2285/VIa: DECISION POINTS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
Please send all feedback for the author to fanfiction@jumpnow.de . We will forward it to him.]

 

 

 

 

*****

   Earth Year 2285

   At the Tuzanor Main Ranger Base…

   …Susan Ivanova wasted no time getting down to business as she walked into the conference room. "Okay, I'm here. Show me what you've got." Around her, the primarily human and Minbari Anla'Shok who had come to their feet when she entered quickly recovered their seats and began organizing their notes. Behind her, Susan's ever-efficient aide-de-camp, Tulann, put a tentative hand on her shoulder to gain her attention.

   "Is the President not with you?" he quietly asked. "The staff set this meeting up with her in mind and we assumed she would want this information directly. They can brief you any time and under less formal circumstances, but it is important that the President have some basic knowledge of the situation before she faces the full Advisory Council."

   "We've delayed the Advisory Council session until tomorrow morning," Susan replied, speaking up for the benefit of the others assembled. "All of the Council members haven't arrived yet and President Delenn needs some rest anyway. I'll have to get with her personally and pass her whatever you pass me." Tulann and several of the other attendees arched their brows concernedly and Susan shrugged. "Hey, she's had a long day. She's traveled from here to Yedor, engaged in some intense negotiations while she was there and flown back. She's tired…that's all."

   That wasn't all, Ranger One knew…but it was enough for now. Enough to satisfy the assembled Alliance military leaders without starting rumors. Rumors led to concerns, concerns to worries and worries…when the leader of the Interstellar Alliance was the object…worries could lead to instability. "If it helps you focus, pretend that she's sitting here beside me."

    Susan tried to sound unconcerned as she spoke, but she knew that the curiosity of some of her staff members was aroused. Lowering her tone into her best brook-no-argument voice to quash any further questions about Delenn, she glared around the table and continued, "Now, let's get on with this. I want more detail on these unidentified ship sightings."

   "Uh…yes, ma'am," her Chief of Staff replied, rising and keying a toggle beside his seat. In response, a holographic display materialized in the center of the table. Within it, a representation of a starfield…a small cross-section of a very large galaxy…swam into focus. "What you are looking at," the human Ranger began, "Is a map of known space…adjusted in scale to show representative locations of our member worlds." Glancing at a computer pickup affixed to the ceiling, he said, "Bring up the graphics, please."

   The holographic starfield was immediately overlaid with a chaotic latticework of red lines. Many of them connected the various displayed star systems, but a few led away from marked territory and out into the unknown. "This overlay delineates the hyperspace pathways between our member systems. Obviously, these paths are approximate, as no accurate map of hyperspace has ever been made. Ships within these pathways are limited to following the established beacons. Because of this, not all potential routes have been explored to their termination points…"

   "Okay…time out, people," Susan broke in, rolling her eyes and cutting her subordinate off. She didn't have time for this. She'd left Delenn alone at the presidential compound after admonishing the obviously discomfited Minbari woman to call her doctor…an admonition she highly doubted her friend was following…and she needed to get back to her. Leaning forward in her seat, she put her elbows on the table and continued, "Look…I know as much about hyperspace as any of you, so why don't you just skip the intro and follow the format. Tell me what you're going to tell me, tell me, and then tell me what you just told me. The unidentified ships, hmm? Where are they and what do we know about them?"

   "Ahem…yes…the ships. Bring up the second overlay, please?" In answer to the Ranger, a series of blue stars appeared on the holo. "The unidentified ships have appeared at the locations indicated. We have at least twenty reports of large ship concentrations, primarily along the pathways between Drazi and Brakiri space, Vree and Pak'mara space, Llort and Pak'mara space and Gaim and Brakiri space."

   "You say they've appeared, and that there are large ship concentration. Do we have images?"

   The look on the Chief's face gave Susan her answer before he even replied. "Uh…no."

   "What?" Susan exclaimed incredulously, rising to her feet. "No images? No pictures, no schematics, not even a hand-drawn sketch?" The others around the table, even the normally stoic Minbari, involuntarily winced, sensing that one of their leaders' infamous 'boom' moments was on the verge of occurring. "The Advisory Council is convening an emergency session over a bunch of…of what? Blips? Smoke signals? You're telling me that no one's even seen a ship?"

   "Uh…yes ma'am," Susan's briefer stammered. "The deep scans conducted by our member governments recorded large ship concentrations, as I said. Task force-sized formations…"

   "And so we…you guys and me, too…are going to put our President up in front of all the assembled delegates tomorrow so they can sharp-shoot her about sensor readings," Ranger One snorted. "Sensor readings recorded by their own ships! Guys, what's she going to say? Is she supposed to use her Ouija board to divine some sort of explanation out of thin air? What I hear is that the Advisory Council representatives are gearing up to ask her for information about information we received from their governments in the first place." Glaring at the assembled Ranger leadership, she drummed a fingertip into the tabletop to punctuate her words as she continued, "Doesn't that sound a little ass-backwards to you? We should be the ones doing…the…asking! Has it occurred to anyone to contact the military liaisons of those governments? You know…the ones that are stationed right here in town at their embassies? Maybe…just maybe…they know more than we do."

   Susan's Chief of Staff quickly weighed the idea of informing her that the sightings had only just become an issue a few hours prior, but discarded the notion immediately upon seeing her 'brook no argument' expression. "We'll…uh…get right to it," he mumbled.

   "Okay, then," Susan replied, forcing her voice back into a more or less normal tone. "You do that. I'll be right here…waiting. Don't make me wait too long." Flicking on the terminal screen recessed into the tabletop in front of her, she waved a hand in dismissal before turning her attention to retrieving the message traffic she knew had accumulated during her trip to Yedor.

   As her staff hurriedly bustled away to contact their counterparts from among the militaries of the Alliance worlds, Susan exasperatedly punched in the codes to retrieve the Stellarnet messages she had received over the past day. From long experience, she could tell at a glance which messages were unimportant, which were worth saving and which needed her immediate attention. Grunting and propping her chin in her hand, she reflected that ninety percent of the correspondence she received had undoubtedly been generated by an angry advert god buried deep in the bowels of some forgotten twentieth-century mainframe.

   "You were rather hard on them," Tulann murmured from behind her as Susan's terminal established the link and began downloading files. "The staff has not had much time to analyze what little data they have." Indicating the display still glowing in the center of the table, he continued, "There may be no images, but there is a pattern. Only ships of the former League worlds are detecting the anomalies. No human, Minbari, Narn or Centauri spacecraft have seen anything, although these routes are well traveled by all of our races. This implies more than sensor ghosts are at work here. It implies a guiding intelligence…one that is actively avoiding contact with the major powers."

   "I know," Susan sighed. "I was hard on them because I believe something's there…but we need more than just my belief. It'll do no one any good for the President to stand up tomorrow and simply nod while the representatives rant at her about this. They're going to want answers and she depends on us to find them. When we fail, she fails…and the Alliance fails. Our member governments are still separate from each other in a lot of ways. Many of them are still suspicious of the Anla'Shok, a few mistrust Delenn and many don't even care much for one another. Information sharing among them is almost non-existent without our prodding, so it's up to us to gather in and translate all of their information into usable intelligence…intelligence we can disseminate to everybody." Shaking her head, she concluded, "I have a bad feeling that we're about to experience a 'boom' moment."

   Tulann looked thoughtful for a moment before his face broke into a slow smile. Indicating Susan's message screen, he said, "As you are speaking of booms…"

   Susan glanced at her terminal, her mouth immediately dropping open from surprise and embarrassment. "Ah, Hell…" she groaned resignedly as she stared at her first message, a vid of a human couple happily engaging in oral sex. "I give in and visit a chat room one fraggin' time…and now I'm a porn queen. Every pervert in known space must have my Stellarnet address by now."

   Behind her, Tulann cocked his head and curiously eyed the image over his superior's shoulder. "Ah! They are performing Fal oth'la'cha a' aiva'cha," he said brightly, arching his brow ridge. "And quite enthusiastically, I might add."

   Susan raised an eyebrow and eyed the on-screen antics more closely. "Fal oth'la'cha a' aiva'cha?" she echoed, "You Minbari have such complicated names for such uncomplicated acts. It looks like a fairly straightforward blowjob to me…just some harmless smut."

    "Smut? Smut…what an interesting word…" Tulann echoed, rolling the word around on his tongue. "Well, yes. If I understand you correctly, this…smut…is merely a basic second-level pleasure ritual, one described in even our most generic mating texts." On screen, the man cried out and ejaculated, rather messily in Susan's opinion. Almost immediately afterwards, the couple contorted so the woman was on the receiving end. "But still fascinating, nonetheless," the Minbari continued. Pointing at the lovers, he observed, "Not to mention excellently choreographed. The spinal flexibility of your people never ceases to amaze me. A Minbari couple could not have twisted in that fashion. Are there many places on the Stellarnet devoted to studying this…or is this couple performing for your personal entertainment?"

   "My personal entertainment?" Susan echoed, keeping her tone nonchalant to cover her mortification. "Oh…no. Hell no. This is a teaser…an advertisement. Twenty credits buys the whole show, but…err, in answer to your other question, there's more stuff like this on the public nets than you can imagine," Sighing, she cautioned, "Although I wouldn't let your wife catch you conducting too much research in this area if I were you."

