Conspiracy Theory IX (Part 2)

By Castor

******

Walls became ceilings, ceilings became floors, the air was deafening and it was all Sheridan could do to brace himself before he went headfirst down the stairs. The door ahead flew open and Neroon stood before him, wide eyed, angry and afraid. Sheridan pulled himself from the Shadows.

"How does it feel to be on the receiving end for a change?"

"How…?"

As last words go, it wasn’t particularly impressive, but Sheridan had seen too many old films to make the mistake of engaging his enemy in conversation. The shot to the chest was quickly followed by a second. As Neroon collapsed on the floor Sheridan stepped over and emptied the rest of the cap into his head until the Minbari commander was unidentifiable. A bloody and burned uniform ended at the neck in a spray of blood, smashed bone and broiled brain matter that spattered across the floor and up the wall.

Sheridan was sweating, panting and continued to press the trigger long after the gun fell silent. At last he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded in satisfaction. "That’s how, you son of a bitch."

Rumblings still echoed around him and the floor was none too steady, but having completed his task and, by a miracle, survived, Sheridan was determined to get off the planet and finish the job he’d started. He turned for the stairs and stopped. A Shadow creature shimmered into view blocking his path. His PPG empty, he reached for another cap. A black leg appeared by his left ear and spiked down, sending him sprawling with agonising pain shooting through his shoulder. His arm effectively pinned to his side he still struggled to reload as the second creature reared above him. He pushed back with his heels as fast as he could and swapped the gun to his right hand. The creature moved forward; he scrabbled again, his boots slipping on the polished surface. At last, with an almighty kick he managed to move far enough back to level the gun at the creature’s eyes and fired. The stream of plasma tore into the soft membrane and something black spurted out. The Shadow collapsed, its legs jerking and writhing obscenely.

The creature by the stairs remained impassive, its head tilted as if it was curious what the wounded man would do next. Sheridan levelled his PPG again and then felt agonising pain in his wrist. The PPG skidded across the floor. Sheridan followed its path first with his eyes, then tried to drag himself towards it. As he neared three more Shadow creatures appeared, surrounding him. He looked up into their towering black forms and then fell back, his energy exhausted. With luck it would be quick and if there was an afterlife, he’d be with Delenn before he realised what had happened. The thought brought calm.

He gazed up at the nearest creature that had relieved him both of his PPG and, for the time being, the sensation in his hand. "What are you waiting for? Finish it. I’m tired of waiting."

"Finish what?"

For a second Sheridan thought the creature had a voice, then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw someone reach down and pick up his PPG. He followed it up and found he was looking into the face of the old man he’d seen before. The man smiled, removed the weapon cap, pocketed it and then stepped forward. The Shadows parted to let him through and he reached down to help Sheridan to his feet.

"There is no reason to kill you, Captain Sheridan. I just want to have a friendly chat. I’m sure you’ve been led to believe all sorts of nonsense about us and I’m sure as an intelligent man you’d like to have all the facts. If you’d asked we could have done this without all the trouble you’ve had to go to." He looked up as dust shook free from the ceiling and rained down. He dusted his shoulder. "And without so much damage. We’re quite fortunate we’re several levels below the surface and the area above us has been reinforced, although you may be pleased to know you have certainly given the builders employment for some time to come. I have some tea in the other room. It’s Earl Grey."

As the old man led the way he noticed his guest glancing over at the body of Neroon. "Oh, don’t worry about the mess. My associates will see to that. Come in, come in! I’m glad to meet you at last. Oh, I’m forgetting my manners. My apologies Captain, I seem to have you at a disadvantage." He executed a brief but courteous bow. "My name is Justin."

***

"What the hell’s going on?" Garibaldi was gripping the arm of the command chair, his bald head glistening with sweat. He rubbed irritably at a small trickle of blood that brushed near his left eye. A piece of the ceiling had scratched him when a Shadow ship beam struck a glancing blow and several panels were still emitting wisps of smoke. Garibaldi’s attention was on the few remaining Shadow ships that suddenly and unaccountably turned tail and ran, despite the fact the battle was as yet undecided.

"Speak to me, someone. Why are they running?"

Several crew members looked at each other, as bewildered as Garibaldi. While it was good to see the enemy in a rout, it would be more satisfying if they had been the cause and so far there seemed no evidence to support that conclusion.

"Sir, I have a message coming through. It’s Commander Ivanova." The comms officer hesitated with his finger over the activate button, waiting to be given the go ahead.

"Well put her on!"

"Michael, John’s blown a hole the size of Moscow in the Shadow colony. Ships are coming in from everywhere. They’re running around like headless chickens."

The whoop on the command deck – restrained from the Minbari crew and deafening from the few human members – made Garibaldi miss the next part of the message.

"Quiet down! Sorry Susan, I missed that. Where’s John now?"

"He was down there. He pulled the ship down on top of him. I think…" Her eyes glistened and her throat closed, choking off the rest of the sentence. Garibaldi nodded, swallowing hard himself.

"He gave us our chance. We need to finish this now. Susan, you know he couldn’t have..."

"Yeah. I keep telling myself that, but there’s a part of me that wants to go down and check. Just in case?" It was a plea.

Garibaldi shook his head. "You’re there, you tell me. What are his chances?"

Ivanova turned to look at the scanner image, her shoulders dropping. "Nil."

"Then let’s make it worth what he’s given us. How many ships are within striking distance?"

"Right now just mine and Marcus. He signalled us after the explosion to let us know he was here. There’s so much damage even if they were listening I doubt they’d respond."

"We need to get others there. We can attack while they’re still trying to effect repairs." He turned to the Comms officer. "Call every ship. I want as many as possible heading for the Shadow home planet at best speed. If we can attack while they’re still shaken up we’ve got a chance." The officer nodded and began to signal. "Susan, we need to keep them off balance while we get into position. Don’t put yourself at risk, but if you can find any gaps in the defences, make the most of them. We’re coming just as fast as we can."

"Understood." Her voice was thick.

"I know. I feel the same. When this is over…"

"Yeah. Ivanova out."

Garibaldi gazed at the stars that seemed to blink as the remnants of ships drifted past; ghosts of the battle against the blackness of space. "You did good, John," me murmured. "Now it’s up to us. We won’t let you down." He drew a breath and in a stronger voice said, "Plot a course to the Shadow homeworld."

"Sir, the Victory and the Kodath report severe damage. They’re not capable of jumping yet."

"Then give ‘em the coordinates and tell them to follow on when they’re ready. We can’t wait for them."

"Yes sir. The course is laid in. Ready on your mark."

"Jump."

***

"I have to admit the Shadows – that’s not their real name, by the way, but I can’t pronounce their version. All clips, rustles, whistles and consonants – anyway, where was I? Oh yes, the Shadows are their own worst enemy when it comes to PR. Not the most handsome creatures to human eyes, ‘though I suspect the Gaim might disagree. Sugar?"

Sheridan shook his head and maintained a calm façade while his mind struggled with the incongruity of his situation. Distant explosions punctuated Justin’s ramblings and made the tea ripple in the delicate china cup that was placed on the table in front of him.

"Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. Still, once you can get over that initial shock they’re very friendly and more than willing to answer any question." Justin sat down and stirred his tea. Another explosion rocked the room and Sheridan glanced upwards. "That will be one of the power relays," Justin sighed, taking a sip. "Luckily we have backups so the life support won’t be affected down here."

"What are you going to do with me?"

Justin frowned. "Do with you? Captain, I wasn’t intending to do anything. I’m assuming that beyond killing Neroon you wanted some answers. I’m here to provide them."

"And then what?"

Justin put his cup down and sat back. "That is entirely up to you. You can leave now, though you may find your exits blocked by rubble. Rather beyond my control at present, ’though I’m sure my associates will organise clean up crews as fast as possible. It would have been so much easier if you’d simply knocked."

Sheridan glared at Justin, his expression showing he didn’t trust him one inch, then he sat back, mirroring his host’s relaxed posture. "All right. I do have some questions as it happens, and since it appears I’m stuck here for the time being…"

"Excellent! Fire away!"

Sheridan paused. Where did you start? "The Shadows have never made any effort to talk to us. Every encounter has been a fight to the death, so you’ll forgive me for having a poor opinion of their claims to peace…"

"Oh, they never claimed they were for peace. They’re for evolution." Sheridan blinked and waited for Justin to explain himself. "Think through human history. When have the greatest advances been made? During war. Great leaps forward in technology, medicine, even the arts. In between, humans take the most convenient and easiest path, but war forces people to stretch to their fullest potential. Not that the periods of peace aren’t a good thing. They give us the chance to recuperate and consolidate our learning, but too long and we get complacent. Like an ant colony or a cobweb, when they’re torn down they’re rebuilt but better than before."

"So you’re saying the Shadows think it’s their duty to come out every now and again and kick over all the anthills?"

"They’re an ancient race and they’ve seen races die out from complacency. They were racked with guilt because they knew they could have prevented it. Great and powerful races, dedicated to a life of peace and, well, minding their own business. No one has ever heard of them because they died out before they touched anyone else. Had they explored, every race in the universe would be more advanced."

"The Vorlons are just as ancient, but they don’t start fights."

Justin winced and Sheridan made a mental note. The antagonism between the Vorlons and the Shadows was evidently a sore point.

"The Vorlons were the primary reason those races died out. They encouraged their complacency, kept the Shadows away and when the time came there was nothing in those societies to protect them from calamity." Justin sat forward, warming to his task. "You see, the Vorlons are rather like your parents. They want you to play nicely and do what you’re told. If you do, they give you gifts like telepathy. Oh yes," he added, seeing the look on Sheridan’s face, "that was a Vorlon addition. Didn’t you wonder why they suddenly appeared with no warning?"

"I assumed they were there, they just didn’t brag about it."

"Ever met a telepath who doesn’t brag about how superior they are?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact." Privately Sheridan wondered if Lyta had survived the blast.

"Must be the only one. Anyway, the Vorlons give you presents and a helping hand. The Shadows believe you’re perfectly capable of rising to the occasion on your own, given the right stimulus, so really they’re on humanity’s side and credit them with more ability."

"Them. So you’re saying you’re not human any more?"

"Of course I am. I’ve lived here for so long I tend to forget my roots. Forgive me."

Sheridan grunted. "So according to you, billions of people dying is just, what, collateral damage in the name of the greater good?"

"Regrettable, but fundamentally yes. Does that shock you, Captain? The weak are weeded out in nature, too. Humans and the other races have simply evolved to a point where there’s no one left to shake them out of their complacency. If it’s the choice between billions dying and races being wiped out completely, I know which I prefer. Would you rather they disappeared from the universe and leave no mark of their passing as those others did? If you are happy with entire races ceasing to exist because they’re too timid to survive, then I think your viewpoint infinitely worse than mine. I also think you’re being a little disingenuous. After all, while you were prepared to die to make your point here today, I doubt you’re sorry you’ve achieved most of your aim and yet are still sitting here. Would you care for more tea?"

He frowned. "And it’s also perfectly all right to stick people inside those ships of yours, or are you telling me they volunteered?"

Justin stood up and collected the cups, turning his back on Sheridan as he returned the empties to the table. In that moment Sheridan quickly unclipped the spare PPG he’d put in his ankle holster and palmed the weapon so it was hidden under the sleeve of his uniform.

"No, they were not volunteers. It’s very hard to convince someone of the glory of controlling a Shadow ship until after they’ve been put in it. Once they understand, they appreciate the huge reserves of power that are now at their disposal, as well as the thrill of being a part of it. The skin becomes your skin, its sensors your eyes. You can live in space and see the glories of the universe without the cumbersome restrictions of metal, cables and the rest."

"But you’re not free to disobey and do your own thing, are you?"

"Are you? Are the soldiers who are under your command?"

"To take down time, yes, and in case you haven’t noticed we did break free from the Minbari controls."

"Yes. One day you’ll have to tell me that story. I’m sure it’s fascinating. Shadow ships serve because it is in their nature to serve. You are a career soldier. It’s in your nature to serve as well." A prickling sensation crawled up Sheridan’s neck and a draft ruffled his hair. The door behind him had opened. "As, indeed, it is my duty to serve. Now you know the truth, do you still want to war with the Shadows, or take the glorious future they offer you?"

"Frankly? I’d rather blow my brains out. At least then I’d die myself. I don’t doubt you believe what you’ve been spouting, and I don’t deny certain of the arguments make at least some sense." Justin smiled but Sheridan continued, "but if I have the choice between dying, between the entire human race dying by their own choice, or being forced to live on a bedrock of violence and antagonism, I think we’d be better off dead and I think those ancient races you spoke of felt the same. I thank you for telling me the truth, at least inasmuch as you understand it, but truth isn’t worth the price you ask."

"I’m sorry you feel that way, Captain. I hoped you would have the intelligence to appreciate the power that is being offered to you. But you will see and you will understand, and once you do and all your questions resolve themselves, you’ll be truly happy for the first time, I suspect, in your life." The prickling sensation had grown. Every muscle in Sheridan’s body was tensed. "But I’m not prepared to debate this any longer. It’s time you became a part of the system instead of an annoying thorn in our side."

Sheridan sprang to his feet and turned. A Shadow creature was standing directly behind him, one forearm raised, ready to strike. Sheridan dropped the PPG into his hand and opened fire, blasting away at the creature’s eyes. It screamed and fell back, feebly clawing at its face. He turned and found Justin, too, was armed. How Justin had known to protect himself at that moment Sheridan had no idea, although it was a fair bet that no one would go calmly to their fate under these circumstances. The fact remained Sheridan found himself staring down the barrel of his own PPG as Justin pointed it at his head.

"Like I said, I’d rather die," Sheridan said, raising his gun. A Shadow foreleg struck him down from behind as several more entered the room. Justin stepped forward, kicked the PPG from Sheridan’s limp hand and then rolled his body over with his boot.

