with David, en route back to Minbar aboard his White Star.
He also abruptly realized he was on a Minbari slanted bed. He had slept on them almost exclusively for the past twenty years, but although his mind remembered how to, his body didn't. With a yelp, he ungracefully tumbled off as he tried to sit up.
"Here. Let me help you up." David grasped him gently under his arm and assisted him to his feet.
"I'm OK. Thanks." John rose and eyed the bed ruefully. "I've always hated those things." Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he turned to David. "I'm awake. What's up?"
"We need to get to the bridge. Nashon says Michael's trying to contact us." Making the short walk between the sleeping area and the bridge, David couldn't help but notice the respectful bows his father received from his fellow Rangers. He hoped it was a good omen for the future. If they could accept him, perhaps his mother would. He had not asked his father about the contents of the message he had sent. It was not his business.
Arriving on the bridge, David turned to the Minbari Ranger. "Is he still holding?"
"Yes, Ranger Sheridan. I will patch him through. Stand by." An instant later, a holographic screen descended from the ceiling and Michael appeared. "We're here, Michael. What can we do for you?"
"We've got a big problem, David. My people tracked down the telepaths that performed the scans on your Dad four years ago. It turns out that they're both high level operatives with Bureau 13. When we persuaded them to cooperate, they admitted to creating your dad's personality matrix. They also gave up the location of the cloning facility. It's on a colony world near Earth's border with the Narn regime. I've already encoded the hyperspace coordinates and forwarded them both to Tuzanor and your ship."
"Good." John spoke from off to the side. He hesitated to think about what kind of persuasion Michael's people had used to get the telepaths to give up their information. Better not to know. "I get the feeling that this isn't the big problem, though. What else have you got?"
Michael's face turned grave. "The telepaths also said that their 'Control', whoever that is, has written you off as a failure and ordered your termination. We already knew that. As you suspected, however, they also have a backup plan for getting at Delenn. They're going to try to assassinate her during her visit to Fulmer's Colony. According to the telepaths, this plan is already in motion and a hit team is already on the ground. They're waiting for her."
David looked at John in shock. "So soon? In Valen's name, Dad…They're only about a day out from her arrival!" Turning back to the viewscreen, he addressed Michael. "Send a signal to her ship. We'll get her turned around and we'll put a battalion of Rangers on the ground instead. That will flush them out."
"That's the problem, David. I've tried everything to hail her ship already. I've even got the Mars Prime transmitter beaming at her ship and we're not getting through."
"I don't understand. I sent a report to her ship a few hours ago and had no problem at all getting through." Turning to his communications officer, David asked, "Are we still receiving information from the Far Traveler?"
The communications officer keyed several commands into his panel and examined the readout. "Yes, sir. I'm receiving both voice and data relays from the Far Traveler. The last update was as of ten minutes ago. Their position locator indicates 32 hours out from the Fulmer's beacon, inbound with systems five by five. No abnormalities."
David acknowledged the information. "Michael, stand by. We'll try to contact them from here." Michael's face disappeared as the communications officer keyed in the sequence to establish contact with Delenn's ship. After a moment, he indicated to David that a connection was established.
"Far Traveler, this is Ranger David Sheridan. Acknowledge, please…" David's only reply was silence. After several more tries, he turned back to his communications officer. "Is any of this getting through?"
"According to our instruments, yes. This is unusual. I'm monitoring several other communications feeds to the President's ship and they are receiving with no problem. This could be a hyperspace variation, but I've never seen one that specifically interfered with only one communications channel before."
"David, I know this is your ship, but can I interrupt?" Both David and his communications officer looked up as John spoke up from where he had been silently observing them. "Are you getting a real-time telemetry feed from the Far Traveler? A current carrier signal?"
"Yes, Entil-zha. Their position updates are carried on that signal."
"If that is a real-time feed, their position updates should be instantaneous. You said that their last update was ten minutes ago. Check it again and tell me how old it is."
The communications officer looked again. "You are correct. There is still a ten-minute delay. Stand by…" The communications officer placed the signal up on the screen. It was not literally a visual feed. David and John were looking at a scrolling string of numbers; a code the ship's computer translated into information about the status of the Far Traveler. Below the string of numbers, a time counter was running. John noted that the time counter was offset by ten minutes. The sneaking suspicion that something was wrong became stronger.
"David, this feed is not coming directly from your mother's ship. There should be no delay, since hyperspace communications are instantaneous. Something in between her ship and all other outside receivers is delaying outgoing information by ten minutes. Probably incoming signals as well. The Far Traveler is being jammed."
"But why? Bureau 13 can't be thinking of attacking a Victory-class starship. There's no way they could win."
John considered his son somberly. "Son, there are more ways of fighting than with guns and missiles. Someone is screening communications going into and out of that ship, probably to keep people like Michael and us from warning them off of Fulmer's Colony. Normal message traffic is passed through to keep the crew from realizing that something's wrong. Anything that might warn them is terminated during the ten-minute delay. It's an old trick. I used it myself on occasion during the Earth-Minbari War. The Minbari are good at direct combat, but the subtleties of information warfare are alien to them. People don't normally look at the carrier feed coming off a ship's transmitter, and that would be the only way of detecting this."
David mulled this information over. "Unless the communications officer on Mother's ship checks the incoming carrier feed, he would have no way of knowing. Even then, they might chalk it up to a hyperspace distortion. If the Mars Prime transmitter can't punch through, then we have no chance with the relatively weak transmitter on this ship. Do we have options?"
John gazed out of the forward viewport at the red swirl of hyperspace, thinking about Delenn. "Is there any chance your mother will turn around based on your report and my message?" John doubted this, but he was brainstorming ideas so he threw it out for consideration.
"I personally think she'll want to, but she won't. She takes her duty as President too seriously for that. It's more likely that she'll order her ship to be ready for an immediate departure and a high-speed run back to meet us after the dedication. She'll go on, but she'll cut her stay short."
John continued thinking out loud. "Can we catch up to her? They're still more than a day out."
David considered this. They were far closer to Fulmer's Colony than they were to Minbar. "Nashon, put a beacon schematic up on the screen." A holographic map appeared. It showed all of the mapped hyperspace pathways, with beacons glimmering among them. "Show best course from our present location to the Fulmer's Colony beacon." A course was highlighted in yellow. "Computer, time required for a full-power run along this course?"
"Time required is 41 hours, 33 minutes at best speed."
<Almost ten hours behind. Too much time. > John thought. "Not good enough, David. Even given that she might not transport down immediately, she'll certainly be on the ground before that." John walked over and looked at the course, absently rubbing his chin as he considered it. "Hmm. There's a dogleg between these two beacons…" Abruptly, he turned back to David. "Son, how adventurous are you feeling today?"
David saw what he was thinking right away. "You can't be considering what I think you are…Are you proposing that we skip beacons? Do you know how many ships have been lost doing that? We'd be in uncharted hyperspace. Any gravitational eddy could throw us off course. Permanently."
John nodded. Looking back at the chart he asked, "Computer, chart proposed course change between beacons…uh…M-13 and F-9. What is the transit time?"
"Transit time is 3 hours, 19 minutes. WARNING. Proposed course is off-beacon. Off-beacon transit time is 1 hour, 47 minutes between signal loss of beacon M-13 and signal capture of beacon F-9. Hyperspace gravitational gradient may affect transiting ship. This course is not recommended."
"What is the transit time along mapped course between beacons M-13, M-7 and F-9?"
"Transit time is 11 hours, 14 minutes. This is the recommended course."
John grunted in acknowledgement, considering this unwelcome information. 'Not recommended' was the grandmother of understatements when discussing off-beacon hyperspace travel. Turning back to his son, he asked, "How much risk is your mother's life worth, David? Think before you answer. You're the Captain, and you speak for more people here than just you and I. I won't try to force you into anything."
David looked around the bridge. Every crewmember had paused in what they were doing and was looking at him expectantly. They understood what was being proposed. Traveling in hyperspace between beacons was a lot like hiking on a trail along a ridgeline. As long as you stayed on the trail, you were safe. Get off the trail and you might slowly be pulled downhill into a valley, never to reacquire the trail again. The problem was that, in hyperspace, no one knew what was at the bottom of the valleys. Still, there was more than just his mother to consider. Susan was with her. And Ardenn…she would not be the target, but she would almost certainly be near Delenn, near enough to be in great danger as well.
David thought hard about the risks. He had only assumed command of his White Star six months prior and the majority of his duties up until this time had been chasing down blockade-runners in Drazi space. It was stressful, but not particularly dangerous work. His crew liked and respected him, but his mettle had not been truly tested in a dangerous situation. "Computer, how long until we reach beacon M-13? How far behind the Far Traveler will we come out assuming off-beacon transit between beacons M-13 and F-9 is successful?"
"Transit to beacon M-13 is 12 hours, 9 minutes at best speed. This ship will arrive at beacon F-9 1 hour, 28 minutes after the Far Traveler, assuming the target ship maintains current course and speed. WARNING. Proposed course is off-beacon. Hyperspace gravitational gradient may affect transiting ship. This course is not recommended."
"Thank you, computer. I think we've figured that out now." David looked John. "I already know what you want to do, so I won't ask, Dad." He turned to the Minbari standing beside him. "Recommendations, Nashon?"
"It is your decision, Ranger Sheridan." Nashon paused and became thoughtful. "To lose both Entil-zha Delenn and Ranger One would be catastrophic to the Alliance. The possibility of saving their lives is certainly worth risking the lives of this crew. We will, of course, support you in any course of action you select."
"Very well, then. Thank you, Nashon. We'll do it. Have the navigator plot an azimuth between beacons M-13 and F-9. Pull up any gravitational data we have for that sector of space, and check for possible anomalies. I'd hate to run through a hyperspace distortion while we're in the middle of the big empty. Tell the rest of the crew to get ready. Get Mr. Garibaldi back on the line and tell him what we're doing. Thank him for his help, and have him continue transmitting the warning. Maybe he'll get lucky. We go off-beacon in 12 hours." Walking up to the holo map, he pointed to the uncharted sector of space between the beacons. "Here there be Dragons."
"Here there be Dragons, indeed. Let's hope that they're sleeping today." John whispered quietly beside him.
"You appear to have lost your other half." Susan glanced around as she entered Delenn's quarters. Ardenn was there, working half-heartedly on her presentation while awaiting her return.
Ardenn had expected her mentor to return shortly, but two hours had gone by and she was debating whether or not to go looking for her. After Delenn left, she had picked up her bedroom and tidied up around her quarters. Everything now looked presentable. "She is reviewing the message that you brought her." Ardenn hesitated, then continued. "She has been gone for some time. Do you suppose she is all right?"
Susan sighed. "I suppose so. It depends on what the message on the crystal contained. Did she tell you why I came to see her?"
"She said that her husband was alive, and that he had sent her a message." Ardenn paused, then continued. "She was…agitated. I think she is concerned that he will not want her as she is now. I do not understand this. I have seen images of Delenn taken four years ago and she has not changed appreciably in the intervening time."