   "On the contrary, I think she would find the research quite interesting," Susan's aide countered. "My mate would say, for instance, that the oral stimulation technique the female employed appeared quite effective even if performed slightly more quickly than our people prefer. Her mate, however, displayed little experience at moderating his enjoyment. Although he favorably acknowledged her stimulation skills with the impressive amount of seminal fluid he produced and the force of its delivery, the haste with which he climaxed indicated a lack of physical control and a failure to exercise mental discipline. An experienced Minbari female would find such a quick ending disappointing, as it does not allow her time to gain control of her mate's state of arousal." Looking at the screen again, he grunted and noted, "At least the male is honoring his mate by reciprocating the act. Perhaps this will mollify her, particularly if he can hold her at her pleasure threshold for a time before allowing her to release. Even rudimentary Anla'Shok meditation training would markedly improve his performance in this area."

   "Yeah, well…everyone needs to start somewhere, I guess," Susan observed amusedly. "I'll keep that 'stamina' pitch in mind next time I go recruiting for new Ranger candidates." Deleting the message, she indicated a Ranger who was standing at the door trying to catch her aide's attention. "Tulann…I think you're being summoned."

   Tulann glanced up at the motioning figure and sighed. "So I am," he agreed. "No doubt the Chief of Staff needs my help contacting the Attaches. It is too bad…I was becoming interested in this smut, as you call it. If you can spare me for a moment…?"

   "Go ahead," Susan almost laughed. "I think I can manage. We'll talk about the…uh, smut…later."

   As Susan's aide followed the other Ranger out of the room, she sighed with boredom and buried her chin in her palm once more as she turned her attention back to her messages. Most were garbage and she repeatedly punched the 'delete' key, but Susan believed in being accessible so she had only minimal firewall protection and message filtering installed, choosing to put up with the smut and other junk messages despite her reputation for impatience. <No, I don't need to lose weight fast…> Delete. <No, I don't need my credit repaired…> Delete. <No, I may not be an instant winner…> Delete. <No, I don't want to take your survey on feminine products…> Delete. Delete, delete, and delete…wait.

   Ranger One stared blankly for a second, not immediately comprehending the importance of the flashing message. On the screen, the innocuous words 'Immediate priority message from EAS Lexington, files attached' blinked. Below the words, the image of an ancient American colonial soldier was superimposed over what appeared to be four stylized Minbari Warcruisers being pursued by an angry shark. <Why would an Earthforce ship contact me?> she wondered, becoming even more puzzled as she noted the date stamp, which read '28 May 2249'. Furrowing her brow and looking more closely, she noted that one of the warcruisers was black. <A black warcruiser…the Black Star…John destroyed the Black Star during the war…after assuming command of the EAS Lexington…Ah, shit! John and David!>

   With all that had happened surrounding Ardenn, she had forgotten about them…and their mission. Beating her head with a frustrated fist, she cursed herself vehemently and punched the 'retrieve message' button, realizing that it had to be bad news. If it hadn't been, John would have contacted her in real-time mode.

   Once the message began to play, it moved immediately to Susan's 'Immediate Attention' pile. All it took was one look at her friend and former commander's face, not to mention the billowing smoke and sounds in the background to confirm her worst fears. Susan put her elbows on the table and knuckled her forehead in consternation as she watched and listened to the message. John and David had been attacked and forced to land on the bitterly cold and inhospitable surface of Flynn's World…at least she presumed they had managed a landing. The alternative was…unthinkable. Unfortunately, the message left the ultimate fate of her friend and his brave son unclear at best.

   As fundamentally distressing as the two men's situations were, it was the content of the message that garnered the lion's share of Ranger One's attention. "The Dilgar…" Susan whispered disbelievingly to herself as she keyed up the vid files the recently returned Entil'zha had attached. The very name conjured up images of war and destruction in her imagination. She had only been a toddler when they were finally defeated, but the stories of their atrocities lingered on in the whispers of old soldiers who had long since died or retired. No life was sacred to them but their own, and many worlds among the former League still bore the horrible scars left over from Dilgar occupation. If they had returned…

   They had returned. As Susan watched, three Dilgar Penetrators and their Scorpions ambushed the Minbari warcruiser Susan had sent John to find and chewed it to pieces. Three Dilgar capital warships…and ghost images of large, mysterious ship concentrations being reported along the major hyperspace arteries of the former League…

   Susan punched a recessed button in the conference table and activated the main viewer. The screen, set into the wall of the room, sprang to life and she routed the vid files to the larger display. Keying her link, she said, "Tulann…assemble the staff and get them back in here."

   "The Chief would like a little more time," came the reply. "Some of the attaches have not yet returned our calls."

   "We're out of time. We may be more out of time than they can imagine. Just…just get them back in here. We need to move fast, and I…"

   "Yes, Ranger One?"

   "And I need to go see a friend…with bad news." Shaking her head, she added, "And she's already gotten more than her share of bad news lately."

   ***

   It was dark at the presidential compound. Shutters were drawn, drapes were closed and all lamps were extinguished. Within the residence, only candlelight cast its flickering glow among the eclectic collection of human ornaments and Minbari crystal that defined the two who lived there.

   Of those two, only one was present…and the candlelight held her far from undivided attention. Delenn was seated cross-legged on the floor of her office, staring intently at the burning taper of a meditation candle as she tried to place herself into a light healing trance.

   Try as she might, the trance would not come. Delenn was as skilled as most other Minbari in homeopathic healing and had used this technique in the past with positive results during her short but memorable period as an ovulating human female, but the 'odd cramps' she had felt then were mere twinges when compared to the internal convulsions wracking her abdomen now.

   The Minbari hybrid sighed. The agonizing cramps had subsided for the moment…this might be her chance to slip into the healing trance before the next wave caught up with her and broke her concentration again. Closing her eyes, she took a deep, cleansing breath and cleared her mind. Just as she had been taught as a child nearly sixty years prior, she let the day's distressing events slip away…examining each one by one in turn as she did so. Her concern for Ardenn obediently found its niche and slid into it…not gone, but temporarily set aside. Her worries about David…always a low hum in the background of her consciousness, especially since he had chosen the Anla'Shok as his vocation…receded. The unusual activities along the hyperspace lanes…even now being discussed in a meeting she was missing…well, Susan would deal with that problem for now. It would not do to have the President of the Alliance displaying such obvious discomfort in front of Ranger One's staff.

   Her mother's manipulative treatment and the distressing revelations about her own past lingered for a moment, still stinging, before they too passed into their own mental compartment. She would hold them there until John returned. As independent a person as she knew herself to be, she realized that addressing them would be far easier with his support and she was not ashamed to let him know she needed him.

   The furnishings and other accoutrements in the room…the desk, chairs, even the steady tick-tock of John's former 'life clock'…faded into the background, overcome in her mind and view by the flickering flame. The candle and her own breathing were slowly centering her. As a familiar sense of calm descended, she mentally exulted. It was working…

   As the healing trance took hold, Delenn allowed her thoughts to drift. Even as the candle's light became everything in her sight and her negative emotions fled, other images…pleasant images…crept in and manifested themselves in her mind's eye. They were a part of the healing…the secret of its success, in actuality…and she welcomed them. John…her John…yes, he loved her. No matter what the Sisterhood had done to manipulate her life they had not made John love her. She had accomplished that on her own…and perhaps that feat, along with the birth of their son, were the accomplishments that made her truly special. As she meditated, John was making love to her…although none who might have seen her at that moment would recognize it as such. In her thoughts, he whispered the words she longed to hear into her hair as she responded to the joining. The nurturing of love and the preservation of life…they were her reasons for being, her purpose. What need did she have for power? For authority? Caste leader, Satai, Ambassador, Entil'zha…President of the Alliance…as the Vorlon's Inquisitor had one told her they were roles she played, not her identity. She could cast them all aside without a backward glance as long as she had John and…and…

   "Oooohhhh! In Valen's Name!" Delenn choked out as the pain she was trying to forestall welled up inside her and drove through her midsection like a cold steel spike. Both John and her progress in the healing trance instantly forgotten, she doubled over until her forehead was resting on the floor, her abdomen seizing up as if it were caught in a vise being relentlessly twisted by ancient giants. Through the pain, she managed to uncross her legs and she howled as she drew her knees up to her chin and rolled over on her side. The cramping relaxed for an instant in response to her movement, but resumed as soon as she was fully curled in a fetal position. "John," she managed to whimper, "Please come help me…"

   She continued to moan softly for a few moments, struggling to relax and let the agony wash over and through her. After what seemed an eternity, the cramps began to subside and the still-trembling Minbari hybrid slowly forced herself to uncurl. Taking a few deep breaths, Delenn worked her way up to a sitting position and rested for a moment before staggering unsteadily to her feet. She still could not straighten up, and as she struggled for balance, her now sore and tender midriff let her know she was not yet finished. A sudden wave of nausea coursed through her as she stood and she barely had time to exhort herself not to regurgitate before realizing it was already a lost effort. Her stomach clenched hard and the President of the Interstellar Alliance dashed with amazing speed into the kitchen, nightgown fluttering around her.