"And we’d rather you lived, so long as it’s on our terms." He looked up. Two Shadows were standing guard over their fallen comrade. The door opened again and a group of pale bipeds walked into the room. "He refused to listen. Are the facilities still intact?" One of the creatures let out a series of clicks and whistles. "Very well. It will work, I think, but make sure you take care. We cannot afford an accident with this one. We’re about to have company and we’ll be too busy to deal with him properly then. Besides, he may prove useful. You know what to do."

The creatures bowed and hoisted Sheridan’s body between them. One stayed behind and extracted what appeared to be a gun with a flared muzzle from within its robes. The Shadow guards stepped back and it aimed the weapon at the body of their comrade. When it pulled the trigger all traces of that body were vaporized.

***

Lyta had sensed a slight change in Sheridan’s mental alertness when he’d found the stairs, exhilaration first and then the fear that sped through the link alerted her both to his success with Neroon and his subsequent capture. She held back, unable to stop events and working desperately to hide her own presence in the hope a moment might come when she would be able to help. Discreetly, she’d followed the creatures with their burden as they made their way to a black door at the end of the corridor. The door opened and the creatures stepped into space, dropping through the floor with Sheridan unconscious but upright between them. When she was sure no other creatures lurked ready to pounce on her, she edged towards the doorway. It obediently opened and she warily looked up, then down. A black shaft stretched in both directions with no sign of any means of support. Putting her hand out, she felt to see if there might be an energy field of some kind. Her fingers tingled. She cocked her head, narrowing her eyes. With as much pressure as she could exert she slammed her hand downwards. It was slowed almost instantly by an invisible cushion and she nodded to herself. Some kind of force-field that responded to acceleration existed in the shaft. It was time for a leap, or in this case step, of faith.

"Here goes nothing," she muttered, and stepped into the shaft.

For a couple of seconds she dropped like a stone and wondered if she’d misjudged, but then she slowed, her body encased in the energy field. For a long time she fell in darkness, wondering if she was going to reappear in a room surrounded by the enemy, then the shaft opened and light came from below. It was a dull, ruddy glow but warning enough. In the low light she examined the walls as they moved past, looking for something she could grab, occasionally glancing below to judge how long she had. As she neared the opening she felt herself slowing. She looked down again and saw a slight ledge. It was barely a finger hold, but in the reduced gravity in the shaft it was enough. She reached out and snagged it. For a second there was a tug and then she found she could pull herself up. Her feet hung just above the opening of the shaft and she closed her eyes and reached out to sense what was below her.

In the distance and receding she was aware of the creatures that had taken Sheridan. There was also a strong presence that was both many and one at the same time, but she couldn’t identify where it was. She probed the sensation, like a sore tooth, but whatever it was she couldn’t separate out an individual mind, nor place it beyond ‘some distance away’. She took a deep breath, closed her eyes and let go. She dropped lightly and remained still in a half crouch, looking and sensing as widely as she could. When she was satisfied she wasn’t being observed she got up and quickly followed the route of Sheridan’s captors.

She could not tell how long their journey took– time on Z’ha’dum wasn’t even remotely predictable – but eventually her quarry entered a room and placed their burden on a table, strapping him down. The creatures muttered and clicked to each other, but, so far as Lyta could tell, were unaware of her presence. Slipping inside the doorway, she positioned herself in the darkness behind a stack of crates that were marked with black, angular writing she did not recognise. She was aware of a temporary atmosphere, as if this room was not supposed to be used in this way but had been commandeered under the present situation as a matter of urgency. That sensation was reinforced when more of the creatures entered the room towing something on an antigravity sled. One piece was removed and erected above the table, attached to a hook that hung in the darkness. It dropped a curtain that surrounded the table, leaving at least 6 feet of working space all the way around. Lyta sensed the energy field that surrounded the curtain and, putting all of her perceptions together, recognised the arrangement. This was a surgery. A table was wheeled inside and one of the creatures pressed a button. The lid slid back to reveal a rack of gleaming metallic instruments and one of the creatures stood by, carefully arranging the tools. An upright black cylinder was wheeled within the curtain. Two doors about an inch and a half below the top slid aside and an armature protruded. One of the creatures pulled the arm down and fixed something to the end. A whizzing sound followed and Lyta stared in horror as the creature released the armature, revealing it now held a tiny circular saw that buzzed angrily. The creatures stepped out of the curtained area and a beam of green light provided an X-ray picture of Sheridan’s body for all to see. Apparently satisfied, the creatures closed in. A mask attached to tubes was lowered over Sheridan’s face and Lyta covered her mouth to stifle her instinctive reaction as one of the creatures grasped the armature and lowered it, the saw cutting straight through skin and into bone.

***

Ivanova and Marcus had been monitoring the planet for two days, unable to do anything more until the rest of the fleet arrived. By day three the frustration levels on both ships were reaching breaking point. The explosions on the surface had ceased before the end of day one and huge numbers of Shadow ships had arrived by the end of day two. Susan had been in contact with Garibaldi and could only assume the Shadows had better maps of hyperspace since he would not arrive for at least another 17 hours. The presence of so many enemy ships meant the two allies had to wait quietly in hyperspace, unable to take a closer look or even scan in too much depth.

Ivanova wasn’t sleeping very well, and since she couldn’t do anything more aboard her own ship without risking the wrath of the Alyt, she decided to meet her demons head on.

The two ships were so close she probably could have crossed the intervening distance in an EVA suit, but she took a shuttle, docked without fuss and quickly made her way to Sheridan’s quarters. She wandered around, her mind flooding with memories while she struggled not to give in to the depression that she knew lurked just below the surface. Their time together as lovers had been brief but memorable. Their time as friends had lasted years and Susan found she could not accept he would never again walk through the door or look at her with that little boy’s grin that could melt your heart no matter how annoyed you had been. A part of her remained convinced that despite all the evidence he could not be dead. People like John Sheridan didn’t die. They might get wounded, seriously so on occasion, but they didn’t die from something as pathetic as falling masonry. The universe wouldn’t let them die until they’d finished what they’d started, and when they did finally bow out it wasn’t without achieving something spectacular. Whatever Sheridan had achieved initially was wasting away in the delay while they awaited the rest of the fleet.

She took a deep breath and put down the book she’d been examining to look around the sparsely decorated room. It felt empty and a little cold. He’d accumulated more things since they’d been freed of the Minbari programming, but much of that went with the Agamemnon. What little he’d picked up since then didn’t really mark the room as his; it was practical and impersonal and hadn’t been in his possession long enough even to get evidence of ownership. A man should leave more behind than a few anonymous trinkets to mark his life.

She walked into the bedroom, sat on the bed and picked up the pillow. It had not been cleaned since he’d last slept there and there was still the faint smell of clean skin and that unique scent that was difficult to describe but unmistakably him. She took a deep breath and swallowed hard, carefully replacing the pillow where it belonged.

What if he had finished what he was supposed to do? Was that it? Someone who left so huge a hole in her heart shouldn’t end like this. She shook her head and wiped an irritable hand across her face to remove the moist evidence of her thoughts. She’d know if he was gone. She’d just know. There was a part of her mind that still held him, dormant, true, but there nevertheless. She was convinced the connection was the result of her low grade telepathy and she nursed the contact. So long as that piece remained, he was still alive. For now it was enough. Returning to the living room she curled up on his settee, a bottle on the side table and smeared tears drying on her face.