"Perhaps not physically, but emotionally she is a different person. You did not meet her until after John's passing, so you would not notice the difference in her. She was a more vibrant, outgoing person when she was with John. She took his loss hard."
Ardenn looked puzzled, so Susan attempted to elaborate. "Uh…I'm probably the worst person to explain this, but I'll try to." Thinking a moment, she continued. "This is what I think Delenn believes. When two people love each other with the intensity that she and John did, they merge somewhat…uh, in essence each bonds with the other and they become one. When John left, she believes that he took a piece of her with him. You would not notice it to look at her, but she thinks that part of her is now missing. She's afraid that the piece of herself the 'original' John took is the piece that he loved. Without it, she's afraid that he will see her now as less than she was." Susan shrugged. "Anyway, that's how I imagine that she quantifies things."
That sounded reasonable to Ardenn, given what she had observed. "Delenn once told me something similar. Do you believe it?"
Susan snorted. "Of course not. In my opinion, what I just told you is a load of crap. Love cannot be parceled or quantified like that. Either you love someone or you don't. You don't 'lose' anything when you love; you don't 'give up' a piece of yourself. Love is a 'win-win' scenario. Both people gain, period. In my opinion, Delenn 'lost' nothing when John left. She merely suppressed those parts of herself to protect them from the loneliness she's feeling now. Given time and the right set of circumstances, she'll realize that." Susan grinned and gave Ardenn a knowing look. "How about that? Your first life-lesson from Ranger One. You can never lose by loving someone, no matter the circumstances. Take that to heart, Ardenn. Learning that lesson was both hard and painful for me. I'm giving it to you gratis."
Ardenn had never inquired too closely about Ranger One's background. She knew that she was human warrior caste and she and Delenn were old friends, but Susan Ivanova had always struck her as a remote and somewhat intimidating woman. Their common bond through David and her overtures of friendship, however, had made her a little bolder than she would have been otherwise. "You have been in love before? I notice that you are alone, even more so than Delenn. At least she has David."
Susan turned somber. "Let's just say that I understand what it means to love someone more than you love your own life. Unfortunately, in my case it's because someone else loved me more than his own life and gave me a gift I can never repay." Gazing wistfully off into the distance, she murmured, "Someday, when we know each other a little better perhaps I'll introduce you to him."
Ardenn hesitantly fingered something in her hand. Susan could see it was a data crystal, probably the message David had sent her earlier. "Do you think David loves me that way?"
"More than his own life?" It was such an innocent question that Susan almost laughed. "I'll put it to you this way. David's father once told me that one of the first lessons David's grandfather taught him was 'When you love, love without reservation. When you fight, fight without fear'. I'm sure John passed that lesson on to his son as well. If David loves you, then it is a love without reservation. That's the Sheridan way…the 'Way of the Warrior', they call it. Let's hope he never has to prove it to you." Susan grew serious. Was David inadvertently toying with this woman? "Why do you ask? Did he tell you otherwise?"
"No…he basically told me uh…how important I am to him, how much a part of his life I am…and that he misses me. He told me other, more personal things…that he wants me and needs me. He looked tired…" Ardenn trailed off in thought. "I am so new at this, Susan. Delenn has told me that human emotions are more intense and demanding than those of my people, but I cannot imagine needing someone more intensely than I need him. Is this normal?"
"I can't speak to the differences between Minbari and human emotions. I think only Delenn can do that with any authority. It seems to me, however, that love is love and it feels the same no matter who or what you are. Humans, Minbari, Narn, Centauri…we all share this emotion. It's perfectly normal." Susan tapped her forefinger against her chin in thought. "You know, at some point you will have some decisions to make…about what sort of relationship you want to pursue. David knows Minbari ways as well as anyone without a bonecrest can, but he's still a human. Our people consider Minbari mating practices lengthy, tedious and restrictive. When Delenn joined with David's father, she followed them all to the letter because she wanted to ensure that no one could accuse her of rushing the process. I'm still not quite sure how John put up with it."
"I have undertaken to relieve David of as much of the tediousness as possible. Those rituals that I can perform alone I have already done. I have reached a point, however, that requires his participation or at least his consent before I continue." Ardenn gave Susan an embarrassed smile. "Not all of the castes follow the exact same rituals. Those that Delenn's caste practices are the most restrictive of the three. Now that I have told Delenn of my love for David, I believe she assumes that I will follow the practices of the Religious caste as well." Ardenn found herself absently fingering the data crystal in her hand again. "I have not disavowed her of that notion, but that is not my intention."
"Practicing a little 'economy with the truth' eh?"
"In a sense. I have merely chosen to remain silent on this issue. I will not skip any required rituals, but I cannot help what Delenn assumes. As one without a caste, I have determined that any of the rituals applicable to any caste will suit my situation. It is not illogical of me to choose the least restrictive. That would be Worker caste rituals, as they are less formalized…and more intimate." Ardenn sighed. Standing, she began collecting the papers in front of her as she continued. "I am inexperienced, Susan. I freely admit it. Until I came to serve Delenn, I had never left our Temple. Until the day David left for Mars, no one had ever touched me as he did, in the manner of a lover. My inexperience does not necessarily mean that I lack knowledge, however. Should David choose to participate in further rituals with me he will find neither them nor me tedious or restrictive."
"Clever. Be careful, though, that you don't get too clever. You live under the same roof with the master of being clever. I caution you not to rub Delenn's nose in it. This is her son you're talking about and if she thinks you're moving too fast, she'll say something to you."
Ardenn looked puzzled again. "Rub her nose in what? I do not understand this expression."
"It means…Ah, hell. It means be discreet. You've told Delenn that you love David. That's all that is required. Beyond that, it's probably better that you not apprise her of the details of your relationship, unless you need her advice. Some things are better for a mother not to know."
As Susan was finishing her sentence, the door slid aside. "Better not to know what?" Delenn asked as she entered, looking from one woman to the other. "Do you not think enough information has been withheld from me for now?" Favoring Susan with a slight, sad smile, she continued, "Please do not tell me that a clone of Valen is now out and about. That would really 'make my day' as your people would say."
Susan forced a laugh. "No, nothing like that. We were discussing a whole different issue. One far less world-shattering." Susan hurried to change the subject. Fixing her friend with compassionate look, she softly asked, "How are you bearing up?"
Delenn glanced away for a second, choosing her words carefully. "I am…about as well as could be expected. Perhaps still a little overwhelmed, but I am functioning." Indicating the crystal in her hand, she said, "I must have watched his message half a dozen times. He said such beautiful things to me…he still loves me." As she spoke, she wrestled down the emotions she could feel welling up again as she thought about the message. She held up a hand as Susan moved towards her. "No. No, Susan, I am all right. I will not cry now. I have cried so much over the past few hours I doubt I have any tears left. Any tears now would be tears of joy in any event. There is no shame in them." Her expression grew wistful. "I want to see him, Susan. I want to hear his voice and feel his arms around me again."
"It sounds as if you've been doing some thinking."
"I have." Delenn crossed to her makeup table, where she had left her box of precious items. Sighing to herself, she hesitantly placed the crystal inside and closed the lid. Turning back to Susan, she said, "My whole life has been devoted to service, Susan. Service to Minbar, service to the younger races and service to the Alliance. I walked the corridors and thought about service and duty for a long time. As I walked, it occurred to me that I have served everyone but myself. I have buried myself in others. I have hidden from myself. I have tried to forget that I am a woman and I have needs of my own." Delenn crossed to the table and poured herself a glass of water. She took a sip and continued. "When I agreed to marry John, I thought a lifetime alone was a small price to pay for twenty years of happiness. That twenty years went so quickly…and yet now I find that it does not have to be so." Placing the empty glass on the table, Delenn straightened. "The questions of the First Ones, Susan. Do you remember them? I do. The Vorlon question was 'who are you?' I answered that long ago, at the hands of Mr. Sebastian. Until now, I have never answered the question of the Shadows. I have always been afraid of it, because its very nature goes against the meaning of my life as a Minbari. I am not afraid now. I know what I want. I want my husband back. I want my life back."
"I want you to have that, Delenn. You are surrounded by people that want you to have that, people who would bend over backwards to give that to you." Susan took Delenn's hand. "The Vorlons said one other thing to John long ago, and I think it's applicable now. They said 'We have always been here', and for you, we have. I will always do what I can to get you what you want."
Delenn smiled in gratitude, clasping the other woman's hand tightly before releasing it. "Thank you, Susan. I seem to be spending an inordinate amount of time lately saying that to the two of you. Does this mean that I have much to be thankful for or simply that I have become more helpless and needy recently?" Chuckling a little, she added, "I do not require an answer to that. I am not sure that I want to know." Turning to Ardenn, she smiled gently and continued. "You were absolutely right about viewing the message, Ardenn. You are becoming wise beyond your cycles. He said all of the right things to me…all of the words I have needed to hear for a long time now. Most of it was personal, but I want you to know that David has already told him of you and he likes what he has heard. As he should."
Ardenn rose and favored Delenn with a respectful bow. "This pleases me, Delenn, as does the knowledge that the information you received was favorable."
"You received a message as well. I trust David said 'all of the right things' to you?"
"He did. He has made me quite happy, although I miss him even more now."
Delenn turned back to Susan. "I am concerned about one thing, Susan. After I viewed John's message I attempted to contact him on David's ship directly. For some reason, I was unable to get a message through. Are we having communications problems?"
"We've had several. I've already spoken with the communications officer. He says that he believes we're in an area with a high concentration of hyperspace anomalies. Most traffic is unaffected, but real-time communications are spotty. Some messages aren't getting through, and others are being delayed. Still, it's nothing to worry about. If I were you, I'd wait a while and try again later."
"I am rather impatient to speak to John directly." Delenn's face momentarily took on a faraway look. "Directly. Imagine that. It sounds strange to me to hear myself say those words. I never thought I would speak directly to him again." Recovering from her reverie, she shook her head and looked back at Susan. "This is what I would like to do. Please inform the Captain that I intend to stay at Fulmer's Colony not one minute longer than absolutely necessary. I promised the Governor that I would speak and I will, but I will not participate in the other events. The jump engines on this ship will not be taken off-line, as we will be leaving immediately after my remarks." Delenn slid her hand into Ardenn's and smiled wryly at her. "We want to go home. There will be people waiting for us there that we are most anxious to see."
<Damn!> John swung the denn'bok around, grunting in pain as he did so. <That still hurts like hell…>. Moving as agilely as he could, he tried to assume the next form. What had started for him as a way to work off the stress of waiting had turned into a contest to see how much his still-healing midsection could take. He was discovering that he was still painfully limited on his right side. Every turn in that direction was agony, although Stephen had done a good job of sealing the incision.
Gritting his teeth, he took another swing at the head of the practice mannequin, following it up with a spinning chop at the dummy's legs. Although the double move hurt, he was gratified to see that the removal of the rib had not slowed him down. He was still swinging the pike more quickly and with more force than he ever had. As he had at the facility that created him, he was drawing a small audience. Few of the Rangers knew that he was good with a pike, and they applauded when he finished his routine.