   Delenn had hardly reached the sink before she began to retch. She could feel tears being forced out of her eyes as her stomach tried to empty itself. No matter how hard the organ squeezed, however, only gastric juices emerged. She had not eaten anything since before leaving for Yedor, so there was nothing to expel. After what seemed an eternity of gut twisting and mental pleading, her stomach finally began to unknot and with a few final weak coughs, the wave of nausea passed. Her hands still trembling, she managed to turn the spigot on and wash the bile away, resting her head on the countertop and closing her eyes as she did so.

   "Honored Valen," she tiredly beseeched as she listened to the water run, "Just get me through this and I promise you I will never, ever mix flarn and ice cream again. I will recite every litany in your name that I know. I will even cajole John into reciting them as well." Even as she murmured the words, she managed a weak chuckle at herself. Valen did not answer such entreaties, but no harm could come from asking.

   Opening her eyes, she caught sight of a small bottle on the counter…a bottle full of pain medication left by the human healer who had examined her earlier. Despite his assurances, she had resisted taking the pills. She had learned from experience that neither human nor Minbari medications worked quite as they were supposed to on her, but she was becoming desperate. "Perhaps Valen has answered after all…" she murmured. Straightening as much as she was able, she reached out and picked up the small container. "As the methods of my people have thus far proven ineffective," she mumbled to herself as she eyed the label and fiddled with the cap, "I suppose I shall have to try those of my husband's."

   The cap did not immediately come loose and after several attempts to both twist and snap the lid off, the now-frustrated Minbari growled an epithet and pounded the plastic container repeatedly against the countertop. While slamming the pill bottle against the tile was emotionally satisfying, it did nothing to open it. Ceasing her efforts, Delenn glared daggers at the recalcitrant seal. "Hmm. So…you are child-resistant, eh? Well, bottle, I am not a child, so your resistance is futile." Furrowing her brow, she took her lower lip between her teeth and pressed down firmly on the top of the bottle and twisted as the instructions directed. "Arrgh! Given the contrary nature of my beloved's people, it probably requires the intervention of a child to…aha!" she exclaimed as the top gave a satisfying click and popped open. Hastily, she shook out one of the pain pills, popped it into her mouth and drank some water to wash it down. "Now…assuming I can hold the pill down, perhaps these unseemly cramps will finally leave me alone."

   Plopping down in a chair at the kitchen table, the weakened woman propped her elbow up on the table and rested her head in the crook of her arm, waiting to see if the pill she had taken was fated to remain in its present location or destined to make an uncomfortable and nasty reappearance. Her stomach rumbled warningly and she began mentally preparing herself to revisit the sink, but thankfully the tablet stayed down. After a few moments, Delenn felt it was safe for her to move again. Rising, she padded softly out of the kitchen and moved slowly through the quarters to her sleeping chamber, climbing gingerly into her bed once there.

   Lying back on her pillow, Delenn turned her head and gazed forlornly at the empty place beside her. "Four days gone…" she sighed to herself. "I hope you are making haste in your return journey, love. I miss you." Turning once again to lie on her back, she stared at the latticed ceiling of the bedchamber, tired but unable to sleep. One good thing, she noted…the human medication seemed to be working so far. The cramps had faded to mild twitches…still annoying, but manageable, at least until the medicine's effect wore off. Sighing again, she tossed and turned for a few moments before sitting back up. "Well," she huffed, "If the cramps and medications will not let me rest, I suppose there is no point in 'counting goats', as John would say. I will read for a while." Reaching over to her bedside table, she retrieved a thick, worn printed volume…a fascinating and masterfully written human Teela John had given her as a Naming day present. At the time, she doubted that a work of…of sheer fantasy would hold her interest, but once she had started reading she found that she could not put the book down. The parallels it contained to their own stories…their very lives…were astounding.

   Glancing at the cover, Delenn snorted and murmured, "Sh'aal Tolkien…even your name sounds Minbari. I think you must have been ahead of your time. Now, where was I? Ah, yes…Frodo. Shall we see what you and your band are up to among the Elves of Lothlorien?" Thumbing her way to her bookmark, she had just reached the part where Galadriel was presenting the young hobbit with the gemstone containing the phial of Earendil (yet another Minbari-sounding name) when she remembered. Arching her brow ridge, she put the book down, rose from the bed and fetched the robe she had worn that day. After pawing through the garment for a few seconds, she found the tiny glimmering object of her search. Palming the data crystal, she then moved to the area where she had stacked her research materials and pulled down a small computing pad before returning to her bed.

   As she settled herself, she inserted the crystal in the pad's receptacle and activated the device. Streams of data flowed across the screen in mostly unintelligible Adrih'ie, just as they had before in the flyer. Delenn frowned. While she had a general working knowledge of the language, most of the terms were far too specialized for her meager translation skills. When the flow of information ended, she said, "Computer, establish link to Yedor Central Library, Linguistics Section, Ancient Languages Annex."

   The small computer silently complied, linking into the central mainframe of the Presidential Compound and transmitting her request halfway around the planet. The full link was established more quickly than the eye could blink. A flashing icon at the top of the screen acknowledged that the action had successfully completed.

   "Translate text and data into Adronato. Select closest equivalent phrasing and format appropriately."

   The screen blanked as the crystal's information was uplinked, only a flashing 'Stand By' sigil indicating that her request was being processed. After a moment, the screen reactivated and the information reappeared...this time perfectly rendered in the Minbari hybrid's native tongue. Scrolling back to the top of the document, she began reading.

   After a few sentences, Delenn began wishing she had not taken the medication. She wanted to throw up. After a few paragraphs, she realized she had forgotten to breathe. Eyes wide and speechless, she continued on, even as part of her wailed in disbelief that no Minbari would ever do to another what her own mother had ordered done to Ardenn. Yet the evidence was there. By the time she finished, tears were streaming down her face and she could not herself have identified whether they were tears of shock, regret, rage or a combination of all three.

   Softly closing the lid of the computing pad she rose and quietly made her way to the balcony, tucking the device under her arm as she walked.

   Susan Ivanova, lost in her own troubled thoughts, was just coming up the walk from the compound's landing pad when she heard the scream and the accompanying crash...

   ***

   Susan Ivanova pounded up the steps to the presidential residence taking them two at a time, a phalanx of household security Rangers close on her heels. Reaching the front entranceway, she didn't even hesitate to request entry. Hastily, she keyed the emergency override into the pad beside the door and threw herself hard against it, sure that her friend was lying injured…or worse…within.

   "Delenn!" she bellowed as she forced her way in. "We're coming! Just hold on!"

   The front door gave under Susan's determined shove and she flew in. Behind her, security Rangers fanned out through the quarters, PPGs and denn'boks drawn. Uncertain what they might be facing, they were trained to expect the worst. With speedy precision, they split into teams and began methodically combing the entrance hall as they worked their way towards the rooms at the opposite end.

   Susan was having none of it, 'methodical' not being high on her list of priorities at the moment. Ahead of the security detail, she dashed right down the middle of the corridor, heedless of what might be waiting on the other end. Darting past the kitchen and offices, she hesitated only long enough to peer into each and assure herself that Delenn wasn't present.

   Making her way through the family room to the balcony, she glanced through the archway and heaved a giant sigh of relief. Delenn was standing there, gripping the rail with white-knuckled fingers, but seemingly unharmed. She was facing away from her friend, shoulders tense as she looked out over the lights of Tuzanor. "God, you scared me," the Ranger leader began, "You should know by now that you can't make a peep in here without every Ranger in the complex pulling a weapon…now, what the hell happened?"

   The Minbari didn't answer…didn't even move to acknowledge Ranger One's presence. "Delenn? Do you hear me?" Looking closer, she noticed that her friend was breathing heavily, apparently straining top maintain her composure. Tentatively, Susan sidled up beside Delenn and glanced over the railing, following the Minbari's unblinking eyes to see what had captured her attention. On the ground in the gardens below were the shattered remnants of a small computer.

   Delenn continued to glare at the broken device, seeming to take no notice of Susan's presence. "Uhh…Delenn? Your computer appears to have crashed…"

   "No jokes," the Minbari muttered in a monotone. "I wish to hear no jokes right now. I do not think I could stand it."

   "Hoo boy…uhh, well…okay, then," Susan replied, arching her eyebrows and grimacing. This was serious. "Umm…Delenn? Why don't you…uh, just come away from the rail, huh? You're making me a little nervous. There's a nice bench over here and I'd feel a lot better if you were sitting on it."

   Delenn turned and faced Susan. "Why?" she muttered darkly. "Are you worried that I might…" trailing off, a flash of movement from within the quarters caught her eye. "Who is in there?" she sharply inquired, her brow ridge furrowing suspiciously.

   "Just your security detail. They're securing the residence."

   "Get them out."

   "It's standard procedure, Delenn. You know…"

   "I said get them out!" the hybrid shouted. "Get them out now! I want them out of my home! I want all of you out!"

   Susan stood staring in shock at her friend for a long second. In all the years she had known the normally serene Minbari, she had never been told she or her Rangers were unwelcome…and the expression on Delenn's face reminded her too much of the time immediately following John's disappearance, as did the words. Quickly moving to the archway, she motioned to the nearest member of the security detail. Once she had his attention, she made a quick slashing motion across her neck with her finger and pointed towards the door. The Ranger nodded his understanding, and went to collect his companions.