***

Lyta watched in horrified fascination as the creatures operated on Sheridan. Exactly why they were going to so much trouble she couldn’t imagine, but whatever it was they took great care. The creatures surrounded him and she moved carefully, trying and get a better view. The curtain obscured details but she could see they were concentrating exclusively on his skull. Brain surgery done by creatures such as these didn’t bear much analysis. It couldn’t possibly be for his welfare. She closed her eyes and concentrated. Somewhere she had to find a part of him. Even unconscious the human mind seethed with knowledge of self, if only potentially, ready to reactivate the moment the subject woke. That piece only ceased to be when the subject was dead and if there was such a thing as a soul, this was where it resided. She wondered if she had the strength to do what had to be done, but here, on the home planet of the Shadows, the air crackled with energies, including telepathic ones. Normals wouldn’t sense anything beyond a vague awareness of feeling more capable, but she could tap directly into that power and redirect it. Harder and harder she pushed. They wouldn’t be taking so much trouble if he was already dead, and that meant he was still there, if only she could find him. Somewhere… somewhere...

Yes! A tiny, bright spark still lurked, blissfully unaware of what was happening to it. She pushed harder. There wasn’t room or sufficient consciousness for her to plant very much, but if she could just give him a hook, that might be enough. Using every ounce of mental strength she possessed she tried to press the trigger home. The tiny piece of him resented her intrusion and struggled. Taking a deep breath she worked to calm and reassure until finally he acquiesced and accepted her work.

The creatures jerked upright. Scanners that were attuned to Sheridan’s mental alertness spiked erratically. They looked to each other, halted what they were doing and one ran a hand held scanner over his head. Lyta quickly covered her tracks and mentally withdrew. The alien encephalogram slowly returned to normal and the creatures returned to their work.

There was nothing more she could do. If he survived there’d be a piece of him that was still, most assuredly, his own. If she survived she’d be able to trigger it directly, otherwise contact with certain people would set it off. Of course, how much of him would be left to latch onto the hook was debateable. She shook her head. They could cross that bridge if they ever got out of here alive. She stretched out her senses once more, ensured the corridor was clear and quietly withdrew from the room. It was a safe bet that if the surgery was a success Sheridan would eventually get off the planet or, if left down here, could be rescued. Her survival, on the other hand, was pretty much down to her. She needed to find a shuttle and fast.

As she walked the corridor, her mind reaching out in every direction, she was again aware of the looming, oppressive presence she’d felt before. Always in the background it had been a part of that strength she’d used to work on the Captain. Now she sought the source. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a being in the usual sense. There was no individual identity, only massive and frustrated power. The creature or creatures were trapped, undirected and lost. They needed something to escape. Well, Lyta knew that feeling all too well, and where there were others seeking escape she might find an ally. She homed in.

Down endless corridors that twisted and turned she walked until she was thoroughly lost. A thudding headache built as she neared her destination, her telepathic shields relentlessly pounded by the presence. Finally she sensed a massive, open area ahead. When she reached the corner she took one look and froze.

The chamber was vast, the size of an ocean and as high as a mountain. Within it rank upon rank of Shadow ships laid waiting.

***

The bottle was over half empty when the door chime announced Marcus had decided to check in on Ivanova.

"Come."

"Susan?" He hesitantly stepped inside, worried he was encroaching on her private grief.

"I’ll be OK. It’s just…"

"I know." He sat down in the chair, giving her room. "I didn’t know him as long as you did, but he was a good man."

"He was. Is." She quickly corrected herself and then the energy seemed to leak out of her. "I don’t know. I can’t believe he’s gone but after what happened…" She couldn’t say any more, afraid if she tried to analyse the tenuous contact she sensed within her it would fade like a mist. Besides, Marcus would probably laugh at her. Instead she just stared at the floor.

There was a painful silence. He looked around the room. "We’ll have to pack his stuff up."

"Not yet, OK?" Let’s get this fight over and done with first." Her voice was sharp and Marcus slightly changed tack.

"I don’t know who you want commanding this ship in the interim. I can get you the crew manifest. There are some fine officers aboard, although you may have someone in mind from one of the other ships. You know best."

"John put you in charge. He trusted you, and so do I."

"I’m not a trained officer. You need a proper commander, someone the crew will respect, not some Johnny-Come-Lately who’s spent his time sitting behind a console at a spaceport."

She waved aside his self deprecation. "You may not realise it, but your crew does respect you. You’ve proved yourself as a commander on the field and I’m satisfied you’re the best person for the job. That’s assuming you want to do it, of course."

He paused and then nodded. "OK, for the interim only. The crew needs stability right now. They’re pretty shaken up."

"Spoken like an officer."

"After this is over," he continued, refusing to accept her compliment, "we can talk about it."

"It’s not unusual to give battlefield commissions, ’though I admit it’s a hell of a jump: nowhere to commander in one stroke. Still, if the ability warrants it, and your crew seems very satisfied with your ability. I’ve heard nothing but respect since we found you."

"They’ve talked about me?" He was surprised.

"It’s not what they say, it’s how they say it. They’ve fallen into calling you Captain without even thinking about it, even when you’re not in the room. There’s no hint of resentment. Even your officers have bowed to your command. You have what it takes. Not everyone does, not even trained officers."

"I still think I’m a bit too independent to do this full time."

"With any luck it won’t be much longer. Once this fight is over…"

"Once this fight is over, who knows? What are we going to do? This has become our focus, but only Sheridan knew where he was planning to lead us next."

"Earth. It’s time to show the Minbari they can’t keep us enslaved forever."

"And after that?"

"Let’s wait until we get this one out of the way first."

Marcus acquiesced, watching as Ivanova poured herself another drink. "Not to sound like a mother hen, but don’t you think you’ve had enough?"

"I’m Russian," she said, as if that explained everything. She downed the vodka and then waved the empty glass. "You know that time in the hours before dawn when all your worries come crashing down on you and everything looks blackest?" Marcus nodded. "We call it ‘the hour of the wolf’. My father used to take one large glass of vodka every evening, to keep the wolf away, he said. Then he’d take three small glasses, just in case the wolf had cubs." She poured a smaller glass and raised it in salute. "Since John blew up the Shadow base I’ve been living in the hour of the wolf all the time, and she’s not just bringing her cubs – there’s an entire pack out there." She downed the vodka. "So you’ll forgive me if…" Her eyes went wide and she gasped.

"Susan? Susan, what’s wrong?"

She huddled over, shaking her head and moaning. "No. Dear God, no!"