As he was toweling off, he saw David approaching. "How come I never knew you were this good? I've never seen you work out like this before."
"Simple, son. By the time you were old enough to be interested in such things, I was already slowing down. I haven't had this kind of speed since you were a toddler, and I don't think I've ever had this kind of strength."
"They augmented you, you know. You had to be slightly adjusted for a heavier gravity than Earth's. That's part of the reason why you're stronger. The other part is your mind. You remember a body that was far less capable than the one you have now. Your mind is still adjusting to its new capabilities. I figure that you'll grow used to it after a while."
Closing the denn'bok, John looked seriously at David. "There's another reason, David. My motivation's also strong. We may need to crack a few heads to get to your mother and the others. I hope not, but you never know."
"Do you really think it will come to that? Would they try to kill her that soon after their arrival?"
"I don't know, son. Based on what we know, the spaceport dedication will be their best opportunity. Always plan for the worst case, and hope for the best. Let me tell you, though, if one hair on you mother's head is out of place when I get there…" John opened the denn'bok faster than the blink of an eye and drove it into the head of the practice dummy with such force that it tore from its mountings, "few will be left capable of regretting their mistake."
"WARNING. WARNING. Signal loss on beacon M-13 in five minutes…" Both John and David looked up as the computer announcement sounded. David looked ruefully at the severed head of the practice dummy. "Well, I guess this is where the 'adventure' part of this whole mess starts, isn't it?"
John closed his denn'bok again. "Son, the Universe didn't return me to this place just to get lost in hyperspace. It'll be all right. For us, for your mother, and for the others." Clapping his son on the shoulder, he looked him in the eye for a long moment. "Faith manages."
"That's mother talking."
"No, that's me. I've always known about faith. I just like your mother's way of expressing it better." John wiped the sweat from his face with the towel. "Come on, son. You need to be on the bridge when we lose the beacon. Your crew needs to see that you're not worried. If you're not, then they won't be."
Making their way onto the bridge, David took the captain's chair. John came up beside him. "Beacon loss in one minute." Nashon intoned from behind David. Inwardly, David could feel his stomach doing flip-flops. Leaning over to his father, David whispered "You know, I never did ask if you'd done this before."
"Hell no," John grunted, "A Captain would have to be goddamn crazy to take his ship through uncharted hyperspace." He grinned and looked over at his son.
"Thanks. I guess I set myself up for that one." David smiled in return.
"You did, son, you did." Leaning over, John whispered, "But now your crew sees you smiling. That will reassure them." Turning to face David, he continued quietly. "Son, being the Captain of a ship is both the easiest and hardest job one can have. It's easy because you are directing, and your word is law. It's hard because you can never be wrong, never show indecision, and never, above all, show fear. This is your first ship, and you have a good crew that knows you. There will be others for you in the future, perhaps larger ships where you don't see everybody every day. On those ships, every crewmember, those you see and those you don't, will need to know that their Captain is more than a mere mortal. To command, David, you have to be more than a human or Minbari. Command can be very lonely. You will learn that, in time. Some day, you can pass this lesson on to your son or daughter."
"We have signal loss, Ranger Sheridan. We are now completely off-beacon."
<More than a mortal…> David thought. "Very well. Maintain forward azimuth of 126 degrees true. Elevation axis 5 degrees. Time to signal acquisition from beacon F-9?"
"1 hour, 46 minutes." The navigator's voice cracked with nervousness a little.
"Keep them busy, David." John whispered into his ear beside him. "A busy crew doesn't have time to worry."
"Do we have a cartographer aboard? We might as well begin mapping this area as long as we're here." David tried to sound nonchalant as he said it, as if he flew off-beacon every day. Beside him, John nodded in approval.
"Vashall is with us, Ranger Sheridan." The communications officer spoke up behind him. "As I have no real duties now I will inform him and stay to assist."
"While you're at it, put those crew members not otherwise engaged to work in the small arms bay. Hopefully, we won't need the PPGs when we arrive at Fulmer's Colony, but it's better to be safe. Make sure everybody is carrying their denn'boks."
David turned back to his father. "What's you plan for the next hour and 45 minutes?"
John rubbed his chin in thought for a moment. "Well, let's see. Hmm…I need a shave, and a shower would be nice. I smell a little gamy after my workout. And I haven't had the pleasure of a Minbari toilet in a while. It always sucks to fight the bad guys when you have a full intestinal tract. Those are my plans, I guess." John turned to leave. "Don't worry, son. I wouldn't relax if I didn't know that the ship was in good hands."
After he left, David turned and whispered to Nashon, "How does he do that? I mean relax, out here in the middle of nowhere?"
Nashon turned and considered David. "You truly do not know, do you?" Nashon seemed to stare out the viewport into hyperspace. "He is Entil-zha. He is a Great One, one of those who have faced the First Ones themselves. People like him do not exist in a universe of chance. They walk among the stars like giants and shape events to suit them. They are the first of 'our' First Ones." Focusing back on David, he continued. "My grandfather perished aboard the Black Star. I should hate your father, but I do not. He is perhaps the greatest of the Human race, and he took as his mate the greatest of ours. You, Ranger Sheridan, are the product of that union and have the signs of greatness yourself. How could you not? He sees this and tells you the things he does to steer you towards your potential. He does not worry because he has seen death and does not fear it."
David snorted and looked askance at Nashon. "You're not going mystic on me are you? Because if you are, I want you to know that I've already got two mystics running around at home." Chuckling a little, he shook his head and continued. "Greatness, huh? In case you haven't noticed, I put my pants on one leg at a time this morning the same as everybody else, and the new 'First of our First Ones' is taking a break from walking the stars to go to the crapper." David put his elbow on his chair's armrest and put his chin in his hand. Glancing back up at the Minbari, he observed. "I grew up among your people, Nashon, but I have to tell you that I don't think I will ever understand the Minbari way of looking at the universe."
Nashon smiled. "Yes. It is a strange universe we live in, is it not? In its own way, it does have a sense of humor."
"Well, this could really screw us all to hell," David muttered under his breath. Turning to his navigator, he asked, "What is our projected time to acquisition of the beacon F-9 signal?"
"37 minutes, Ranger Sheridan."
"Have you detected any course alteration? Is this thing pulling us off?"
"It is difficult to determine. Our instruments are detecting a two-degree azimuth change to starboard as a result of the gravitational influence, but we cannot be certain of the reading without reference points."
"What's the problem, David?" John said as he walked onto the bridge. "Nashon found me and told me that something might be wrong."
David pointed out of the viewport. "That's the problem. Do you see it?"
John looked out. At first, all he saw was the swirling red of hyperspace. Looking closer, he noticed that his eyes slid queerly over a small section of space. For some reason, he couldn't look directly at it. "OK, David. I give up. What am I looking at?"
"One of those Dragons we were talking about. A black hole, or at least how they manifest themselves in hyperspace. You can't see it because it isn't actually here. Your brain doesn't register the singularity itself, but it does register the dimple in hyperspace that is caused by the gravity well in normal space."
"Is it affecting us?"
Moving to the navigator's station, David keyed up a display on the forward viewscreen. A grid was displayed, showing the black hole as a small funnel in the surface. Close to the funnel, but not particularly so, a small flashing dot moving along a dotted line represented their ship. John could see that their course did not take them any closer to the anomaly than they were. "I believe so. We're far enough away that its influence is slight, but any deviation off our course can't be corrected completely." The display showed the small flashing dot slowly tracking to the right as it passed the black hole, off the course represented by the dotted line. "The ship's computer has no reference points to use in making the correction. We think that we've been pulled two degrees to starboard, but that's a guess. It could be twenty, or two hundred."
"How long have we been under its influence?"
"About ten minutes. According to our projections, we're at the point of maximum influence now. Unfortunately, its presence didn't register until we were this close."
"Are we getting any signal from the beacon? Any signal at all?"
"No. We're still 35 minutes out from acquisition."
John sighed. Perhaps it was his destiny to be lost in hyperspace, after all. Now he had brought David along for the ride. Looking around at David's bridge crew, he wondered if they realized exactly how much danger they were in right now. They seemed calm, and he would do nothing to change that. "You said its influence was slight. Any chance we could drop to normal space and attempt to get our bearings?"
"Its influence is slight here in hyperspace, but that's a naked singularity. Only a small amount of the singularity's actual gravity exists here, so there's no event horizon. Were we to drop to normal space the influence would be much greater. We might even come out inside the event horizon. We'd be dead, but we'd never know it because of the time distortions."
"Well, that's a cheerful thought." John looked back at David. Waving a hand at the viewscreen graphic, he continued, "So, to sum it up we're in no immediate danger, we may be off course by a little or a lot, and we can't drop into normal space to get our bearings."
"I think you've grasped it pretty well, Dad."
"Go easy on me, son. Your mother is the one in the family who's quick on the uptake. I was just around for getting stuff off the top shelf." John scratched his chin for a moment in thought. Shortly, he reached a decision. "When all else fails, go with your gut. I don't think the gravity effect has been that great. If it had, the ship's artificial gravity generator would've had to compensate. I haven't felt any gravity shifts, have you?" Looking around the bridge, he noted a series of negative nods. Turning to David, he said, "I recommend correcting four degrees to port. Hold that course for ten minutes and then go back to your original heading. All things considered, that should put us roughly back on course. We should come out close enough to the beacon that we'll acquire some signal bleedover, even if we're not completely on target."
"I concur with your recommendation." Turning to his navigator, David signaled for him to proceed. As he did so, John tapped him on the shoulder. "Can I see you off the bridge for a moment?"
When they were alone, John leaned close to David and whispered, "You know that everything I just said in there is bullshit, don't you? We could've been running in circles around that black hole for thirty minutes before it was detected. We could be in a world of hurt, David. This situation is far more dangerous than your crew realizes. As Captain, you need to know."
"I know, Dad. I figured that you were saying that stuff just to keep everyone from worrying. I liked the bit about the gravity generators. You think on the fly really well."
John put his arm around David and jostled him a little. "Don't give up, son. If it was only ten minutes and the gravity influence was slight, there's actually a good chance I'm right."
"I hope so. At least you had a recommendation. I was just standing there with my mouth open." David sighed and leaned up against the bulkhead. "We'll know in about twenty minutes."
The next twenty minutes were some of the longest of David's life. He sat in his chair, trying his best not to appear worried to his crew. His father stood beside him, his face impassive. Part of David wished he felt like his father looked. Nothing seemed to faze him. The other part of him was frantically trying to figure out what he would do if they didn't detect the beacon signal.
Almost in an echo of his troubled thoughts, Nashon spoke quietly beside him. "We should be almost to the capture point, Ranger Sheridan. I can feel that you are worried, although you are shielding it well. The crew understood the risk, and why you took it. They are Rangers. They will not disappoint you in the end."