   Once Susan heard the front door close behind them, she turned back to Delenn, only to find her slumped on the bench, totally deflated after her quick flare-up. To Susan, she appeared on the verge of bursting into tears. "Uh…look…I can see that you're upset. I just need to get something from you and then I'll get out of your way. That is," she fished, "Unless you want to talk…"

   "Talk?" Delenn sadly echoed. "Talk, I am coming to realize, is all I am good for. I have done nothing but…talk. I spent the entire day talking and thinking myself extremely clever…and came home with empty hands as payment for my supposed cleverness. I talked, Susan. I talked and sat and sipped tea…while those I thought as civilized as I drew my attention away from my original purpose. Oh, yes…I was very clever…" trailing off, the Minbari stared at her hands in her lap for a long moment before taking a shaky breath and blowing it out. Schooling her features into a weak semblance of calm she twisted to face Susan and said, "I…apologize, Susan. About the computer, my unwarranted outburst and my present attitude. It…I took some medicine for the cramps and I think it is affecting my mood."

   <Like Hell…> Susan thought. "So…you did call a doctor after I left? What did he say?"

   Delenn waved a dismissive hand, secretly glad to redirect the conversation away from the true source of her outburst. Other than John, Susan was her closest confidante…in many ways even closer than he. But Ardenn's situation had now transformed from a family problem into a personal one…and as much as she valued her human friend's assistance, the violation of her Ier'saia and the horrible result was now between her and Irilenn. Rising, the Minbari made her way back towards her sleeping chamber, talking as she went. "The physician? He came and performed all of the embarrassing and invasive tests that I have come to expect. He checked my vitals, drew some blood and made me relieve myself in a cup. He also spent an inordinate amount of time probing me in areas I normally only let my husband touch…I believe you are familiar with the procedure." With a rueful snort, she added, "At least he had warm hands."

   "Sweetheart," Susan exasperatedly intoned as she trailed behind her friend, "That's great, but what did he say?"

   Delenn entered her sleeping chamber and opened her closet, pulling out a small travel bag. Tossing the bag down at the foot of her bed, she then began sorting through her robes. Choosing a couple, she laid them on her bed and continued, "He shrugged and said he could find nothing amiss other than perhaps an upset stomach. He left me some pain medication and said he would contact me when he had the results from the blood and urine tests."

   "That's it?"

   "He found nothing wrong," Delenn repeated with a sigh. "It pleases me that you care so much for my welfare, but you worry too much. I am fine…I have simply gone too long without eating properly."

   "Yeah, right," Susan sarcastically replied. Noticing for the first time what Delenn was doing, she pointed at the bag and said, "Uh…are you going somewhere?"

   "I am going to retrieve Ardenn. I dislike being made to look foolish and I will not be misdirected this time."

   "That's what this is all about, isn't it? You translated the crystal, didn't you?"

   Delenn hesitated a moment, and then resumed stuffing clothing into her bag. Continuing as if she had not heard the Ranger leader, she said, "I expect this will not take too much time. I do not intend to be subjected to any more formal meetings or rituals. I will 'cut through the cow manure' as your people say, obtain her release and suppression and bring her back here…where she belongs."

   "Aren't you forgetting something?"

   The Minbari paused once again. "No…I do not think so. I intend to pack my hygiene items last." Moving to her dresser, she began pulling out undergarments. Over her shoulder, she said, "If you will summon me a flyer, I can be on my way shortly."

   "That's not what I mean, Delenn." Susan corrected gently. "The Advisory Council, remember? We have to convene the Advisory Council tomorrow morning. You can't go now."

   Returning to her bed, Delenn briskly set her undergarments down and returned to her dresser. "Postpone the session."

   "We can't," Susan informed her. Again, her friend pretended not to hear and Susan started becoming upset. "Delenn? Please, stop packing and listen to me! We have a serious, maybe even catastrophic situation on our hands! That's why I came over here! I have to brief you…now! Tonight! Honey, you can't go! Ardenn will just have to wait in line!"

   Delenn stopped, a bundle of cloth in her hand. "I have to go, Susan. Do you not understand? I…I cannot allow Ardenn to stay among the Sisters any…longer." Absently, she twisted the cloth around her fingers and leaned against the bureau, holding the cloth to her face. "I…it is my fault, Susan…I let her go. If I had known what Irilenn truly intended…I…I would never have allowed her to be taken from us…Ver'kaff or not." With a sob, she continued, "They…they hurt her, Susan. They stole from her that which can never be replaced and I am partially to blame, because I…I did not assert myself when I should have. Now, John and David are returning and I have nothing to show them but tardy half-hearted efforts, and Ardenn has suffered because of it."

   The Human Ranger could see that her friend was being torn apart, but there was no sugarcoating what she needed to say. She had no idea what Delenn had seen on the crystal Rakell had slipped to them, but it was undoubtedly bad if it had upset the normally calm Minbari as much as it seemed. Still, until the distraught woman calmed somewhat, she decided to talk around what had actually happened. "I'm so sorry, honey…but John and David aren't on their way back. We've had some new developments, and I need access to John's old command logs. He said they were here."

   "So John has reported in?" Delenn noted, a trace of eagerness in her voice. "But he is…delayed? Why did he not contact me directly?"

   "Show me where he keeps his logs. I'll explain once I have the information he wants me to review."

   Delenn hesitated at the bureau a moment longer, then sighed and threw the undergarment she was holding back into the drawer. "Very well. They are in his office." Turning, she started out the door. As she walked, she added, "I still intend to go retrieve Ardenn…the session will just have to wait."

   ***

   Leading Ranger One into John's office, Delenn paused at a shelf. Crooking a finger to her chin, she scanned the rows. "Hmm…I think…here." Reaching up, she pulled down a box of crystals and held them out. "I believe these are what you seek."

   Susan took the box and flipped it open, quickly glancing through the titles. Grunting, she noted, "These logs only go back to 2250. Where does he keep the older ones?"

   "Older ones?" Delenn repeated curiously. With a trace of suspicion, she continued, "Those would be his war logs. What possible use could they be today? Over thirty-five human years have passed."

   Susan sighed. Delenn always became guarded when the subject of the war came up…even realizing now that both she and John knew of her Grey Council membership during that period. "There are some post-war entries that I need to review that may have some bearing on our current problem. Do you know where he keeps them?"

   "Of course." Her expression unreadable, the Minbari knelt and opened a cupboard set into the bottom of the shelf. After a moment spent peering inside, she pulled a slightly larger box from within. "Strange," she murmured, "the contents of this cabinet have been recently disturbed. Several items are missing. There was an old parchment notebook in here, and now it is not."

   "John probably reviewed these logs before he left and took the notebook with him," Susan replied as she took the box from her friend. Popping the lid open, she peered inside and then pulled an old human data reader and several memory cubes out. "I guess John never transferred these logs onto crystals," she murmured as she set the data reader on the desk. "We used these cubes to store information until crystal memory technology was made available to humanity following the war." With that, she flipped a switch on the side of the reader and sorted through the blocks, quickly finding the one she needed. Inserting it in the reader, she sat down opposite where Delenn still knelt and accessed proper log.

   Delenn stood. "I think I shall go finish my packing, unless you need anything else?" Susan merely grunted neutrally, her attention absorbed by the information flowing quickly across the screen, and the Minbari decided to take that as acknowledgement. She was just turning for the door when Susan held up a hand and murmured, "Please wait."

   "Yes?"

   "Just…wait." Susan had found the information John wanted her to see, and it was…shocking. Far more shocking than the alcohol-slurred recounting John had given her all those years ago on Io. She was viewing images of horribly disfigured humans…the colonists, undoubtedly…shambling around in a green mist, obviously dying slowly and painfully. The Minbari occupation force had exposed the colonists, the log indicated, to some kind of gene-destroying weapon before they withdrew following the end of the war. Paging forward, she saw images of John's GROPOs subjected to a similar fate. The record continued with what scanty technical data John's under-equipped crew had been able to deduce and a description of the weapon's development…spearheaded by the Dilgar war criminal Jha'Dur and facilitated by the Wind Swords Clan. The report concluded with copies of Minbari authorization documents recovered from the colony's damaged computer core, several of which were countersigned with a signature chop all too familiar to the Ranger leader. Looking up from the screen, Susan eyed the Minbari standing somewhat uncertainly in front of her; unable to completely reconcile the gentle woman she had known for so long with one who could aid in the sort of barbarity she was viewing. John didn't think she knew much about the nature of the documents she had signed…but, judging from the records, she had to have at least suspected. "Have you ever looked through these logs before?"

   "No," Delenn hesitantly answered, her nervousness increasing as she noticed the quickly erased flash of revulsion pass across her friend's face. "John and I respect each other's privacy concerning that period in our lives. He does not request information of me, and I do not go out of my way to inquire anything of him. That sad time has no bearing on who we are to each other now."

   "It does now." Sighing, Susan indicated the chair opposite the desk from where she sat. Once the Minbari woman was seated, she asked, "Are you familiar with an Earth Colony known as Flynn's World?" Does that name mean anything to you?"

   Delenn pursed her lips and thought a moment. "No," she finally answered. "I do not recall any planet or system by that name. Why?"