***

Shocked into immobility, Lyta stared at the fleet that lay before her. It seemed as if the interior of the planet itself was one vast docking bay. Ships lined both sides of a central clear path that stretched beyond sight. They lay like soldiers on parade, rank upon rank, row upon row, some on the ground, others apparently hovering or resting on invisible supports. So many ships, just waiting for a signal, their skins slowly changing, almost imperceptibly, a rippling effect in the blackness that indicated their readiness. Each one radiated power, loss and a heartbreaking need. A need to do, a need to escape, a need to reach out and touch… something. The presence was oppressive. It dragged at her physically and mentally, and she fell to her knees holding her head in her hands. So much torment, an agony of loss. Her heart wanted to reach out and help and as she staggered to her feet she moved forward, pulled towards the need. She fought her own revulsion and sought out one amongst the thousands, but as she neared she was forced back by a scream that tried to rip the skin from her bones. It echoed, whether in her head or in the cavern she couldn’t determine, but she covered her ears and shrank away, unable to bear it. She was not one of them, she didn’t belong and wasn’t wanted. The rippling effect increased as the ships registered their agitation and she stepped back. Beneath the scorn she felt a quieter presence that still urged her on, but the dominant mind rejected her harshly, slapping her away. In the far, far distance she saw a ship slowly move towards her. As it grew closer she felt incredible anticipation. Something was about to happen and the ship was excited, eager to be complete. It wanted her, wanted to join with her. It sang in her mind about the wonders she would discover if only she would come inside and allow it to show her. All other voices stilled until the smothering presence of the closing ship was all that filled her mind.

‘Join me, and I will show you the universe. Be me and you will reach out and touch the stars.’ The desire, the need filled her mind. Its voice tore into her, the presence too huge to be contained.

She backed against the wall, a scream slowly rising in her chest. She had to get away. As she turned she sensed a smaller presence. The creatures, whether the ones she’d seen before or others she couldn’t tell, were coming down the corridor towards her. Desperately she looked around the chamber for an escape. To her right there was a platform attached to runners that stretched into the darkness above. She ran to it and pressed a button. The platform rose smoothly. There was no safety rail and she stood squarely in the middle and stared at her feet to shut out the dizzying effect. At last the platform stopped and she looked up to see a small shuttle car now sat directly in front of her. It was attached to rails that hung suspended from the roof and the door was open. She stepped inside, trying not to think about the vertiginous drop below. The doors closed smoothly and the shuttle sped off across the chasm. She looked down through the windows. A ‘Vee’ of bright light from the corridor illuminated a number of figures the size of punctuation marks, their almost imperceptible movement the only clue to what they were. Before she could make out what they were doing the speed of the shuttle took her away and they vanished into the darkness. Below her the ranks of the enemy ships lay, black engines of terror. Anticipation and excitement rang in her mind, a roar of power and joy. Then, suddenly, the feeling blanked. For a second there was silence, and then a second scream, louder, more exultant, roared. She fell to the floor of the shuttle and screamed out her own pain, huddled in a corner, praying for unconsciousness.

"No! Oh my God, no! Noooooo!!!"

She had to get out of there and warn those above. She had to get out for the sake of her own sanity that was ebbing away, stripped a slice at a time by the scream. Long after the exultation ceased her head rang with the after echoes, and still the shuttle sped on. At last it slowed and she pulled herself to her feet. When it stopped the door opened at the opposite end. Shaking, she stumbled onto the platform and fell again to her knees as it dropped through the darkness. She no longer had the energy to scan ahead and merely hoped nothing awaited her.

With a final jolt the platform stopped. She looked around, relief flowing through her. All around her were shuttles. Normal, human-sized space shuttles. Human and Minbari ships lay immediately around her and in the distance she could make out alien ones, some of which she could identify. Those sporting the design preferences of Gaim, Centauri, Drazi and even a Markab or two filled the smaller hangar, together with many she didn’t recognise. She ran towards the nearest human shuttle and all the time she ran her view was blurred by tears she couldn’t stop.

***

"What? What is it?" Marcus knelt and grabbed Ivanova’s ice cold hands as she rocked in her seat. He shook her. "Susan! What the hell’s going on?!"

With a sudden cry she reared back and then sat, panting and staring into space. "He’s gone."

"Who’s gone?"

"I knew. I could still feel him. I thought perhaps it was my imagination, but it wasn’t. They’ve done… something. He was terrified… screaming. Then it stopped…There’s nothing." She shook her head, her face twisting in pain. "He’s gone. I can’t feel him anymore." She continued to shake her head as if she could somehow dislodge the images and emotions churning inside.

Marcus was at a loss. He jabbed at his communicator and the watch officer responded.

"Is there any change down on the planet?"

"No, sir. They’re still working on that structure but I reckon they’re going to be doing that for months."

"Any new ships turned up?"

"Nothing. Is there anything wrong, sir?"

"Just checking. Cole out."

He gripped Ivanova’s hand as she continued to rock, occasional quiet noises the only evidence of her distress. It was almost worse than if she’d torn the room up. At least then he’d have had something he could communicate with. This silent, lost, empty shell of a person frightened him more than one of her rages ever could. He tried to snap her out of it.

"Susan, you don’t know that. Come on. You’ve been walking around in here on your own and it’s just your imagination piling on the guilt. You’re blaming yourself and it wasn’t your fault. There was nothing you could have done to stop him. He wasn’t listening to anyone, believe me. Whatever you’re feeling, it’s not real." He shook her, trying to drive the point home. "He didn’t suffer. I don’t think he even had a chance to realise the shuttle had hit before it was too late. It was clean and honourable and nobody’s fault. Don’t do this to yourself." He was struggling to find the words that would make her feel better, but he didn’t know what else to do. He shook her, hard.

There was a pause. She looked up and a cold determination spread across her face. Her previously slightly slurred speech became razor edged and painfully sober. "He was alive and we left him down there to die alone and scared to death. I know. I felt it as if it was me, and I know the difference between a nightmare and reality. He was alive and *I* left him down there." She grabbed her uniform jacket and tugged it on. "They’re going to pay. If I have to take them on one at a time they’re going to pay."

Marcus jumped up and grabbed her arm. "Where are you going?"

She shrugged him off. "I can’t sit here doing nothing. It’s time we took the fight to them."

He grabbed her again. "Garibaldi’s on his way with the fleet. Wait for them. You go out now and all you’re going to do is alert them." She was still fighting against him. "Susan!"

She threw him off and turned. Marcus looked into eyes that burned with pain and hatred and he backed away as she bore down on him. "He trusted us. He went down there to save us and put an end to this for everyone. Whatever they did terrified him. I’ve known John longer than anyone outside my own family. He doesn’t get scared. Not like that. He fights and he never gives up hope. Before they killed him they took that hope away and put nightmares in its place. You honestly believe I’m going to just sit here and do nothing, knowing they did that to him?"

"Yes. Because if you don’t you’ll waste everything he gave his life for. You can’t go out there, Susan. You can’t do anything until Garibaldi gets here with the rest of the fleet. We have to sit tight. You know that as well as I do. Once Garibaldi gets here you can go out and take on every Shadow ship one on one if you want to, but don’t screw up the attack because you’re mad at them." He stood in front of her, his eyes and voice intense. "Don’t let them win. Not like this."

She stood for a moment and Marcus wondered if she was going to take a swing at him. Finally she took a deep breath.

"Find out Garibaldi’s ETA. If it isn’t in the next 4 hours tell him I’m going in alone."