"Thanks, Nashon. I don't doubt it." He turned to look at the navigator just as he was speaking.
"We are at the capture point. No beacon signal detected."
"Maintain present course. Continue to scan." David felt his heart sinking. This was it, then. They were lost. Despite his best efforts, his mind began to wander. He found himself thinking of standing on a balcony, a young Minbari woman in his arms. He had kissed her only once, and it seemed so long ago now. He had not told her that he loved her, he sadly realized. He had not said the words. Now, it appeared that he would not get the chance.
"We are at plus two minutes for beacon signal capture. No signal detected." Nervousness was in the navigator's voice, but he fought it down well.
David felt a firm pressure as his father put a steadying hand on his shoulder. "Faith, son. Don't give in to despair. Think."
David thought. They had to be close. He was convinced that the effect of the anomaly had not been that great. If they could just extend their sensor range a little… "All stop. Kill all power on the ship and divert to the navigator's station. I don't want any other transmitter operating."
"All stop. Diverting power now." Nashon intoned beside him.
Lights began to go out around the bridge as panels died. The steady hum of the ship's systems faded and David could feel air circulation cease as the fans whined down. "Can you detect anything now?"
The navigator was silent for a long moment, looking intently at his control board. Finally he shook his head. "No, Ranger Sheridan. There is nothing…Wait!" He held up his hand as he turned back to his instruments. "A faint signal. I think it may be the beacon, but I cannot tell at this distance. Even with all power diverted to the sensors, it is at extreme range."
"Can you get a bearing?"
"Yes. If it is the beacon, our course was diverted below it. It is at an azimuth of 300 degrees true, elevation axis 70 degrees from our present location and direction of travel. As Entil-zha said, we are detecting the signal bleedover."
David felt the breath he was unconsciously holding release. He could sense his crew doing the same. "Set a course to intercept. Power up the ship and get us out of here." Looking over at his father, he whispered "Had we been another 1000 miles out…I thought I was going to piss in my pants for a minute there."
John smiled at his son amusedly. "I think I did, son. I've got to go clean up." Clapping David softly on the shoulder, he looked him in the eye. "Faith manages."
"Sir," the navigator on the intelligence ship called out, "We've acquired a new contact to our rear."
The Captain walked over to a viewscreen. "Show me." Keying a toggle switch, the navigator activated the screen and a schematic appeared. On it was displayed their ship, the Far Traveler, and the new acquisition. The screen zoomed in on the new ship. "Hmm. A White Star-class vessel. How far behind?"
"Approximately one and a half hours. They're paralleling our course."
"Where did they come from? There weren't any other contacts when we made our last scan."
"Unknown, sir. They seemed to appear out of nowhere."
"They're probably trying to warn the Far Traveler off. Have they detected us? Can they catch up?"
Another bridge officer spoke up. "Sir, they have detected us. We're being pinged by their sensors now. All of our energy is directed at the Far Traveler. We're not hidden from the rear."
The navigator performed a few computations at his station. "They can't catch us, sir. They're traveling at best speed and not closing appreciably. At their closure rate, we'll be at Fulmer's Colony more than an hour before they can arrive."
"Can they punch through our jamming?"
"No, sir," said the EWO, "Their transmitter isn't nearly powerful enough."
"Very well, then. It doesn't matter. They'll arrive too late to do anything to stop us." Turning to the bridge crew, he said, "Continue present operations. Let them watch. If you're going to perform, it's even better when you have an audience."
"Perhaps you should leave this until later, Delenn. It appears that communications are no better now than they were before." Ardenn had watched her mentor try three times in the past hour to establish a link to David's ship. Each time, she seemed to establish communications, only to have her message bounced back at her. The normally calm and serene Minbari was starting to do a slow burn.
"I do not understand this. This ship is receiving status reports, communications from other ships, a feed from Fulmer's colony and entertainment transmissions from ISN. With all that, the President of the Alliance cannot send a simple personal message to another ship? This strikes me as the height of ridiculousness." Delenn sighed in frustration and turned from the comm. system in her quarters. "Ranger One told me that she received David's report and the message from John with no distortions or interference. Now, we have communications outages and delays occurring all the time."
"The captain is working on reestablishing those links that have been terminated because of the hyperspace distortions. I am certain that either he or Ranger One will notify you as soon as the problems are rectified. Why is it important to speak to him now?"
"I do not want John to take my silence as repudiation. In his message, he told me that he was leaving the decision on whether or not I would meet him in my hands. He will know that I have had his message for many hours now. It would be unfair of me to leave him in doubt as to my intentions." With that, Delenn turned back to the screen. "Now, machine, we will try this again," she muttered under her breath as she eyed the recalcitrant device. Speaking as clearly as possible, she addressed the screen. "Computer, establish a communications link with White Star 74 please."
"Please stand by…link established." Delenn unconsciously smoothed her robe and combed her fingers through her hair as she waited for the video to appear. This time, it sounded as if the communication had actually gone through. An image shortly appeared…and Delenn found herself faced with…herself. Evidently, the signal was still being reflected.
"Do you see, Ardenn? Do you see this?" Delenn turned to her aide in exasperation. After a short delay, the screen mimicked her "Do you see…?" Turning back to the screen, Delenn had the pleasure of watching herself turn back to the screen a couple of seconds later. "This infernal machine has it in for me, I know." "This infernal machine…" the picture on the screen repeated. Delenn was finally on the verge of losing her temper, something she rarely did. "Stop it!" "Stop it!" "Arrgh…Off! Screen Off!"
Delenn gave the screen a look that would have melted a living being. The screen stared blankly back at her, evidently unimpressed that the most powerful person in known space was displeased with it. Ruefully, Delenn realized that the comm system was not going to bend to her will. Slumping unceremoniously into a chair, she said, "Over the years, I have noticed that the Universe sometimes picks the strangest moments to unveil its twisted sense of humor. This is one of those moments."
"True, but watching you argue with yourself has shown me one thing. It would seem that you have found the one opponent that you cannot out-debate." Ardenn smiled and touched Delenn on the arm. "It is fortunate that you do not have to face yourself in council. I would imagine that the meetings would become unbearably long and unproductive."
Delenn snorted softly at Ardenn's humorous observation. "You have never spoken to a Vorlon. My husband used to think that I was the only one who understood them. He had no idea how many times I beat my head against the wall trying to figure out the meaning behind what they said. Those conversations often went much like the one you just saw." Leaning forward, Delenn put her elbow on the table and placed her chin in her hand. She was thinking. After a moment, she sat back up. "I wonder…" she began. Neglecting to finish the thought, she rose and approached the communications screen again. "Computer, what communications links are experiencing difficulties at this time?"
The screen sprang to life again, displaying the IA seal. "Communications difficulties due to hyperspace distortions have been logged on the following links: Minbari Federation Prime, Tuzanor Main Relay, Mars Republic Prime, Earth Alliance Prime, Earthstation Io Relay, Proxima Relay, Ship to ship Real Time mode…"
"Stop." Delenn looked at the list that was forming on the screen. There was something there. Whatever it was eluded her, but something was there, she was sure… "Do you see any sort of pattern here?" Delenn turned to Ardenn, indicating the information on the screen.
Ardenn looked at the screen for a moment. "It is unusual that with the exception of the links to Minbar all of the problems lead back to Human-controlled space. This is probably coincidence, as it seems to me that all of the mentioned links would follow similar pathways in hyperspace." Standing, Ardenn continued. "I am not sure, but it occurs to me that one or a few distortions could account for this."
Delenn eyed the screen for a long moment. Finally, she said "Screen off" and turned away, shaking her head. "This is a mystery for another day. Technology is not one of my strengths, Ardenn. I am a diplomat, not a scientist or engineer. At any rate, we will be dropping out of hyperspace in an hour. Perhaps I should start getting ready. I want to get this visit over with as quickly as possible so we can return home."
Ardenn looked at the schedule of events in front of her and at the chronometer on the wall. "You are correct, time is growing short. We need to begin our preparations." Looking back at her mentor, she continued. "We should transport down to the surface shortly after we arrive. You can try to contact them again before we start our return journey."
"Look at those assholes. They're just sitting there. I don't get it, they have to know that we can see them."
"They know we can't catch them, David. All of their energy is directed at maintaining a cone of silence around your mother's ship and staying hidden from them. We don't matter." John stroked his chin in thought for a minute. "They're giving us the finger. That strokes me off. They're so sure of themselves…"
David began drumming his fingers on his chair arm in exasperation. "But what can we do about it? At this speed, we'll still be an hour behind them when we come out of hyperspace. We could make short work of that ship if we could just reach them."
"Yeah," John echoed his son's sentiments. "intelligence ships aren't heavily armed. They rely on stealth to stay out of trouble. Even a couple of fighters could bring one down…Hmm. Fighters…David, does this White Star have any fighters aboard?"
"We have the usual compliment for a White Star. Two Minbari Niall-class fighters. I don't see how they can help, though. They're only a little faster than this ship. Launching them against that ship would only gain us about fifteen minutes, and wouldn't help mother on the ground."
"You never know. Fifteen minutes might make the difference. I have an idea. I want you to launch your fighters against that ship, even though they won't catch them in hyperspace. I also request that you give me command of this White Star. Just for a few minutes."
David's eyebrows came up. This was an unusual request. "What do you have in mind?"
"I imagine that the crew on that ship is feeling pretty good about themselves right now. Everything's going their way." John paced to the viewscreen, jabbing an angry finger at the blip that represented the intelligence ship. "They're effectively blocking any warnings to your mother's ship, and they don't think we're a factor. I'm going to take that finger they're showing us and shove it up their asses."
"OK, you've aroused my curiosity. Nashon, alert two pilots. Let me know when they're ready to launch." Hopping out of the command chair, he motioned his father into it. "I relinquish command to you. The ship is yours…for a few minutes."
"Thank you, son." Turning to the communications officer, he continued. "When the fighters are away, I want you to hail that ship. I don't expect a response, but I'm sure they'll be listening. We're going to have a little one-way chat."
"The fighters are away, Entil-zha." Nashon reported after a moment. John could see the two Minbari craft slowly accelerating forward of the White Star out the front viewport. "Hail the ship."
"I have hailed them, Entil-zha. There is no response, but the link is open. They can hear us."
"Good." In his most commanding voice, John began:
"To the vessel shadowing the Interstellar Alliance Starship Far Traveler, this is John Sheridan. I am sure that you've noticed by now that we are following you. As I'm also sure, you've already determined that we cannot catch up to you before you and your target reach Fulmer's Colony. I imagine that you're feeling fairly proud of yourselves right now. You're doing a good job, and a sense of pride always comes from doing a good job.
There are, however, a few things I want you to think about in the hour or so before you reach Fulmer's Colony. You see, when you drop out of hyperspace, you're going to have to assume station keeping near the Far Traveler to maintain your communications blackout. All of your energy will be necessary to do this. Meanwhile, we're only an hour behind you. You'll be easy for us to find once we arrive. I don't think you're heavily armed, so it shouldn't take very long for us to finish you. We will finish you, have no doubt about that.