   "Then maybe you know it by its Lenn'ah name...Khon'dar?"

   It tore at Susan's heart to watch her friend of many years visibly deflate before her eyes. She could see the Minbari literally drawing into a defensive posture…closing herself off before Susan could even begin asking more specific questions. "Yes…I have heard that name mentioned," Delenn slowly acknowledged. Choosing her words carefully, she continued, "There is a sizable mining colony there…Quantium-40, I believe?"

   "There…was…a sizable mining colony there. Before the war, it was Earth's primary source of Quantium-40. The place was essential to us if we wanted to continue building and repairing jump gates."

   "Was?" Delenn repeated, licking her lips. Drawing a shallow breath, she put her hands on her knees and started to rise. "Ah…it has been a long time since I heard anything of that place. Obviously, Earth has diversified its sources of Quantium-40 since then. Now, we do not have time for this. Ardenn needs me."

   "Honey, I hate to say this, but this is more important than Ardenn." Indicating the chair once more, she then steeped her fingers and rested her chin on her thumbs. "Please…sit down. I need to know about Khon'dar…and your memories and these old logs are all I've got. What else can you tell me?"

   Her escape attempt countered, Susan's Minbari friend hesitantly settled back into her chair, looking more uncomfortable than Susan had ever seen her. Ranger One's sympathy went out to her. <Oh, Sweetheart…you're having a horrible day, and I'm only going to make it worse…>. Furtively, Delenn glanced at her and then folded her hands in her lap and gazed emptily at them. "What do you want to know?"

   Susan shook her head. Delenn was already acting uncharacteristically guilty, she noted. "I need to know what went on there during the war."

   "During the war," Delenn echoed softly. So much had gone on during the war, so much pain and death. Much of it, she had not understood at the time…even as she was overseeing it. So much of it she still did not understand. Sighing, she began, "Susan…you understand that the Minbari are a peace-loving people, but not necessarily a peaceful people. When Dukhat was killed, we went…mad. In our blind rage, we lashed back at everything…human…we could find. We quickly discovered that your people, while determined and courageous fighters, lacked the technology to seriously contend with us. Hoping to end things quickly, our fleet bypassed most of the colonies and instead concentrated on…on neutralizing Earth's space capabilities so we could reach your core worlds unimpeded."

   "I know all of this already…"

   "Old friend, you have no idea how difficult it is for me to speak of these things to one who lost loved ones to our anger…to speak of my shame, but you asked to hear it!" Delenn snapped defensively. "So let me tell it!"

   "I'm sorry…I'll be quiet."

   Delenn sighed. "There came a day when the warriors…they came to us and told us that even if we destroyed every human ship, humanity as a race could never be suppressed from space alone. They…the warriors…did not describe it in this manner at the time, but I believe in retrospect they feared the conflict would end too quickly for them to prove themselves if we continued fighting as we were. They felt that ship-to-ship combat was…was beneath them and they wanted to fight warrior to warrior. They had not had an opportunity to prove their worth in eight hundred cycles and they wanted to be blooded. They knew that Khon'dar, one of the colonies we had bypassed, was heavily defended yet cut off from reinforcement. They thought it would be a good test…a test of humanity's fighting skills, and their own."

   "It was the second most heavily defended planet in the Earth Alliance," Susan supplied, forgetting that she had promised not to interrupt. Abruptly catching herself, she said, "Go on…"

   Delenn seemed not to notice the lapse. "As…as I recall, the planet was the site of an intense series of battles between the warrior caste and your…those I would later come to realize were your Earth Alliance's ground combat arm. The place…we of the Council received updates about the fighting, you understand, and that place was often mentioned because it took far longer for the Wind Swords to…to subdue it than they had boasted it would. They…we discovered that our technological advantage was severely lessened when we fought on the ground against prepared defenses, so…Susan…" Delenn plaintively pleaded, "Please, please believe me…I went mad with my people, but my rage cooled quickly. I was trying to end the war from virtually the first day. I did not want death for either your people or my own…but I was alone and I was not strong enough or influential enough…" In a small voice, she whispered, "I tried so hard…"

   "I believe you," The Ranger leader replied gently. "Just tell me the rest."

   "The reports we received were…I think many, including the reports concerning Khon'dar and the loss of the Drala Fi, were altered by the warriors to make matters appear more favorable to them. I think in truth the Wind Swords found that fighting warrior to warrior cost them heavily…but after their boasts they could not admit it. Still, despite the intensity of the human resistance they were, in time, victorious. I was told that there were no survivors among the Earth soldiers stationed there, but their remains were treated honorably." Sighing, the Minbari concluded, "As for the colony…we needed Quantium-40 just as much as humanity did. Rather than eradicate the facilities and disperse the inhabitants, we decided to take advantage of the trained labor pool and keep the mine in operation. The population was essentially left to their own devices as long as production remained constant and the peace was kept. It stayed that way until the conclusion of hostilities, when we ceded the colony back to Earth."

   "Mining…" Susan muttered, peering closely at her increasingly skittish friend. Delenn was unconsciously rubbing her hands in a washing motion, as if they were somehow unclean. Her eyes were darting everywhere, looking anywhere but at her human companion and she was fidgeting. "So…that's all that went on there under the Wind Swords?" Rising, she walked around the table, went down on her knees and took Delenn's hands between hers to still them. "Honey, no one who knows you blames you for anything that happened back then…but you're not telling the whole truth, and in this case that may prove to be worse than a lie."

   "You…you appear to be aware of everything I have told you so far," Delenn shakily murmured, "Why do you not…just finish it for me…"

   "Because I thought it might help you if you told me instead," Susan sighed. Rising, she patted Delenn reassuringly on the hand and circled back around the desk. "The Wind Swords were secretly harboring a Dilgar warlord named Jha'Dur, correct? And she was providing them technical expertise regarding human physiology that she had gained during our earlier war with her people?"

   "I did not…I was not aware of this until near the cessation of hostilities, but…yes."

   "They set her up on Khon'dar…and had her developing weapons to use against humanity there. Do you have any idea why?"

   "We on the Council did not know about her, Susan!" Delenn retorted angrily. "The Wind Swords initially withheld that information from us! I already told you that I did not know about her until near the end of the war!"

   "But you knew about the weapons she developed! You knew that the Wind Swords had a captive human population to test them on!" Susan shot back more heatedly than she intended. Cursing herself for her temper, she more gently added, "You even visited there and had them demonstrated for you, didn't you?"

   "Susan…do you know how much you mean to me?" the Minbari choked as tears started to fall. "You were my first true human friend…please do not make me say any more…"

   "This isn't a trial!" Susan almost cried, aware that she was verbally stabbing someone she loved with every question. "Please, sweetheart! I wouldn't be dragging you through this if I didn't have a good reason! I…simply…need…to…know…"

   Delenn cringed. "I…I may have visited there…once," she managed to stammer. "We of the Council visited so many worlds…"

   "Stop dancing around me!" Susan exhorted, putting her elbows on the desktop and raking her fingers through her hair. "Khon'dar is where I sent your husband and your son! I sent them because yes, I know what went on there! John knows what went on there, too! He's known since long before he met you! He's the one who told me!" Spinning the screen around, Susan stabbed a button and a picture sprang up…a picture of seemingly endless rows of body bags laid neatly on the ground beside one another. "This is the tamest picture in John's log…a picture he took in 2249, when his ship visited there after the Wind Swords pulled out! Stop evading, or I'll start showing you the others!"

   "No…yes…I was there…" Delenn stammered in shock and disbelief. Hanging her head shamefully, she repeated, "I was there. But, Susan…it was not like this…when I departed, it was not like this!" With tears in her voice and her watery eyes glued to the still image on the screen, she haltingly whispered, "The…demonstration…I did not know what to expect. I did not realize that living subjects would be used. I…I was still very naïve in the ways of war. They took us into the mine and…and there was a family…and the warriors said they were being merciful, because they had exposed the whole family so no one would have to grieve. Susan…I was…horrified at what they had done, I was even physically ill…believe me, but they…the family…was already in the advanced stages…it was too late to do anything for them…" Taking the screen in her hands, she pulled it off the desk and laid it flat in her lap. "But…this…genocide? No. I would never have authorized this…whatever you may think of me now, you know me well enough to know that. Even the warriors on the Council were…shaken, I think. After the…the demonstration was complete, three others and I managed…we managed to convince those that supported the Wind Swords that use of the weapon would be beneath us, even if it would end the war more quickly. I then commanded the Wind Sword leadership to…terminate…the project. When I departed…the rest of the colonists were alive and unaffected." With a shaking hand, she gently replaced the viewscreen on the desk and wrapped her arms around her midsection, clenching herself. "That is the truth. You must think me a…soulless monster now…and John…"

   "I do not…and John still loves you," Susan finished. Shaking her head, she continued, "He knows the truth. He knew it before he even knew you. You know, the people who did this left evidence implicating you…you and the other three Council members who worked with you to end this. Ironically, that's what tipped John off. The Wind Swords left reams of documents for John to find, many of which have your name on them. Honey, your people are good at so many things that sometimes I'm in awe of them…but staging a crime scene isn't one of them. Every document they left had the same four Grey Council names…yours, Rathenn's, Jenimer's and Coplann's…but the other five were always obscured. That can happen only so many times before a perceptive human starts smelling a political set-up. You didn't have many friends back then, I'd imagine."