"Susan…"

"Four hours. Not one second more. He’s had long enough." She stalked out, heading for the shuttle bay to return to her own ship. Marcus watched her, silently praying that Garibaldi would arrive within the next fifteen minutes.

***

As it was, Garibaldi and the bulk of the fleet were picked up on the sensors three hours and thirty-two minutes later. Marcus had been considering whether the brig would hold Susan, assuming her crew could get her in there in the first place, and the relief saturated his voice and sparkled in his eyes as he activated the inter-ship communications.

"Mr Garibaldi is on line."

"About time! Secure line?" Marcus nodded. "Put him through." Garibaldi’s face appeared on screen and Ivanova narrowed her eyes. "Did you come via another galaxy?"

"We’ve been pushing the engines to the limit. This place isn’t exactly a stroll down the street, you know. What’s going on down on the planet?"

"They’ve called in ships from all over the place. I don’t recognise half the outlines, but they’re bringing materials and repairing the Shadow complex just as fast as they can."

"He dealt them a blow, then?"

"For what it was worth." Her tone was disgusted. "If you’d been here two days ago, even one day…but now…"

He rose to her challenge. "If we’d pushed the engines that hard, the fleet wouldn’t have been capable of doing anything but sit here waiting for repairs. As it is we’ve lost a few on the way; they were damaged in the fight and the rush to get here wiped them out. They’re coming along as soon as they’re up and running. We’ve still got enough to give ‘em a nasty shock if we plan this right."

"Good, because I’ve been sitting here twiddling my thumbs long enough."

"I’ve got a surprise for you."

Ivanova wasn’t in the mood. "Then it can wait until this is over."

"No, I think this one you want to open right now."

"Michael…!" The warning in her tone was unmistakeable. Garibaldi stepped aside to allow his guest to step into view. Ivanova gasped. "Delenn?!"

Delenn bowed. When she looked up Susan could see the pain in her eyes. "I am sorry. If I could have done anything to prevent what has happened, I would have."

For a second Ivanova was dumbstruck. Sorry? That was the best she could do? Then she looked into Delenn’s eyes. The pain, hidden behind the mask of duty and formality, was plain to see. It looked as though she’d recently been crying. "Did you…?"

Delenn nodded, apparently understanding exactly what Ivanova was asking. "I…" She paused, swallowed, and then continued, although it was evidently a struggle. "I felt his loss."

Ivanova looked away, her own emotions roiling inside. Finally she jerked her head, gritted her teeth and gave a curt nod in return. "When this is over we’ll talk about it."

"I would like that."

"Right now, we have work to do. They’re gonna pay, Delenn."

"Yes, they will."

The commanders met on Sheridan’s ship, Marcus leading them to a small conference room. The plan of attack was mapped out with three squads. Two groups were positioned to come out either side of the main Shadow complex, aiming to come in on the flanks of the gathered Shadows and their allies. Marcus was to take one wing and Garibaldi the other. Ivanova had control of a third team positioned between the two and she detached one ship to watch the far side of the planet; an early warning system in case the Shadows had any surprises.

Delenn had another task to fulfil but she proved an unwilling participant. Determined to be there for the final assault on the planet, she obstinately refused to move while Ivanova and Garibaldi tried to assure her that, if things went as planned, she would be there in time and her job could well prove the most important of all. In truth, they did want her away from the fighting. With Sheridan gone she was all that was left to lead whatever remained of the fleet if this went wrong. Even so, her role placed her in considerable danger. Still she insisted someone else could handle the duty. Finally it was Marcus who took her to one side. After a few muted whispers he tapped his link and summoned the telepath Sheridan had spoken to before he left. Marcus and the rest of the command staff left the room while Delenn and Paul remained inside for over an hour. When she came out she was exhausted, but no one could deny the steely resolve that flowed from her, or the assured way in which she took control. She had learned something in that hour that made her take a shuttle across to one of the other White Stars and speed away into the depths of hyperspace, engines stretched to maximum capacity.

After she disappeared from sensor range Ivanova looked at Marcus. "What was that all about?"

"The Captain asked to speak to a telepath before he left. He was afraid people would blame themselves for what he’d decided to do and he wanted to be sure there’d be no recriminations."

"So why the hell didn’t you tell me about him?!"

"If you’d pushed that hard, I would have. You can talk to him after the battle."

"And what if one of us gets killed?"

"Well if it’s him, you can ask Delenn." As Ivanova opened her mouth to speak Marcus raised his hand. "You know she and the Captain were very close before he left. The message was for whoever needed it the most, and right now that’s her." Ivanova turned away, afraid her feelings would show. He was right. Sheridan had made it clear his affections now lay with Delenn. Still, it hurt. Marcus moderated his tone. "She knows how much you care about him too, Susan. She’ll tell you if you ask."

Still with her back to him she muttered, "You think so?"

Marcus shook his head. He had to find a way to get her fighting spirit back because in this mood she was a danger to her own ship. He thought and then grinned. "On the one hand we have a man with more women after him than he can cope with, and on the other there’s me being chased by unicorns! It’s enough to make you sick."

Ivanova straightened and turned around. "You’re kidding?"

"Nope."

"You mean you never… with anyone?"

"Never found the right one."

Somehow the thought cheered her. "When this is over I think it’s time you did something about that."

"I’m game if you are."

"Don’t. Even. Go there!" She walked away and Marcus grinned.

"Worth a shot," he muttered jauntily as he followed to bid the departing commanders good luck.

Once the commanders were back in their ships the telepaths in the fleet were briefed and took up their positions according to their methods: Minbari safe in the inner sanctums of the ships, human near portholes or on the command deck so they could see their targets. Franklin ensured there were ‘bots with the virus loaded and ready to go for the human and, as their sensors reported, other race’s ships that had been modified with Shadow tech.

It was another three hours before everyone was in place and the primary targets identified. Once the go signals had been received, Ivanova gave the command and the left wing, named beta squadron, darted in, opening jump points as close to the enemy ships as could be risked. They came out firing, their tinted weapons lighting up the darkness with a lattice of criss-crossing beams. Franklin’s ’bots closed with the Shadow enhanced ships and began their work, ready for the next wave of attack. With the bulk of the targets either destroyed, out of action or compromised, Ivanova called retreat and sent in gamma squadron. Catching the enemy in the rear, this attack was even more successful than the first, their shots blasting through the compromised Shadow enhanced cruisers and rendering them so much floating debris. Again, the ’bots slipped in between the ships, latching on and depositing their load, which quickly began to eat away at the protective shells.

Ivanova shook her head, watching the battle unfold. "When the battle’s going this well," she mused, "you’re walking into a trap." She tapped the communications button on the arm of her chair. "Ivanova to Iridice. Anything happening over there?"

The scout ship on the far side of the planet had been watching the battle with increasing frustration. "Iridice here. All quiet so far."

"Keep monitoring. Something’s wrong and you’re probably in for more business than you can handle."

The Alyt of the Iridice nodded. "The second I see anything, you’ll…" He broke off, staring at something off the monitor that Ivanova couldn’t see. "Oh hell. Switching to external."

Ivanova slowly rose from her seat as dozens of Shadow ships rose from the far side of the planet and arrowed towards the fighting. Two broke off and headed straight for the Iridice.