Now, you have options. There are, of course, always options. You could break off now and make a run for it. We won't follow you, and you'd live to fight another day. You can turn off your jammers and surrender, in which case you'll be treated humanely and fairly. Or of course you can continue as you are and wait for us to come after you. I can't imagine that you're so dedicated to Bureau 13 that you're willing to give up your lives for them. That is what you'd be doing, after all. You see, my wife is aboard the Far Traveler and I'll do anything and everything in my power to protect her. I'm more than prepared to get as ugly as I need to because compared to her your lives mean less than nothing to me. If she is harmed, I will scour the Universe looking for you. As a reminder, I was the only Captain to score a victory for Earth during the Earth/Minbari War, I commanded the Army of Light against the First Ones, and I commanded the forces that liberated Earth during the Rebellion. I am one of the good guys, but I'm not necessarily a nice guy. I don't make idle threats, and I am fully capable of doing what I say.
As an added incentive for you to do the right thing, I'm sure that you have noticed by now that we have launched two fighters in pursuit of your ship. Yes, I know, they won't catch up to you before you reach Fulmer's Colony, either. Please note that they'll arrive around forty-five minutes or so after you do. It's not much, I know, but it does serve to shave about fifteen minutes off of your lifespans once you reach your destination. The Minbari pilots will not be feeling merciful if Delenn is harmed, so I kind of think surrender will not be an option at that point. You can run, but you can't hide.
So, now you know where I stand. My crew tells me that you will drop out of hyperspace in about 58 minutes. Lets see…that means that you have 1 hour and 43 minutes to live. While you pat yourselves on the back over there, keep an eye on the clock. Oh, and don't thank me. Sometimes, it's just the thought that counts.
John turned to David after the link was terminated. "That ought to give them something to think about."
David looked at his father, impressed. "That was…intimidating. I almost wanted to make a run for it myself."
"It's simple psychology, David. We can't reach them with weapons right now, so I reached out and attacked them the only way I could. I introduced an element of uncertainty into the minds of the enemy crew. Uncertainty leads to mistakes. They won't break off, of course, but now they'll be worrying about how they'll deal with us rather than their mission. I think your mother would call this a lesson in the judicious application of terror."
David indicated the fighters. They were still visible as specks outside the forward viewport, but were beginning to accelerate away more rapidly. "So is that your plan, then? Go after that ship once we reach Fulmer's Colony?"
"No. We won't have time for that. Maintaining relative invisibility against sensors as powerful as those on your mother's ship requires a great deal of energy. Although the Far Traveler can't see them, they stick out like a beacon to us. The fighters will deal with them. Once the fighters engage, that intelligence ship will have to redirect energy to either run or attempt to fend off the assault. When that happens, the Far Traveler will detect them and swat them like a fly. We're going to continue straight for the spaceport." John hesitated for a moment. Getting up, he offered the chair back to David. "I should say, I recommend that we head straight for the spaceport."
David eyed the command chair with a rueful smile. "I'm tempted to let you hang on to this for a while."
"Thanks, son. I appreciate the gesture, but this is your ship and your crew. I'll give you advice until your eardrums burst but I won't usurp your authority. I relinquish command to you."
Delenn gazed rather somberly out of the small window in her quarters. For the first time in over three days, the chaotic red of hyperspace had been replaced with the star-studded blackness of normal space. Below her, a small blue-green planet seemed to slide by. Fulmer's Colony was a lush, hot jungle of a world. Used to the cooler climate of Minbar, Delenn reflected that most Minbari would have considered the planet below too hot and humid for colonization. That did not stop humans. One of the few physical advantages humans had over her people was their ability to tolerate greater extremes of heat and cold. They could survive comfortably in environments that would kill a Minbari relatively quickly. This opened up more worlds for them to colonize and in large part accounted for their rapid expansion throughout the galaxy. For her and other Minbari, even a short visit to the planet below would be uncomfortable. Thankfully, she reflected, this was to be a short visit.
Wistfully, she turned her gaze from the planet below and back to the stars. Back towards home. Her duty, she knew, had brought her to this place. Her obligations would keep her here for a short time. Her heart, though, was already on its way home. It was merely waiting for her body to catch up. She yearned to be back on Minbar now. John would be there soon. He would be there, and she would not. Resting one hand gently against the glass, she reflected that she should have turned around. She should have sent her apologies to the Governor and rerouted the ship, but she had an obligation to the citizens of the Alliance who were waiting to see her below.
There would be a crowd, she knew. The small security detail already on the ground at the spaceport had reported that people were already gathering in anticipation of her arrival. Ardenn had dutifully drafted her speech. Delenn would thank the people for their work on behalf of the Alliance. She would remark on the importance of the new transportation hub in opening this sector of space. She would talk about the importance of Fulmer's Colony in fostering new opportunities among the community of worlds…and so on. She could have given the address in her sleep. Delenn was a good speaker, but she was also an intensely private person and crowds made her uncomfortable. Minbari leaders did not usually address the people in this manner, and it was an activity she had to force herself to do. John had been so much better than she at this sort of thing. <Had been…> , she thought. <I will have to adjust my way of thinking. He IS better at this sort of thing.>
The thought sent a thrill through her. She would be with him again soon. What were a few days? How could she begrudge a few more days of separation when she had anticipated a lifetime of it? Delenn smiled to herself. A few more days only served to make the reunion sweeter. She would be more fully adjusted to the idea of his existence and would not be shocked to see him. She had time to plan, and had in fact already done some thinking in this area. First, she would have to invite David and Ardenn to be somewhere else for a while. They would not mind as long as they were together. Once she and John were alone there would be some initial hesitation and uncertainty between them, she was sure. That could be overcome. They would talk, become reacquainted with one another…perhaps she would prepare a private dinner. Yes, that would relax both of them. Later, when the time was right, she would seduce him. Luring him back into her bed would not be too difficult, she surmised. It had been a long time for both of them. Once there, she would make clear exactly how badly she had missed him…
"Delenn?" Ardenn touched her lightly on the arm. "I can see you are deep in thought, but it is time to go. Our flyer is ready and Ranger One is awaiting us there."
"Oh…yes. I am…quite ready, indeed." Snorting amusedly at herself, she shook her head and remarked to Ardenn, "My 'deep thoughts', as you call them were in the process of devolving into erotic fantasy anyway, I believe. You must not think that very Minbari of me. Those thoughts are undisciplined but can be quite, ah…vivid, at times."
Ardenn smiled, thinking about her own situation. <Some things are better for a mother not to know…> she reflected. Aloud, she said, "Perhaps the priests would not consider it so, but given recent events I think you are entitled to a measure of fantasy, erotic or otherwise. In my opinion, there is no shame in letting your mind wander from time to time. Those thoughts are the recreation of the spirit."
"The recreation of the spirit," Delenn repeated contentedly as they started for the door, "I think I like that turn of phrase, Ardenn. You are developing a gift for the subtleties of language. If it were not for your obligation to the Sisterhood, I would say that you might serve our people well in diplomacy."
Ardenn fingered the script along the hem of her robe. "Sometimes I wish it could be so. What little I have learned regarding this has been from you. You honor me by complimenting it."
Standing in the door, Delenn turned and regarded the young woman silently for a moment. Her young aide's dedication to her order appeared to be wavering under the weight of her fondness for Delenn and her love for David. Serious complications would manifest themselves if Ardenn openly broke with the Sisters. They needed to discuss this, soon. Finally, Delenn spoke. "When all of this is finished and we return home, Ardenn, I want you to come see me. We need to discuss your future. You will tell me where you want to go in life, and I will tell you where I can help you. I know that in your mind's eye you see a future with David, and that may come to pass. If it does, that will still not be the totality of your existence, just as my relationship with John is not mine. I see many paths stretching before you. Any one of them will require sacrifice on your part. Perhaps more than you realize."
Ardenn eyed her mentor with a little trepidation, seeing that she had inadvertently struck some unknown nerve. "I wish I could see those paths as clearly as you, but I do not. I will come as you ask, Delenn."
Delenn's eyes softened. "Please do not take my words the wrong way, Ardenn. I do not mean to cause nervousness. When we speak of this it will not be as student and mentor, it will simply be as two friends. Still, I believe that you have some hard decisions ahead of you, decisions that are best made sooner rather than later. You will have to be the one to make them, but that does not mean that you have to be alone when you do." Stepping out the door, she motioned for Ardenn to follow. "We will leave it at that, for now. Come, we must not keep Susan waiting." Delenn smiled as she pictured Susan pacing in the launch bay and glancing at the chronometer. "In case you have not noticed, Ranger One is not the most patient of people, even where I am concerned."
As the walked towards the lift that would take them to the hangar, Ardenn pulled out a small datapad and began rattling off the sequence of events for the ceremony on the planet below. Thankfully, it was short, owing to Delenn's determination to get underway for Minbar as soon as possible. She would only be on the ground for about two hours. Delenn half-listened as Ardenn spoke, occasionally having Ardenn pause when there was a name she needed to memorize. It would not do for the President to not know to whom she was speaking.
Presently, Delenn and Ardenn arrived in the hangar bay. Before them sat a small, bluish, scaled -down version of a White Star. As Delenn had predicted, Susan Ivanova was pacing rather impatiently beside it.
"Your personal ship, Susan?" Delenn asked, "I was expecting to travel to the surface in a standard flyer."
"I had it flown in before we left Minbar. I thought it would be a more secure way of getting you to the surface. This ship is armed and armored, whereas your flyer is not."
Delenn walked over and ran her hand along the hull. Near the ship's nose two words were painted. "Isil-zha," she murmured, "The Future." Turning back to Susan, she said, "This is the very ship John vanished in. Did you not think I might be uncomfortable traveling in it?"
Susan grinned. "The thought occurred to me, but I dismissed it. I've known you long enough to determine that you probably don't believe in ghosts. If there is a spirit, it'll be one that's sympathetic to you in any event. John won't mind you using his ship. He's let me use it for three years with no problems…well, other than the occasional dirty sock that turns up in the lavatory."
"John's sock ritual..." Delenn muttered to herself, "I had forgotten about that. I suppose I will have to learn to live with it again as well." Turning back to Susan, she spoke louder. "The ship is fine. I do not mind using it. Unlike certain other people I know I am not superstitious about such things." As she passed Susan to enter the hatch, she smiled and whispered to her, "Besides, I know that John is not in here now."
Susan turned and followed behind her, the hatch closing as she touched the door panel. "I figured you'd see it that way, once you knew the truth." She watched as the two Minbari made themselves comfortable. Once they were seated, she spoke. "There's one thing I want you two to do for me." Reaching into the folds of her robe, she brought out a closed denn'bok and held it out to Delenn. "I'd offer you a PPG, but I know you would refuse. At least carry this while you're down there."
Delenn eyed the closed pike but did not immediately accept it. "You would have me travel armed to speak to our own people? Surely our security on the ground will be sufficient to fend off a few autograph seekers."