   Delenn snorted sadly, slightly calmer now that the truth was out. "I did not have many friends until I began associating with my former enemies. When I was appointed Satai, I was very young…just a cycle or two older than Ardenn…and there were many who spoke disparagingly of me. There were some who…who whispered that I had bedded Dukhat to gain his favor. Those whispers…hurt, because I loved Dukhat as my mentor and later as my friend, but his presence never awakened my mating urges. To hear the ignorant saying otherwise dishonored him, because by then he was no longer alive to defend himself...or to defend me." Shaking her head morosely, she continued, "Later…as the war against your people began to wear long and my voice became more strident in its calls for peace, others took offense. They called me weak-willed. They called me a human-lover." That drew a sad laugh from Susan and an answering smile from her teary companion. "Obviously, they were proven fundamentally accurate, but it seemed an insult to me then. I now wear the title as an honor."

   "So?"

   "So…it does not surprise me that there were those among our leadership, both warrior and not, who would stoop to…to…" Delenn confusedly paused and drew a square in the air around her head with her fingers.

   "Framing you?"

   "Yes…framing me…in an attempt to remove me from my position."

   Susan mulled over Delenn's words for a moment. Finally, she said, "John wasn't your friend when he went to Flynn's World after the war ended…but he had the same sense of justice then that he does now. He knows you didn't do this, Delenn. It's his belief that the Wind Swords engineered the deaths after hostilities ended to re-ignite the war. They were hoping that humanity would become so enraged at what they had done that we would attack again…thus giving them an excuse to finish us once and for all. As the peace advocate, you'd have been made to look like a fool at the same time. It's lucky for all of us that we were so weak that attacking was out of the question. John was ordered to hide what the Wind Swords had done so our own people wouldn't find out about it. He and his crew were sworn to secrecy and to this day no one on Earth knows."

   "But I know…now," Delenn murmured, her eyes haunted. "Our warriors dishonorably slaughtered those helpless people…in my name…even though it was done without my knowledge. John has a very clear sense of justice, as you say…and so do I. I am responsible for this. When John returns, I will ask him about the proper procedures for answering to your people for this…atrocity."

   "Don't be so quick to shoulder all the blame!" Susan hissed. "Haven't you heard a word I said? You didn't do this…and in many ways your own husband is guiltier than you! You didn't know, but he did! He did, and he covered it up for the good of everybody concerned!"

   "What do you mean?"

   "I mean that you can't just turn yourself in without dragging him along with you! In our legal terms, honey, your husband obstructed justice and is an accessory after the fact! He knew of a major crime, he hid it…and on Earth, the 'I was only following orders' defense doesn't wash!" Rising from behind the desk, Susan snatched up the file reader and slammed it back into its box. "If you speak openly of this you might be shamed, but Earth won't touch you. If you offered yourself up to them, they'd back away like you were electrified…you're just too big. John, though…he's a human, he has enemies, and there's no statute of limitations regarding suppression of crimes against humanity. They'd pounce on him like jackals dragging down a dying lion. As a retired officer, they'd recall him to duty, put him on trial in front of a military tribunal and probably mind-wipe him afterwards…"

   The previously listless Minbari leapt from her chair, eyes blazing. "Absolutely not! I will not allow that, Susan. Never! No one will touch my Zha'aia…and I pity anyone who tries!"

   "That's what I thought you'd say," Susan replied with a slow smile. "Now, are we done with the guilt trip?"

   "We are…until I have a chance to consider what should be done about this more objectively," Delenn acknowledged. Standing, she began to pace, and then stopped as a question occurred to her. Turning back to Susan, she asked, "If your intent is for me to remain silent, why did you tell me of this at all? It occurs to me that you would have been better served by keeping me ignorant."

   "Ah…perhaps you'd better sit down again," Susan responded with a trace of uncertainty.

   Delenn stared blankly at her friend before padding back over to the chair she had just vacated. "Very well," she murmured as she sat, "although I am beginning to detect a disturbing association between you offering me a chair and the delivery of bad news."

   Susan nodded sadly. "I know." Taking a deep breath, she then exhaled and said, "I told you I had a good reason for dragging you through this. You see, John and David…ah, they haven't exactly…um…been delayed. John told me to tell you…"

   ***

   Delenn bolted back into her bedchamber, nightgown fluttering, with Ranger One hot on her heels. "Ra'ash ta'al Quith! In Valen's Name, Susan! Shot down? By a race supposedly dead? My son and my husband have been SHOT DOWN?" Snatching up her travel bag once more, she began stuffing clothes into it; heedless of whether the packing was neatly done. "Tell me, friend," she growled through her teeth and she darted back over to her bureau, bag still in hand, "Did I not seem upset enough for you when you arrived? You had to add to the pain I am feeling right now?" Snatching clothing out of her dresser randomly and throwing it into her bag without a glance, she sharply continued, "Did telling me I am an unwitting mass murderer come to you as an afterthought, or was that information imparted just to soften me up?"

   "No, dammit!" Susan barked back. "It's all tied together, don't you see? The Dilgar, Khon'dar, the unidentified ship sightings…Delenn! Stop packing!" Reaching out, the Ranger leader snatched at the travel bag in her upset friend's hand as the frantic woman scurried by her. Jerking the Minbari to a halt, she hissed, "The weapons! Get it? John said he knew what the Dilgar were after! He told me to view the logs, and he told me to tell you about them! The Dilgar want the weapons Jha'Dur developed for the Wind Swords, and the only people they'll be effective against are humans!"

   "Impossible! I told Shakiri and Vashaer to destroy them! All of them!"

   "Oh…Shakiri. Now there's one of your big fans, eh? Well, you just learned how well he followed orders, didn't you?" Susan retorted. "What makes you think they didn't leave a stockpile of that gene-zapper down there in the mine? If the Dilgar are there now, it stands to reason that their hired-gun mad scientist was probably reporting back to her supposedly dead people the whole time she was working for them! And now, that very much alive race has decided it's time to come out and play! Think! We've got all these nebulous ship reports along the former League of Non-aligned Worlds hyperspace routes! Suppose they're hidden Dilgar warships?" Untwining Delenn's tightly wrapped fingers from the strap of her bag, she gently pried it away. "Sweetheart, I know that every synapse in your brain is screaming at you to do something…to do anything you can to help the people who love you. Your family is in harm's way and you're being pulled in a million different directions…but you can't leave. The Alliance needs you, and frankly, the Alliance is more important right now."

   Delenn glared at Susan, breathing hard. Her friend was right, but that did not make the Minbari feel any better. Shaking her head in frustration, she muttered, "Can you tell me that John and David are unharmed?"

   "Honey, I can't even tell you with any certainty if they're still alive…but I believe they are."

   "Why?"

   "Because I'm a little telepathic and when John fell at Z'ha'dum, I felt it. I knew then, and I think I would have felt it again if they weren't." Sticking a finger in the distraught Minbari's chest, she added, "And I know you would have."

   Delenn mulled Susan's observation over for a moment. Finally, she nodded uncertainly and sighed. "I would have. I am not a telepath, but I would know." Leaving her bag lying on the floor, she walked to the bedroom window and gazed out, lost in thought…lost in worry. Absently, she murmured, "You believe we are about to be attacked by these…Dilgar?"

   "I do." Susan stated decisively. "There's too much circumstantial evidence, and it all fits. Were in the lull before the storm."

   The Minbari sighed. She had returned to the conflict that had consumed most of her adult life…duty versus her heart. Again, it appeared duty had to be the victor, as much as her heart urged her to cast the requirements of her office aside. Everyone seemed to need her, and those she most wanted to help were those least important to the 'Big Picture', as the humans sometimes called it. Delenn found that she was coming to detest the 'Big Picture'. Turning to face Ranger One, she reluctantly compartmentalized her personal anguish and schooled her features into an expression of quiet competence…the mask she wore as President. "What steps have you taken?"

   "I've alerted our forces…I've cancelled all leaves and initiated a recall Alliance-wide," Susan replied. "I've also notified all the military attaches stationed here…but I'm not sure if many really believe me. A few even suggested that John might have encountered raiders who've gotten hold of some abandoned Dilgar hardware."

   "Is that a possibility?"

   "A slight one," Susan conceded. "But I think I would know about any raiders resourceful enough to refurbish three Dilgar Penetrators to full operation, not to mention crew them. It would take a small army."

   "What of the political leaders?" Delenn asked.

   "They're remaining noncommittal until they hear from their representatives here. That's why we have to convene the Advisory Council. We're going to have to convince them."

   Delenn nodded and turned back to the window. After a moment, she bowed her head. "You know what I want to do, old friend."

   Moving to the foot of Delenn's bed, Susan bent and retrieved her travel bag. "I do…but it's just not possible right now," she answered. "Tomorrow, sweetheart…we'll see what we can do for your family…tomorrow." Placing the carryall back in the Minbari's closet, she briskly turned and said, "Now, you'll be at the Council session? You're not going to run away from home tonight if I leave you alone?"

   "I will not 'run away' tonight," Delenn conceded archly. Without turning, she continued, "Susan…I do not mean to cause offense, but you have given me much to think about. I would like to be alone now."