"Iridice. Get the hell out of there!"

"We’ve got telepaths aboard. We can hold these two."

"And then they’ll send more until there’s one more Shadow ship than you have telepaths. I repeat, get out of there NOW!"

The image changed as the ship turned and opened a jump point. The red swirl of hyperspace was a blessed relief from the nightmare image that had assailed those aboard Ivanova’s ship, but it was short lived. Another Shadow ship appeared suddenly out of the swirling mist and a shaft of energy briefly flared before the monitor went blank.

"Ivanova to alpha squadron. They’re trying to surround us. Keep your sensors at maximum. White Stars, spread out and keep your eyes open. Other ships, stay with me." She turned back to comms. "Put me through to Garibaldi."

"Susan, what’s up?"

"There’s an entire fleet of Shadow ships gonna be appearing on your sensors any second. You know what to do." Garibaldi nodded grimly and shut down the connection. "Any messages from our stragglers?"

The ship’s Alyt, who’d taken over communications to allow Ivanova to command, promptly responded. "On their way."

"How long?"

"Another hour at most."

"Let’s hope we can hold out that long."

The Alyt nodded and then her hands flew across the console. "Shadow reserves entering firing range."

A black mass screamed in and then separated itself out into individual ships that descended on beta squadron. Garibaldi had managed to prepare them and several Shadow ships stalled as they neared, writhing in the grip of the telepaths. Ivanova quickly brought alpha squadron in, picking off the stalled ships as fast as they could.

"Ivanova to Garibaldi. Watch your back, Michael! There’s more of them out there and I’m busy."

"I’m on it."

The battle raged, a confusing mass of ships, bits of ships and coruscating light. Time and again the squadrons attacked, wrecked havoc and then pulled back, yet each time more Shadow ships appeared to take up the slack and renew the attack, splitting their defences once they understood the allied battle plan. The element of surprise now gone, all the allied fleet piled in, picking off their targets from every angle. Even so, slowly and painfully the fight was swinging the Shadow’s way, if only by sheer weight of numbers. The White Stars swooped, somersaulted and fired in dazzling displays of skill that in any other situation would have been spectacular, but now were merely the result of necessity.

Garibaldi was watching the displays. "We’re getting wasted! We’ve got to pull out!" Even though the allied ships, and especially the White Stars, were taking down Shadow capital ships at a terrific rate, it took at least three to break through and kill the heart of each one, and while they did that they were sitting ducks for the fighters. He jabbed at his communications console. "Ivanova, we’ve got to pull out. There’s just too many of them!"

"Not yet! We can still do this. Keep at it! If we pull back now they’ll just rebuild and start again. We have to end this, now!"

"If we keep this up much longer there won’t be enough of us left to fight anyone ever again. We have to stop!"

"Sir! Jump points opening, right on top of us!"

"Show me!" The view changed and Garibaldi watched the blue cones opening all around them. For a moment he was convinced it was the end, then with a whoop he recognised the first ship. "The cavalry’s arrived!"

Delenn’s ship arrowed into the fight followed by every other remaining allied ship: those that had been waiting for an attack even further away than Garibaldi when Sheridan’s explosives rocked Z’Ha’Dum; those that had to be left behind in the hurry to get there and a few that had been caught up in battles with Minbari ships and had only now realised there was an even bigger fight that needed their attention. The new ships dove into the battle, the simple surprise of their sudden arrival catching many Shadow ships unexpectedly. More and more fell to the onslaught and Garibaldi began to relax.

***

Down in the depths of the planet the order came for the last reserve of ships to rally to the planet’s defence. As one, the ships responded, awakening from their sleep and rising quickly. Orders and tactics passed between them as quickly as a thought in a single mind. The clumsy electronics that separated most races from the controls of their ships did not exist here. These ships merely had to think of turning and they turned; of firing and the blast hit whichever target they were looking at. The thrusters were muscles, the sensors eyes and ears and touch and taste and smell. The ship and its pilot were one, and as one they telepathically recited the mantra over and over.

*I am the machine. I am the machine.*

The cold blackness of space was like walking outside after being trapped in a musty room. The ships stretched and shouted with delight to find themselves doing what they had been designed to do, and doing it brilliantly. Soaring, diving, firing – every action an exquisitely performed work of art. A beam shot out and a target was neatly sliced in half, another hit the nose of a ship and tore through to the stern, separating the entire structure so it tumbled through space, lifeless. To fulfil the design, to be the perfect machine, to fight and defend to the death, this was heaven and the machines exulted in their joy.

***

"Oh my God..." Susan breathed.

The stars were obliterated. The huge wave of Shadow capital ships rose from the planet and tore into the allied fleet. All the White Star Alyts hit on the same idea at the same time and sped into the mass, hoping to draw them into firing into themselves. Ivanova wove in and out, banking to avoid a blast here, diving to avoid another there. One huge Shadow ship lurked menacingly on the edge of the battlefield, not firing but watching, as though daring her or anyone to come closer. She sped towards it, drawing the remnants of alpha squadron’s White Stars behind her.

"I’ve got you now, you bastard!" Swooping, banking, the ship performed feats of manoeuvrability that would have left any other ship standing, yet still the black menace simply watched.

*I am the machine. I am the machine...*

"Why isn’t it attacking?" The thought, voiced by the navigator, was echoed throughout the command deck.

Ivanova threw it off. "Who cares? At least this is one we can take out. All ships, prepare to attack."

As they neared the crew slowly recognised the change in scale. "That thing’s huge!" The navigator was right. The Shadow ship was even bigger than those they’d been fighting, and the thought entered every mind in Ivanova’s squadron that perhaps here they’d caught the Shadow fleet commander, if such a thing existed. If they could take out this one…

The White Stars darted in with renewed vigour. As they did so, two Shadow ships separated themselves from the main attack and descended, their fire ripping through alpha squadron. One piece of a White Star spiralled off and struck Ivanova’s ship. As sparks flew on the command deck she jabbed at the communications console.

"Ivanova to Garibaldi, I think I’ve got some kind of command ship here, but we’re getting blasted. If you’ve got anything, get those things off our tails."

It was Delenn who answered. "I am on my way."

"How the hell did you pick that up?" The secure communications should have ensured only Garibaldi would have heard the request.

The ship’s Alyt quickly checked the communications console and then she looked up. "The blast has compromised security. We are broadcasting on a clear signal."

"Dammit! That’s all I need. Delenn, do what you can, I can’t talk any more. Ivanova out."

Another explosion rocked the command deck and pieces of the ceiling struts and electronics dangled and sparked around them.

"Automated repair systems are failing. We cannot take another hit like that one."

"If this works we won’t need to. Get a signal to the squadron. Send it out in any way you can to keep it hidden. Time on target."

"Understood."

As the White Stars neared their prey they were dwarfed by the sheer bulk. Delenn’s wing arrowed in to take out the relatively smaller Shadow ships that continued to bear down on Ivanova’s squadron, but two more shimmered into existence right in front of the massive target. Susan had less than a minute to register their existence before a shaft of light arrowed towards her.