"It's not the autograph seekers that worry me." Susan held the pike out again. "Take it. Make your friend Susan a happy Ranger One today. I'll feel a lot better knowing that you have at least some capability to defend yourself."
"Oh, very well, then." Delenn sighed and took the weapon, tucking it into her outer robe. "If it is a choice between this and watching you sulk, I will do as you request."
"Thank you." Susan turned and offered a second pike to Ardenn. "How about you?"
Ardenn made no move to take the denn'bok. She looked at it curiously, and then glanced over at Delenn.
"Susan, it is forbidden for a Sister of Valeria to carry a weapon. For her to accept that from you would be grounds for her immediate expulsion from her Order. To even offer her a weapon is to challenge her dedication to the principles her Sisterhood stands for."
Delenn saw that Susan was confused, so she hastened to explain. "The Sisters of Valeria were founded in the dark times long before Valen came to us. They strove to bring the ways of peace to the warring clans of our world and traveled unarmed as a symbol of that mission. Unfortunately, their message was not always well received. Many of the early Sisters were killed in the various wars that they tried to intercede in, and the Sisters today carry no weapons as a gesture of respect to those who sacrificed everything for the betterment of our people." She turned to Ardenn and patted her softly on the hand. "It is all right. She meant no insult. She just did not know."
Susan hastened to make amends. "I apologize, Ardenn. You know I wouldn't purposely insult you. I'm used to even Religious caste Minbari like Delenn having some weapons training."
Ardenn nodded. "I understand. I was not insulted, just surprised. We are friends and I sometimes forget that you are also a human and do not know all of our ways. I appreciate that you care about my safety." Indicating the pike in Susan's hand, she added, "I assure you that although I am forbidden weapons I am quite capable of defending myself, but I would probably be more of a danger to myself with a denn'bok than I would be to any potential attacker."
"It's just as well, then. I'd hate to see you knock yourself out trying to open one of these." Susan grinned at Ardenn's disbelieving expression. "Oh, yes…that happens quite often among the Ranger trainees. Humans, especially. For some reason, we have a fascination with trying to look down into the denn'bok when learning to open it. It's just the monkey in us, I guess." She chuckled amusedly at a memory. "I don't think Durhan ever laughed so hard as the day I began training, and before you laugh, I am told that David did something similar on his first day...as did his father."
Pocketing the weapon and turning from the two women, Susan took the Captain/Pilot station and checked in with the control bay for launch clearance. Shortly, they were sailing out of the launch bay en route to the surface. As they launched, two Thunderbolt-class Starfuries assumed covering positions near the ship. In an aside to her passengers, Susan indicated the two escorting ships. "They'll shadow us down into the atmosphere and then return to the Far Traveler. When we're preparing to leave, they'll return to escort us out."
Gazing out the forward viewport, Delenn murmured, "If only the planet below were Minbar, I would be the happiest Minbari alive today. I anticipate that the trip back will probably seem to me to be one of the longest I have ever undertaken." She smiled at Susan. "I imagine that I will become quite insufferable by the time this journey is almost over."
"Delenn, we all will be. I want to see John also." Susan looked at her friend fondly. It had been hard to tell her about the clone, but she could see that Delenn was adapting quickly to her changed circumstances. She was smiling more, and her smiles were no longer tinged with the level of sadness they had been in the past. If this was the effect that just knowing of John's existence was having on her, Susan couldn't imagine what her reaction to the living John would be. "As his wife, you should get first dibs on him, but unfortunately I have to debrief him before I can allow you to see him. I'm sorry, but I would be failing your mandate to me as Ranger One if I were to allow otherwise."
"I understand. I do not enjoy waiting, but I do understand the necessity. Do you still have doubts about him?"
"No, not really. If he's convinced Michael, Stephen and David then I don't think I'll be any different. Your security…your life is my responsibility, though, until you relieve me of it. I take that responsibility more seriously than anything else I do. John may be John but Bureau 13, an organization hostile to you, created him. I will proceed in this matter with cautious optimism."
Susan would have said more, but the first soft vibrations of atmospheric reentry began to rattle the ship. She turned her attention back to the controls. As the buffeting increased, she spoke to her two passengers without looking at them. "We're ten minutes out. Don't worry about the turbulence. Fulmer's colony has a thick atmosphere but it's nothing we can't handle. Your security detail is awaiting us and will meet you once we're down and the ship is stowed. The Planetary Governor is awaiting you as well. It won't be long now…"
"They're ten minutes out."
From somewhere within the crowd in front of the stage, a man pulled a small receiver from his ear and whispered to the man standing next to him. He was in his mid-fifties, black hair going gray, and he had been in the employ of Bureau 13 for his whole adult life, although he had held many outside positions during those years. "Alert the others, and give our sniper the signal. I want him set up and ready before she sets foot on the stage. She's already changed her schedule once and I want him ready for anything."
Acting as if he were raising his hand to scratch his neck, the second man discreetly spoke into a transmitter affixed to his wrist and listened to the response. He nodded slightly. "They're ready. Our sniper is already in the gantry. Our people down here with us have acquired their 'packages' and are all armed and ready. The explosives are set, and the extraction ship is on standby."
"Good. I want everyone ready to bug out of here as soon as the freak is dropped. If a little more blood is spilt as we pull out, so much the better. Confuse the authorities as much as possible. How about our friends in the jammer ship?"
"They're in position, but they're a little nervous right now. They say John Sheridan himself is hot on their asses."
"It doesn't matter. Look there," The leader indicated a speck growing nearer in the sky. "There she is now. Test-tube boy isn't going to get here in time no matter what he does. All the jammer needs to do is shut down all communications for a few seconds. After that, Sheridan can shoot them up all he wants. Their mission will be accomplished. I'll drink a beer for them later."
The leader eyed the incoming ship as it closed the distance. "There goes the security detail. Huh. Fat lot of good they'll do. What's a few pikes and PPG pistols going to do to stop a single bullet?" He turned to his accomplice, "You know, sometimes I wish times were simpler. We've gotten so complex. Energy weapons, starships…all of this technology. Our friends out there have forgotten simplicity. The strength of a single, old-fashioned bullet. It's good we haven't forgotten. Someone needs to remember the old ways, and it might as well be us."
The accomplice grunted. "Whatever gets the job done is good enough for me. I notice that we have PPGs."
Conversationally, the leader continued. "I didn't say technology was a bad thing, just more complex. If we need to finish up the job, new technology will be as suitable as old."
After a few moments, the leader watched as the security detail started making its way back from the landing area to the stage. Delenn's ship had been stowed about a kilometer away for security reasons, so it would take a little time for them to return. "It's almost show time. Look at this crowd, there must be thousands here. Well, we'll give them something to remember…OK, they're coming. Look at that bonehead. She's as happy as can be. I can just hear her now, 'Really great to be here with you monkey-boys…we really spanked you in the last war, didn't we? No hard feelings, let's be friends. Oh, and by the way, do you like the way I fucked your war hero? Guess none of you human gals were enough for him…" he snorted. "We'll see about that, freak."
Delenn and the others were on the stage, milling about and finding their seats. The Governor approached the podium and began making his introductory remarks. <Long-winded bastard. Sit your ass down…get out of the way!>
The leader felt a tug at his arm. His companion leaned over and hissed at him "The jammer ship reports that they are under attack! They can't hold out for long…we've got to do it now!"
"Has the sniper got a shot?"
"Negative…negative. The Governor is in the way!"
Just as his accomplice hissed that last piece of information, the Governor introduced Delenn and moved to sit down. "Here we go!" the leader hissed. "Tell the jammer to shut all comms down now!"
His accomplice spoke into the link. The freak was at the podium. The leader heard someone from behind Delenn scream a curse. He felt a rumble through the ground, like distant thunder approaching. That race traitor Ivanova jerked an earpiece from her ear and jumped out of her chair, running for Delenn. "Take the shot! Take the shot now!" the operative screamed into his link. Ivanova and others were almost on top of Delenn. "Drop that bitch!"
Over the shocked stares of the people on the stage, the leader heard a shot ring out. Almost simultaneously, he heard an impact and saw several people, Delenn among them, thrown to the ground, a whitish-red puff spraying the area around where they had fallen. None seemed to move immediately, but from his vantagepoint it was difficult to tell exactly what had happened since the bodies were shielded from view by the podium. A silence seemed to fall over everyone, as if time was standing still. An instant later he heard a long, despairing scream.
"It's a hit!" he shouted in glee. Just then, the sky was split by what seemed to be a huge explosion, and fire rained down on the crowd below.
And all hell broke loose…
"The fighters have just left hyperspace. The pilots report that they have already located the intelligence vessel and are moving to engage."
"Good. As soon as that ship breaks off operations against the Far Traveler have the fighters send a warning. Hopefully, your mother hasn't left yet. If she has, maybe they can downlink the warning to her before she reaches the surface."
"Somehow, I don't feel that lucky right now."
"I know. I don't either. David, I think it's time to start issuing weapons. My gut tells me that we'll be settling this mess on the ground. How many people can you muster?
David sighed, running a hand through his hair. "This was supposed to be a quick run to Mars and back. I don't have a full crew, and I've put two of them in the fighters. Fifteen…sixteen, counting you."
"Oh, you'd better believe I'll be out there." John said determinedly. "Sixteen, then. We have no idea what Bureau 13 has on the ground. Groups like this depend on moving quickly, though, so I imagine the actual assassination team is relatively small. There may be support people that we'll have to contend with. This will get very ugly very fast unless we find your mother quickly and get her out."
"Right. I expect there'll be a lot of innocents on the ground, too." David turned to Nashon. "Start the weapons issue. Update the crew on what they'll probably be facing. The key is to get to the President and get her and her party secured and moved to safety. Tell our people to avoid getting into any prolonged fights with hostiles. We get in, get Delenn, and get out.
"Understood, Ranger Sheridan." Nashon linked to the ship's armory and passed the issue order before leaving to brief the crew. The weapons issue went quickly, owing to the small number of personnel on board.
The navigator spoke up. "Two minutes to normal space transition. We will be coming out of hyperspace roughly at the same point as the fighters."
"How much time to the surface once we transition?"
"Fifteen minutes. Ten, if we go in at maximum velocity for atmospheric flight."
"Make it ten, then."
"Ranger Sheridan," the communications officer broke in excitedly, "we're receiving an update from the fighters. They have engaged the intelligence ship. She is breaking off with heavy damage. The Far Traveler is no longer being jammed." He bent over his console again, receiving new information. Looking back up, he continued, "The fighters have transmitted the warning to the Far Traveler. Sir, President Delenn is already at the spaceport now. The Far Traveler reports that it will take them at least thirty minutes to scramble a strike team sufficient for heavy surface action."
John spoke up. "And at least another ten to get them on the ground. Forty minutes. That's too long." He turned to David. "We don't have forty minutes. We don't even have the ten it'll take us to get down there."
"I could use a good recommendation right about now, Dad."