   "Sure…no problem. I know the way out." Ranger One started to leave, but hesitated. Turning, she instead stole up behind her Minbari friend and rested her hands lightly on Delenn's shoulders. "I dumped a lot of disturbing stuff on you just now. Are we all right? You and I, I mean."

   Delenn reached up and covered one of Susan's hands with hers. "I…I feel like I should be the one asking that, given what you have learned about me. We can never be anything else. As long as you want me as a friend, I will be there."

   "You ARE feeling better," Susan managed to chuckle. Giving Delenn's shoulders a reassuring squeeze, she said, "I know it won't happen but please try to get some sleep. The session starts tomorrow morning and the natives will be restless."

   Ranger One released her and made her way out of the quarters, leaving Delenn alone with her thoughts. The Minbari stood silently for a moment, listening for the front door to close. Once she heard the lock engage, she padded over to her bedchamber door and closed it softly…isolating herself even from the empty rooms she was left with. Retrieving a meditation candle from a holder in the corner, she lit it and settled herself cross-legged on the floor. Impassively, she stared at the flame, trying to will herself into a relaxed state.

   It would not come…not that she really held out any hope that it would. She wound up simply staring into the orange-yellow flame…not meditating, but drifting…unsure of exactly the emotions she was feeling at the moment.

   There was anger, of course. Anger mixed with shame. As she examined these emotions, the flame resolved itself into a set of numbers, a simple chart in a medical report. In and of themselves, the numbers meant nothing…they were just data…but they were data that recorded the ending of a life that had never really begun. She would not have even considered it possible, yet it happened. New life had been created by her son and the young woman he had given his heart to…only to be snuffed out, much like her candle soon would be. Unlike the candle, which would remain afterwards, there was nothing to show for the lost life. Just a string of numbers…

   There was also fear. She was afraid for her beloved mate and her son, trapped on a desolate, lonely world…a world that was the site of one of her most costly errors. Setting anger aside, she ruminated on fear and the flame swam back into focus. The flickers it cast against the wall became rows of bodies in her inner sight…bodies of people she had not known…people whom once she had not even considered people. Had she killed them? She had killed so many…not with her hands, but with words uttered without thought. John had known for years without uttering a single word. That, too, was her fault. Perhaps John would have told her of the atrocity on Khon'dar if she had been more open with him about her role during the war. Now he was there with David…who was no doubt asking questions and revising his opinion of his mother downwards as he pried answer after horrifying answer from her blameless husband.

   The picture in her mind of David looking upon her with disgust rather than love jerked the first sob from deep within her. <At least he has John to protect him,> she thought as she felt her emotional dam starting to break. <He will try to explain things gently…he will try to downplay my part, perhaps he will even lie to protect my honor…but David will easily see through a lie. I am so sorry, my son…I am sorry you have a criminal for a mother…>

   With a cry of anguish, the Minbari's control failed completely. She was the most influential person in known space and she was totally helpless…helpless to aid anyone she cared about, helpless to stop the events she knew in her soul were coming…even helpless to explain herself to her family. Crying out with tears of impotent rage, she swatted the candle away from her, sending it flying across the room to fizzle out against the wall. She did not see it land, having already buried her head in her hands. She was powerful, yet she was in a prison…a prison of clear crystal, one she had placed herself in the moment she had reluctantly accepted the Presidency.

   <No.> A voice countered inside her head. Somewhere deep in her consciousness, a realization came to her. If she was confined in a prison of her own making, then she could unmake it…somehow, she could tear down the walls she had herself installed. She could not simply cast the Presidency aside, of course. The Alliance had to be protected from the external threat perhaps already upon them, and she was required to set the process of mobilization in motion. No one else could do it in her stead…but afterwards…she could do it. She would do it.

   Lifting her head from her hands, she glanced back at her closet, where the strap of her travel bag hung just outside the doorframe. She had promised Susan she would not leave…tonight. She had promised she would be in the Council chambers tomorrow for the session. But afterwards…

   She would make the necessary authorizations; say the necessary words. Events would be set in motion. Afterwards, what was the President's function anyway? Anla'Shok Na would be assembling the fleet and commanding the forces involved, the member worlds would be organizing their resources and her constitutional duties would be complete. She would be…superfluous…a figurehead.

   Rising, she padded over to her closet and retrieved her bag. She had made no promises about afterwards…nor would she. Sorting through the items she had packed, she added a few, then zipped the carryall shut. Setting the bag beside her bed, she then went into her washroom, took another pain pill and prepared for bed. She would perform her duty tomorrow. She would convince the delegates that the threat Susan described was real…and then she would see to her family. All of them.

   Delenn returned to her bed, climbed into it and closed her eyes. She did not sleep, and it was just as well. As events transpired, she was not in bed very long and later, she would count herself among the fortunate…at least for packing a suitcase if nothing else.

   She barely had time to grab the satchel a few hours later…when her security detail burst through the doors of her sleeping chamber, snatched her roughly from her bed, and practically frog-marched her out of her quarters. Everything was chaos when she reached ground level as Rangers dashed to and fro, and it all seemed to be swirling around an impatiently waiting Ranger One.

   "The attack has begun," Anla'Shok Na seriously intoned as she saw the unasked question on her president's face, "and Minbar is under assault. You're going to the bunker while we sort this Pearl Harbor out, and you'll be briefed when we know something."

   Delenn was unsure exactly what a haven for pearls had to do with warfare, but she understood the words 'attack' and 'Minbar' well enough. Even if she had not, she would have understood the burning contrails shooting across the sky…

   War was upon them.

   ***

   Anla'Shaibar Kas, or simply Watch Station Two as the humans knew it, was not a place that normally saw much action. A small space station situated in polar orbit just outside Minbar's upper atmosphere, it was run by the Rangers and primarily served as a traffic control point for military ships entering and leaving the much larger ground facilities at Yedor and Tuzanor Main. The Rangers stationed there were, for the most part, those who had served honorably and were nearing retirement. As it was the night cycle at Tuzanor Main, traffic was light and only two Rangers were on duty when the attack came.

   "EA Transport Dauphine, you are cleared for atmosphere entry," the Ranger space traffic controller intoned into the small mouthpiece affixed to his headset as he studied the screen. "Your course is 317 degrees, down axis 30. You may switch to Tuzanor Main for landing control once atmosphere transition is complete."

   "Confirm 317, down 30…" the ship's helmsman replied. "Uh…Station Two? I'm detecting multiple jump points opening close in. Are you expecting heavy traffic? Mars Prime didn't brief us about any redeployments when we filed our flight plan."

   The human traffic controller glanced inquiringly at the Minbari Ranger sitting next to him, who turned his palms up in a shrug. "Ah…we aren't expecting any. Dauphine, belay your transit clearance. Hold position while we expand our coverage area." With a shrug of his own, the human Ranger keyed a toggle and widened the view on his screen. Almost instantly, roughly one hundred new symbols sprang up on the display…each bearing a query icon indicating the inbound traffic was unidentified.

   "There's no IFF response," the Ranger whispered to his companion, who was also studying the readout. "Initiate a scan and cross-reference to the ship registry."

   The Minbari Ranger activated several control crystals on his board, his brow ridge furrowing as he studied the results. "Scans against the ship registry are inconclusive," he remarked confusedly. "In fact, the returns do not indicate ships of any kind."

   "So…what do they indicate? What are we looking at?"

   The Minbari scanned the inbound objects once more. "I am detecting trace ice…unrefined ores…mineral deposits…and no life signs. Mass readings vary, but each is roughly several hundred meters across, and…" Surprised, he pulled away from the readout. "And fusion engine emissions…"

   "Asteroids? Coming out of jump points under fusion power?" the human repeated incredulously. "This is bad…really, really bad. Quick! Plot course and speed! Where are they headed?"

   The Minbari's fingers flew across his board, and in response red vector markers sprang up on the screen. Beside each quickly moving blip, text boxes formed showing relative velocity. The Minbari Ranger nearly jumped out of his seat. "All objects are inbound for the surface! Estimated impact time ten minutes!" Breathing heavily, he added, "Several will pass through this location. Our station may very well be destroyed."

   The human thought quickly. Keying his mike, he opened a channel to the still waiting Earth transport. In a voice that sounded far calmer than he felt, he said, "Dauphine, this is an emergency situation. Inbound traffic is hostile…I repeat hostile, and you are in a danger area. You need to clear orbital space immediately. Emergency hyperspace jump is authorized. Do you copy?"

   "We copy. Initiating emergency hyperspace jump. Good luck, fellas…"

   The human nodded to himself in confirmation as he saw the Earth ship's IFF indicator wink out. Turning to his companion, he said, "Sound the general alarm. Get the rest of our people to the life pods. They'll have a better chance away from here." Almost immediately, the soft tones of the station's emergency alarm sounded, and the two Rangers turned their attention back to their displays. "Do we have specific impact points?" the human asked.

   "Negative. The projectiles are powered but appear to be unguided. Course plots indicate that most will impact in sparsely populated areas, but there are too many variables…the more massive asteroids are moving more slowly, and we do not have the computing power here to plot all of them with planetary rotation taken into account."