She knew this was it. "I’m sorry, John. I did everything I could."

The Shadow control ship watched as the tiny White Star was blown to pieces, and it listened as signals flew between the remaining enemy fleet.

*I am the machine. I am the machine.*

"Delenn to alpha squadron. Follow me in."

More White Stars flew into the attack, leaving what was left of the fleet to fight it out on their own. While still a considerable number and holding their own with the reinforcements, the battle was wrecking havoc. Such a Pyrrhic victory would be of no use for the war against the Minbari that still lay ahead, but if they did not succeed there would be no point in surviving. Desperate, determined, the ships continued.

*I am the machine. I am…* It could no longer make out the communications as the signal was garbled once more, but there was a voice coming from one of the insects trying to attack that was somehow familiar. *I am… the machine. I am…*

The mottled blue specs with their angry stings were getting nearer. Before much longer the ship would have to lash out to defend itself, but still it waited. Something familiar, from an age long ago before it was even born, sang out in its mind. A name, a face and something it was supposed to remember. It turned its sensors to watch the pieces of a shattered enemy ship as they spiralled away. One section, a part of the hood from whence all communications seemed to emanate, still registered vestiges of life. *I am… I am…* Of course, they wouldn’t last much longer. Without the rest of the ship’s environmental controls oxygen would soon run out and the ship knew these creatures needed that to survive. It probed at the life forms, curious. Their life signs were growing faint but one, in particular, was fighting the end. That one had something else about it. Something it recognised. It honed in tighter, focussing all its strength on identifying the niggling question that rocked its self assurance.

Inside what was left of Ivanova’s ship she struggled to breathe. Bulkheads had sealed the section off from the shattered remains of the ship and emergency oxygen supplies were being pumped in, but they were limited and swamped by the smoke and sparks that filled the command deck. The tumbling view made her dizzy and if it wasn’t for the beam that lay firmly wedged across her waist, crushing the remaining life from her body, she would have been bounced across the deck in the weightless environment. She groaned and uttered a quiet prayer. It wasn’t supposed to end like this, but there were worse ways a soldier could die. At least she’d done her duty and she knew John would be proud of her. She closed her eyes, waiting for the end. There was no pain, and for that mercy she was grateful. She watched as her lifeblood floated up around the centre beam forming great globules that bobbed, stretched and contracted above her. Amazing how much you could lose and still be aware, but darkness was slowly closing in on her.

The Shadow ship tightened its scrutiny, focussing on the life form. It was near death, there was no doubt of that, but the ship had to know what it was about this particular life that drew its attention. *I am… I…* It moved towards the source and reached out to steady the tumbling mass of twisted metal.

Ivanova’s eyes flew open. Something was trying to get inside her head; a force so huge she couldn’t block it, ’though she tried with every remaining drop of energy she had.

"No. Please, no. Let me die in peace for God’s sake!" Her voice was barely a whisper, but it carried across the link to the Shadow ship. It hesitated, withdrew, considered, then returned. She whimpered, the pain of the intrusion and the violation more than she could stand. "Oh God. Please God, no."

*I… I…*

Her eyes widened. The impression was huge, powerful, dominating. It surrounded and filled her until she knew nothing else. "No. You can’t…!"

***

After the Shadow reserves had left the chamber, Lyta found herself alone. Slowly, her hands still shaking, she powered up the shuttle and followed the tiny dot that was the last, massive Shadow ship. By the time she cleared the planet’s atmosphere and took in the battle the ship had turned its attention to the command and control centre that represented what remained of a White Star. Her ship had no weapons and was useless except as a totally inadequate life raft in the surging, tumultuous sea made up of ships, weapons fire and debris that spread out on the other side of the planet. Even so, she moved in. There was something about that last ship. Yes, it was bigger than all the others, but beyond that she sensed a presence that was different to them. The others had no personality, or what did remain had gone insane. This one was coldly sane, clinical, military and, strangely for a Shadow ship, didn’t exult in the fight ahead. Where the others knew exactly what they had to do and carried out their duty with ruthless efficiency, this one was actually curious. It sought information about its enemy and it was confused. No other Shadow ship exhibited either of these features and that made her curious as well. You couldn’t negotiate or communicate with machines and the others were purely machines. What had been at the heart had long been suffocated under the overwhelming pressure of the ship’s prime directive: to obey. This one wanted to understand and that meant there was still a personality there, something that might be reasoned with. After the pain and suffering she’d sensed in the other ships, the thought the soul at the heart of this behemoth might be saved filled her with a strange hope.

Slowly, straining the shuttle engines, she moved closer. As she neared the battlefield she narrowed her eyes and concentrated on the ship. By this time it had pulled in the piece of White Star and held it in an energy beam, turning it slowly like a child examining a strange pebble. It was oblivious to the squadron of White Stars that were arrowing towards it, totally absorbed in its find. Lyta wondered what was so fascinating about one shattered ship amongst so many. With something so huge it was easy to concentrate her energies and it was sufficiently distracted that it didn’t seem to notice her sliding inside. As she did so she suddenly realised what made this ship different and her blood ran cold.

"Delenn to alpha squadron, prepare to fire."

In a second Lyta saw the attacking ships and realised the terrible tragedy that was unfolding in front of her. Desperately she reached inside the ship, warning it of the danger that was about to befall it. It spun in place, the White Star section still held before it.

"Fire!"

"NO!"

Lyta leaned forward in her shuttle, yelling. Ivanova gasped the word, seeing the danger through the Shadow ship’s sensors as if they were her own eyes. She smiled as she felt the ship counter several blasts with its own weapons without inflicting any damage on its attackers, then winced as other shots broke through, the pain making her body jerk in sympathy. She felt anger rise up in the Shadow ship’s mind and she shook her head. "She doesn’t know. You must help her." The anger paled and, wonder of wonders, she felt herself cushioned in a warm embrace.

She relaxed. "Thank you… for everything. Goodbye." Her eyes rolled up into her head and her last breath escaped.

Three ordinary Shadow ships peeled away from the fight to deal with Delenn’s squadron. A scream of defiance that echoed in every ship, Shadow and allied alike, rocked the battlefield as the behemoth released its precious burden and opened fire, destroying the Shadow ships with shots brilliant and devastating.

Garibaldi, who’d been monitoring the activities while trying to keep his own ship’s skin intact, stared. "What the hell?"

The giant ship tore across the intervening distance, its weapons lancing into the Shadow ships and shredding them like paper. Several, recognising the danger in their midst, broke off their attack on the allied forces and bore down on the renegade.

"Lyta to fleet ships. Lyta to anyone!"

"Lyta?!" Garibaldi strained his eyes, scanning the battlefield to find the source of the transmission. "Where’s that signal coming from?" The holographic display obligingly zeroed in on the tiny shuttle. "What the hell do you think you’re doing? Get out of here!"

"Save that Shadow ship!"

Marcus responded. "What for? If they want to fight amongst themselves, let them!"

The giant continued its assault, its body in agony as the Shadow weapons tore into its flesh, and all the while its mantra echoed in its mind.

*I am John Sheridan.*

******

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