John hesitated a moment. There was another option, but it would be extremely dangerous. "Son, I only have one possible solution to this, and I wouldn't recommend it if there were any other way. We can jump out of hyperspace directly into the atmosphere."
John could already see the navigator working out the navigational solution even as David considered the idea. His son had a good crew. They were anticipating his response. "Before you say yes, I want you to know that if this isn't done exactly right, we're going to smack the ground so hard there won't be enough of this ship left to send home in a coffee cup."
"You're doing wonders for that confidence level you keep exhorting me to maintain. Navigator, have you computed a solution?"
David saw the navigator utter a silent prayer before answering. "Yes, although I want you to know that this was not covered in my training."
"We'll update the manual when we get back to Tuzanor. Do it."
The navigator keyed the new coordinates into his console. "Transition coordinates changed. One minute until atmospheric transition." David watched as the helmsman set up her station for atmospheric flight.
John leaned over and whispered to David. "You'll want to go in with your weapons hot. We need to be ready for anything."
David indicated the weapons officer, who nodded. "They already are."
"Jump point forming," the navigator intoned. Out in front of the ship, John saw a bright flash of light followed by a hole forming. The hole was not the perfect ellipse he was used to seeing. Lightning arced along the walls and the hole appeared lopsided. Turbulence began to rock the ship as they closed. "The jump point is unstable, sir…anyone on the ground nearby will experience extreme atmospheric effects when we come out."
The crackling blue of the jump point was abruptly replaced by a viewscreen full of green. It took John a split second to realize what he was looking at. Vegetation. "Shit! We've come out too fast and too low! Pull up!"
The ship shuddered violently as the helmsman fought to comply. "We are exceeding atmospheric tolerences!" He heard someone shout. Vegetation was spinning by outside the forward viewports. John swore he could make out individual trees. People on the bridge were being tossed about as the gravity generators struggled to compensate for the ship's extreme maneuvering. "The hull is beginning to buckle!" He heard someone becoming ill behind him as the gravity continued to waver. John, although a seasoned space traveler, still felt his stomach lurching in sympathy. Gradually, a line of blue appeared at the bottom of the viewport. "We're inverted, David! Helmsman, roll 180 degrees to port!"
The helmsman rolled the ship and equilibrium gradually returned. Most of the bridge crew was clutching their consoles, gasping for breath. "That was close…" David gasped shakily. "How far off the ground are we?"
"100 meters," the helmsman managed to stammer out. "We actually brushed some of the taller trees when we rolled."
"A little too close for comfort, but we're here." David could feel Ranger discipline reasserting itself. "We need to move now. Direction and distance to the spaceport?"
"10 kilometers, at an azimuth of 140 degrees."
David turned to his father. "I'd imagine that their scopes are going crazy about now, not to mention the atmospheric shock wave we just created. Anyone standing outside at the spaceport will think Armageddon's coming."
"It is coming, David." John spoke quietly, dangerously beside him. "We're bringing it with us. Get us there now."
David's White Star flew at treetop level towards the spaceport. Anyone looking from the ground below would have seen a white blur fly by almost too quickly to perceive, shortly followed by a stern wake through the trees as the sonic effects and wind passage created a 'V' in the ship's contrail. Topping a low rise, John and David saw the familiar star pattern of a ground-based launch facility as the spaceport came into view. Loading gantries rose above the arms of the terminal. As yet, there were no large ships on the tarmac. The first large ships destined for the spaceport were holding in orbit awaiting the conclusion of the opening ceremonies. John noticed a familiar blue speck near one of the terminal arms, under a protective cover. "That'll be your mother's ship, David. They've put it under an armored overhang for protection."
"I see it. There's what appears to be a crowd near the central terminal."
"That's the ceremony. Get us over there."
The White Star screamed in low over the central terminal. They were low enough that John could see surprised faces turning upwards. To them, it would seem as if they had just appeared out of nowhere. "Look there!" David jumped out of his chair, pointing forward of the ship's nose at the central gantry. "What the hell was that?"
John's heart sunk. <Oh, my God… > "A muzzle flash. That was a sniper...take that tower down, David! Now!"
The weapons officer keyed in a command and brilliant white fire lanced out from the nose of the ship as the cutting beam tore into the gantry. Explosions rocketed from the top of the gantry to its base as the beam sliced through the steel superstructure. Fiery metal rained down onto the tarmac as the gantry began to collapse in on itself. The damage was done, however. The now-deceased sniper had gotten at least one round off. John could see hundreds, if not thousands of people scrambling in every direction in response to sniper and the havoc being wreaked by David's ship.
John's heart seized up in his throat. <Delenn… > A thousand images of her flashed through his mind as he watched the commotion unfolding below. She could be down there now. Hurt, perhaps…dead. No. She wasn't dead, he told himself. She couldn't be. Something like that…he would know. Wouldn't he? His 'former' self would have known. Now, he reflected dejectedly, who could say? Looking over at David, he could see that similar thoughts had occurred to him. David looked as white as a sheet. "We need to get on the ground, David. Set the ship down." Looking back out the viewport, John was shocked to see PPG fire erupting on the ground below. Ridiculous. They couldn't hope to damage the White Star that way…unless…"David! Get us on the ground, NOW! They're not firing at us! They're firing at the stage! They wouldn't do that unless the sniper missed your mother!"
John's shout shook David out of his paralysis. "Get us down Nashon!"
"Where?" Nashon indicated the tarmac in front of the stage. People were running everywhere.
"Anywhere! They'll get out of the way!"
The helmsman heaved the ship over, extending the landing legs as she did so. John and David could see people scrambling to get out of the way as the heavy blast from the landing thrusters started blowing debris across the area. As they were touching down, David saw several other explosions light the area as various outbuildings went up in pillars of fire. "What the hell are they doing?"
"Creating confusion, son." John said grimly. "Those are to keep the local authorities busy with other casualties while they go after Delenn. If she was able to get off the stage, the support team will have to blow through her security detail to get at her. That's what they're trying to do now."
Someone from the rear of the bridge spoke up. "I am tracking two objects inbound at a high rate of speed. The objects are vectoring towards us. They appear to be anti-ship missiles. Estimate impact in one minute."
John thought furiously. Grabbing David by the shoulder, he shouted, "Get your crew to the ramp. They're coming after us. We've got to get off this ship quickly. Once on the ground, it's imperative that we turn their assault team away from the stage. Make them fight us. That'll take the pressure off her security detail and will hopefully give her a chance to get away and hide somewhere."
"We are down!" The helmsman shouted as she leapt from her station.
A warning tone sounded across the bridge. After the tone, the ship's computer started counting down. "Objects inbound. Impact in thirty seconds. Objects inbound. Impact in twenty-seven seconds…"
"Abandon ship!" David shouted. He needn't have. His small crew was already moving. David and John ran down the ship's central corridor with the sound of the computer voice ringing in their ears. Dashing down the ramp with seconds to spare, they saw the rest of the crew scattering as they tried to get as far away from the White Star as possible.
"Run for it, David! John shouted. In his head, he was ticking off seconds. When he reached three, he grabbed David by his cloak and jerked him to the ground, following closely. As he felt the two of them smack the ground, an ear-splitting explosion ripped across the tarmac, closely followed by another. They covered their heads as a pressure wave rolled across them, passing overhead and blowing out the windows of the terminal to their front. The pressure wave tossed them physically off the ground and was followed by a wave of heat. The two men lay on the ground for a long second. Risking a glance back, David looked at the results of the explosions. "In Valen's Name…my ship…"
John looked back over his shoulder. David's White Star was now a heap of burning scrap. The missiles had broken the ship's back, and she had collapsed inward along what was left of her keel. The once-proud bow of the ship was pointed skyward; a broken needle aimed at the stars. She would never fly again. "You got the crew off, David, that's what counts. The soul of your ship lives as long as they do. There will be other ships, but good people can't be replaced so easily." As he spoke, John heard a sound like the buzzing of a bee near his ear, and felt a quick flash of heat zing by his cheek. "We've got other business," he continued as he ducked. "The assault team's firing at us. Get your people to start engaging them. We're out in the open here and we need to push them away from the stage."
As David began signaling his crew to move forward, John took the opportunity to look around. The area looked like a scene from Dante's Inferno. Fires were blazing almost everywhere. Debris from the gantry, David's White Star, and the damage to the terminal façade littered the ground. Fires burned where Bureau 13 agents had detonated their explosives. There were bodies on the ground…civilians, mostly. John saw a child lying nearby. She wasn't moving. From the gaping wound in her chest, John could tell she would never move again. Other men, women and children were scattered about, some tossed like rag dolls by the various explosions. Many were not moving, but many more were running or crawling away in an effort to escape. Screams and cries were coming from the wounded, or those who had lost loved ones. Nearby, he could hear whimpering. It was horrible.
"We're moving, Dad." David pulled John to his feet, shaking him out of his dark thoughts. His attention was drawn to the steady whines and discharges of nearby PPG fire. "From the looks of it, Mother's security detail has effectively ceased to exist. We've got at least some of the terrorists pinned down, and the stage appears clear for the moment."
"We need to get up there." John was dreading looking at the stage. Despite his theory that Delenn had gotten clear, she might be laying up there. If she was, he might as well let it end here. His life would just as effectively be over. Dodging sporadic PPG fire, he and David made their way up to the stage. The podium was a smoking ruin. David dodged off to look underneath the bunting surrounding the stage supports. With a great deal of trepidation, John decided to risk looking on the stage itself. The fighting between David's Rangers and the terrorist team seemed to have swept by for the moment. Boosting himself up on the stage, he looked around. Bodies were scattered everywhere, some piled on top of each other. Civilians and Rangers from Delenn's security team were intermingled. Shaking his head in disgust, he was about to call David when a flash of cloth caught his eye. Dropping to his hands and knees, he pushed a body aside to reveal what lay underneath. He looked in despair for a long moment before slowly removing his cloak and draping it over the still figure. As he looked down at the covered body, he could feel tears starting to run down his cheeks. His hands trembled.
"Dad, there's no one under here. I'm coming up." David's voice spurred John into action. Moving quickly to the side of the stage, he attempted to block David's view as his son crawled out from underneath.
"No. No, son. Stay there, I'm…I'm coming down." John hopped to the ground, positioning himself between David and the stage. Looking at his son somberly, he continued. "There's no need for you to go up, David. There's nothing there you need to see…"
A slight breeze was blowing and ornamental pennants flapped in the sky as Delenn and her party arrived at the Fulmer's Colony spaceport. It was a beautiful day, she reflected, as she looked around after debarking, at least beautiful for a human. To Delenn, the heat felt like a furnace. She was thankful for the breeze. Even so, the air was warm, thick and muggy and it irritated her. To add insult to injury, the humans around her, Susan included, did not seem to mind the heat and humidity in the slightest.
Delenn glanced over at her aide. If the heat felt uncomfortable to her, Ardenn must be miserable. She did not show it, however. Her hands clasped before her, the young Minbari eyed her surroundings impassively as they waited for the greeting party and security detail to approach. Conversationally, Delenn leaned over to her and noted, "The ancestors of the Humans evolved in an environment such as this. Someday, you need to take some time and travel to Earth. It is a far different world from Minbar, and I think you would find it fascinating."
"Not if it is as hot and humid as this place. I do not understand how the humans can stand it."
"The temperature regulation system in their bodies is different from ours. Their skins secrete water to cool them in hot climates, and they can add body fat to heat them in colder ones. Earth is a planet with far greater temperature variations than Minbar, and the humans are ideally adapted for their world just as we are for ours."
Ardenn mulled the information over. "Their bodies secrete water? How curious. I will have to ask David to demonstrate this practice for me. It might help us to deepen our understanding of one another. Do you secrete water in this manner?"
Delenn had to chuckle. A human would have been offended by that question. "I do secrete some, although not nearly as efficiently as a true human. I can already feel my inner robe starting to stick to me. The humans call this practice perspiration, and it is an involuntary reaction to heat or exertion. It seems a little distasteful at first, but one becomes used to it and in actuality it is a far better cooling mechanism than Minbari bodies have." Almost as an aside, she continued, "Perspiration is a personal matter to humans. I am glad that you asked me instead of one of them."
"Oh. It is just that our people are taught that Humans have few advantages over us. Some among the Warrior caste are even taught that Humans are an inferior, less evolved species." At Delenn's concerned glance, she hastened to add, "This is not, of course, what I believe."
Delenn looked over at the young woman beside her. "Sentiments such as those among some of our people used to bother David a great deal, and it would hurt his feelings if he thought you believed such nonsense. I am gratified that you do not." Looking away from Ardenn, she eyed the reception party as they approached while continuing to speak. "The Warriors say these things because they are secretly afraid of the Humans. Do not fall into the trap of believing they are inferior. They are not as strong physically and they do not live as long as we do, but those advantages are environmental, not evolutionary. Their minds are just as capable and evolved as ours are. They are more adaptable and can survive in a greater range of environments than we. Their society is more flexible and inclusive than ours is." Motioning loosely in the direction of the approaching humans, she concluded, "You see, each race has advantages over the others. Leveraging those advantages so that all of our people are served equally well is what the Interstellar Alliance is all about. From time to time, we need to show ourselves and demonstrate that we care about the sacrifices people are making to bring this about. That is why we are here now."
Further conversation was forestalled by the arrival of the reception committee. The party was led by the Governor, a thin, balding middle aged man. Susan stepped forward and spoke quietly to the humans as Delenn's security detail slipped around them discreetly.
"Madame President," the Governor executed a passable Minbari bow, looking her over appreciatively as he began his introduction, "We are honored that you have come to join us for the opening of this facility. This is an important day for Fulmer's Colony. We don't often get such revered guests."
Delenn bowed in return. "You honor me by inviting us." Straightening, she whispered a quick aside to Ardenn in Adronato, "He is 'checking me out' as the humans say. Considering me as a potential mate." Beside her, she heard Susan chuckle as she listened in. This was not the first time Delenn had encountered this situation.
Touching Delenn gently on the shoulder, Ardenn whispered back, "Surely he knows that you are a married woman. Why would he do such a thing?"
"Human traditions in this area are different from ours. As a widow I am considered 'available' in their culture, as they are allowed to have relationships again upon the death of a spouse. Do not think badly of him. It is harmless, and it pleases me that I can still 'turn a head' on occasion. The head I truly want to turn is back on Minbar, however." Looking back at the Governor and smiling, she whispered an admonition. "We must stop this now. It is considered rude to talk about people when they cannot understand you." Switching back to English, she introduced Ardenn, who also bowed in greeting.
"A pleasure to meet you Ardenn. Nothing is wrong, I hope?"
"No, not at all. Please forgive me, it was rude for me to not use your language. I was merely curious about how your people tolerate the heat here. Minbar is a much cooler planet." Ardenn rationalized that she was not truly lying to the Governor, as she had been curious about the heat earlier.
The Governor nodded, accepting her explanation. "It is hot, but we have grown used to it over the years." Glancing at Delenn, he continued, "I'm sure we could make it comfortable for you here if you decided to stay for a while."
From behind her, Delenn heard Susan mutter under her breath "He is a persistent one, isn't he?" Delenn hastily motioned behind her back for Susan to cut it out. Indicating the spaceport around them, Delenn steered the conversation back to the matters at hand. "This is, ah…an impressive facility, judging by the little I have seen of it. Your people should be proud of their accomplishment."
"They are." Motioning for everyone to begin moving toward the ceremonial area, the Governor fell in beside Delenn and spoke as they walked. "A lot of effort went into the construction. This is the most modern facility of its kind in the sector. I'm sorry to hear that you won't be staying long enough to take the complete tour. Are you sure you won't reconsider?"
"Nothing would please me more." Delenn replied diplomatically. "Unfortunately, pressing business at home is forcing my return sooner than I anticipated. That does not preclude future visits, however. I am sure I will come this way again in the fullness of time."
"Well, we certainly look forward to your next visit. With that said, quite a crowd has gathered for this one. I think half the colony has turned out to see you."
Delenn smiled at the man. "I will make every effort not to disappoint them, then."
The Governor kept up the conversation, talking amicably as they made their way to the stage. Thankfully, thought Delenn, he made no further efforts to chat her up. She listened just closely enough to keep up her end of the conversation although, in reality, she was little concerned with the colony's mass transit system or the inner workings of the colony's political situation. Her thoughts were literally one hundred light years away.
She was almost surprised when they arrived. Covering her lack of attention with a slight smile, she followed the Governor up the steps as she, Ardenn, and Susan searched for their seats. Out in front of her, she saw what had to be thousands of people waiting to hear her speak. The thought that they were all present to hear her was a little daunting. Behind the crowd, she could see the main loading gantries rising in the distance, just waiting for the cargo ships now in orbit to begin arriving. Her remarks would mark the opening of this facility, and she was determined to get the port opened as quickly as possible so she could get out of there and on her way home. The Governor was scheduled to speak first. As he moved to the podium, she uttered a silent prayer that his remarks would be brief. Ruefully, she reflected that this was an election year. She was unlikely in the extreme to have her prayer answered.
Delenn noticed that Ardenn had taken the seat next to hers, and Susan was sitting across the walkway to the podium. Glancing at Ardenn, Delenn saw that she seemed to be paying attention to the Governor's words. <Well, she is doing better than I am…> she thought. Susan, for her part, was not even pretending to pay attention. Politics and speeches irritated her and she made no secret of it. Ironically, this was one of the characteristics that Delenn found most endearing about her. Instead, she occupied herself by fiddling with a small transceiver she had fitted into her ear so she could unobtrusively maintain contact with the Far Traveler and Delenn's security detail. Every now and then, Susan would whisper quietly into the link mated with the transceiver and nod at the responses she was getting.
It appeared that the Governor was nearing the end of his remarks. Just as Delenn was refocusing her attention on his words, a huge blast of wind tore through the area. Just one gust, and no more. The Governor paused briefly as everybody looked around. When it appeared the phenomenon would not be repeated, the Governor made a quick joke about changes in the weather and continued. A moment later, he concluded his remarks and introduced Delenn. Rising from her seat, Delenn moved to the podium. She scanned the crowd quickly. As he eyes roved over the gathered people, a face caught her eye. Someone she knew? The thought flitted briefly through her consciousness but was quickly dismissed as she began to speak.
Susan watched Delenn as the Governor introduced her and she rose to take his place in front of the crowd. <So far, so good…> she thought. No trouble had manifested itself. Susan was monitoring the communications between the security detail and the Far Traveler in orbit above the planet. Just as she began to relax, the message traffic was replaced by a low hum. <Odd…> she thought, tapping her link, <I should be getting at least some static.> As abruptly as it started, the hum stopped, only to be replaced by an excited voice.
"Ranger One, this is the Far Traveler! We are being jammed! White Star 74 reports that an assassination team is preparing to move against the President now! If she is exposed, get her under cover immediately! Can you hear us? Please respond!"
"SHIT!" Susan snarled, jerking the earpiece out of her ear. Jumping out of her chair, she looked over at Ardenn, who had risen as well at Susan's outburst. "Get Delenn! The attempt is going down now! We have to get her off this stage!" In unison, both women bolted towards the podium, closely followed by Delenn's security detail. As she ran, Susan heard a voice in the audience screaming what she thought was 'Take the shot!'. This made Susan run even harder. Arriving at the podium, both she and Ardenn grabbed Delenn almost simultaneously, jerking her roughly away. Susan heard a shot ring out, and the three women were thrown to the ground. Susan wound up on her back, Delenn atop her, as she stared at the sky. Overhead, she saw the belly of a White Star slide into view. She could feel the downdraft of the ships vertical thrusters pounding against her face. The power of the downdraft made the ground rumble like a distant earthquake vibrating up through her back. As she looked on, the ship's nose cannon opened up on the central gantry of the spaceport, cutting it right down the middle and sending flaming debris rocketing into the air…
Hearing Susan's exclamation behind her, Delenn momentarily froze in place. Roughly grabbed, she found herself in a bear hug with Ardenn in front of her and Susan behind. Out of nowhere, she heard the report of a firearm being discharged. Everything seemed to happen in slow motion for her after that. Looking into Ardenn's face, she watched as the young woman's eyes opened wide and she seemed to physically throw herself into her arms and up against her chest with unnatural force. Tiny needles stung Delenn's face as she felt the three of them toppling over. <Strange…> Delenn thought idiotically as she fell, <Ardenn seems to be surprised by all of this…>. Coming down hard on top of Susan, Delenn saw stars as her head slammed against Susan's chest. Ardenn's head was cradled against her bosom as the woman fell atop her. Furiously, she tried to refocus her thoughts. <Is that a White Star up there? There should be no White Stars in this area…>
Ardenn's attention was pulled from Delenn when she heard Susan's screamed epithet. Believing that Susan had somehow hurt herself, she rose to render assistance. A few words from Susan were all that was necessary to get her moving. She had known since seeing the ISN report from Mars that this was a potentially dangerous visit for Delenn to undertake. Running beside Susan towards the podium, she heard the shout from the crowd and redoubled her efforts to reach her mentor. Reaching the podium, she found herself facing Delenn with Susan on the other side of her. Gentleness was not an issue; they both grabbed her roughly and jerked her away from the dais. Looking into Delenn's eyes, Ardenn had little time to note the surprise in them as she felt a star go supernova inside her head. A halo seemed to form around Delenn's face as Ardenn numbly felt herself lifting off the ground. To her it seemed as if she were floating into the older woman's arms. Strangely, Delenn's arms became David's as she found herself back on the balcony overlooking Tuzanor. David was holding her, gently stroking her crest and murmuring to her. "Rest now," he said. "I'm here, beloved. You can rest now." Warmth flowed through her and she was content. Closing her eyes, she laid her head softly on his chest as sleep overcame her.
To Be Continued…
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