   "Then give me the major ones." Biting his lower lip in consternation, the human toggled another key. "Tuzanor Main, this is Watch Station Two. We are issuing a planet-wide attack warning. This is not a drill…I repeat this is not a drill. We have one hundred seventeen inbound projectiles that will begin impacting Minbar in seven minutes, thirteen seconds. Do you copy?"

   The reply came back almost instantly. "This is the Tuzanor Emergency Operations center. We understand. Ranger One is being notified. Patch your data feed through."

   The Minbari Ranger twisted a crystal. "Done."

   All was silent over the link for a few moments and the two nervous Rangers watched as the deceptively slow-moving contacts drew closer to the surface…and their location. Abruptly, the link activated again. "Watch Station Two…you're in the path of the bogies. Have you evacuated?"

   The human looked over at his Minbari counterpart, who nodded. "All but the two of us," the human replied into the link."

   "Can you get out?"

   The Minbari shook his head and whispered, "Two minutes. We would not get clear of the station in time."

   "Ah…that's a negative, Tuzanor. It looks like we'll be riding this one out here."

   The link went silent again for a few seconds. "Understood," the reply finally came as the EOC team on the ground quickly analyzed the station's data and came to the same conclusion. "The alert's gone out, and Ranger One is on-site. You guys did a good job up there…do what you can, and we'll get someone up there as soon as things are under control. Have faith."

   "Roger," the human replied. They weren't going to make it. He knew it, his companion knew it and the team on the ground knew it. Raising their hands to their hearts, both doomed Rangers saluted. "Entil'zha Veni!"

   They couldn't see it, but in their hearts they knew that their brothers on the ground were saluting as well as the reply came back. "Entil'zha Veni! Tuzanor Out."

   ***

   Even with minimal warning, the explosion of Watch Station Two's power core in Minbar's night sky was the first indication many on the ground received that their world had just gone to war. Twenty seconds after the flash, asteroids hundreds of meters across began slamming into the surface. On the night side of the planet, many abruptly awakened people gaped in terror and astonishment as the horizon began to glow yellow from the impacts.

   In the sky above, more projectiles drifted closer…the idling fusion engines affixed to them by Dilgar engineers firing as they touched atmosphere. The projectiles were unguided…those who sent them not caring where they impacted as long as they did…and most struck in uninhabited areas, but the damage was done. The Minbari did not realize it at the time, but similar events were occurring on Earth, Centauri Prime and Narn. Had they known, it would have mattered little. In the morning, a confident and proud people who had not known fear of an external threat in over one thousand human years would be afraid.

   And people who are afraid for themselves are not usually inclined to come to the aid of others.

   ***

    <When things are good, they're really good…and when they're bad, they're teetotal shit…>

   Susan could tell the Advisory Council meeting would be a contentious one the moment she and Delenn took their seats in the relatively small but more secure chamber they had been moved to. The panicked and angry voices rising from the filled seats facing them told her that much, if nothing else. The room, hastily set aside for them at the last minute for security reasons, was sparsely adorned and less comfortable than the formal meeting hall and reminded Anla'Shok Na of the small council chamber on the now-demolished Babylon Five more than anything else. With far more member worlds now, the facility they were occupying was too crowded for her taste, and the lack of space was only serving to accentuate the rumbling of the assembled delegates even more.

   Glancing over at her companion, Susan hoped her Minbari friend was prepared. Delenn sat quietly beside her, and to Susan's eye she looked pale and weakened. She hadn't said anything, but the Ranger leader knew she still wasn't feeling well. The combination of the mysterious cramps, the attack and the uncertainty of her family's disposition were taking their toll. Her Minbari friend had been noncommittal, almost listless, throughout most of the briefings she had received while sequestered in the bunker beneath the presidential compound, acknowledging only a few of the speakers with more than a nod. The updates she had received were brief ones…the Anla'Shok not having had much time to gather information…but they knew a little more than they had before. Sighing inwardly, the Anla'Shok commander was determined to take most of the burden of addressing the nervous representatives off her distracted friend.

   That the Dilgar had launched the attack was without question. It had not lasted very long and in reality there was little physical damage. Most of the fusion-powered missiles had impacted in Minbar's oceans, where tidal dampeners had mitigated any danger to coastal settlements, or in sparsely populated areas. Reports were still spotty, but it appeared that the Earth Alliance, Narn Regime and Centauri Republic had been similarly attacked…again, with little damage other than several new craters on their homeworlds. Intangible damage was a different story, Susan somberly reflected. If the reaction of the general population on Minbar were any example, holding the Alliance to a common purpose would be extremely difficult. On each member world, people were now looking nervously at the skies and calling on their governments to defend them from the larger, more destructive attacks they were certain hovered just around the corner.

   And those governments were responding. In Susan's opinion, they were responding just the way the Dilgar intended. Every member world, major and minor, had assumed what Susan called the 'bunker mentality', more concerned with defending themselves than aiding one another…and all wondering what the Interstellar Alliance…personified by Delenn…was going to do to help them. They wanted assurance that the fleet they had invested so heavily in was going to be there for them.

   And, Susan knew better than anyone, it was an assurance the impassive woman at her side could not immediately provide.

   Right now, the Brakiri had the floor. "…We know who did this, Madame President," their representative said as Susan turned her attention away from her own troubled thoughts and back to the matter at hand. "Our attaches briefed us on the information the Rangers uncovered. What we want to know is how you intend to respond."

   Susan spoke up. "It's too soon to answer that. We're still backtracking the asteroids to see where they came from. Once we know their origination point, we can follow the hyperspace pathways from there and hopefully track down the…the entities…that launched them."

   "Backtracking? Our world has been attacked and you are backtracking? Ranger One…they are certainly long gone by now! What I want to know is how you intend to defend us from further attacks! We have never had a large fleet, and what we did have has drawn down…because we believed the Alliance would be there for us! We have only a small White Star garrison and a few of our own ships…not nearly enough to repel a determined offensive! When can we expect reinforcements?"

   "The Alliance didn't coerce you into reducing your military, Ambassador," Susan replied as evenly as she could manage. "Your government made that decision on its own."

   "The question remains!" the Brakiri retorted heatedly. "You have had a few stones lobbed at you in passing! We are seeing Dilgar warships in our space! Warships we used to tell our children about as history because we never thought we'd see them again! We are a member system and we ask…no, we demand that you allocate a portion of the fleet to defend Brakir!" The ambassador's statement brought on a chorus of nods and muttered acknowledgements from the representatives of the smaller systems.

   "We too?" the Gaim ambassador twittered through its' voder, the device rendering each statement a question. "We have also been attacked by Dilgar ships? We hide in our hives…but the Dilgar come? When will the fleet be ready to protect us?"

   The Hyach representative then spoke. "We too have been assaulted. Our homeworld remains relatively secure, but we are receiving reports of Dilgar ships massing in our space." A course of affirmative nods and grumbling from other former League members indicated to Susan that many of the smaller worlds were in far worse trouble than she had first suspected. On the other side of the chamber, a far smaller group comprised of the representatives of the major powers sat quietly, waiting to hear how Susan or Delenn would respond.

   It was Delenn who responded. "All of our worlds have been attacked! Including my own!" Standing, she glared across the assembled delegates, seeming to look at each in turn. "Every world needs defending, but you know the fleet deployments…you approved them! You…each one of you…disapproved my request to place more Anla'Shok on your worlds. You did not want your sovereignty infringed upon. Now, you need help and I recognize that, but we cannot assemble and re-deploy the ships we have available in a day…"

   "And we've already alerted the entire Alliance fleet," Susan amended. "Every operational Ranger ship is either in position to defend the worlds where they're stationed or moving to their deployment positions. But you have to realize…repositioning our ships to cover every world would spread us too thin. We wouldn't have a fleet…instead, we'd have small cells that might or might not be strong enough to defend each location. As for counterattacking…it would be out of the question. Our strategy for now…"

   "Is to do nothing!" A new voice concluded sharply. Striding down the center aisle, the Drazi Ambassador assumed the Brakiri's position and continued, "You think us slow, but Drazi see how this will go!" Pointing at the representatives of the major powers, he said, "Some of you know the Dilgar as former foes. Some of you…" he sneered at the Centauri, "know them as allies. Drazi know the Dilgar even better than you…Drazi know the Dilgar as occupiers." Pointing accusingly at Delenn, he said, "You Minbari…you do not know the Dilgar. Many turnings ago, when Drazi and the League were last attacked, Drazi leaders came to the Minbari and asked…no, begged for help…but the mighty Minbari would not be bothered with the problems of…lesser beings. What say your people now, Madame President? If the Alliance cannot immediately help Drazi, will the Minbari?"

   Delenn had been dreading this question. Earlier, she had attempted to elicit support from the Grey Council as a stopgap until the Alliance could respond. The Council, many of whom were people she appointed herself, expressed sympathy but, citing the need to defend their own systems first, they demurred from committing any ships to defend non-Minbari. "I do not speak for Minbar, Ambassador," she replied neutrally. "The Grey Council turned over command of the fleet to the Warriors following the attack, as is our way. Even if they had not, I hold no position in the Minbari government and have no say over them. I regret having to say this, but Minbar will not commit any forces to the defense of others until the Warrior Caste leadership has a greater understanding of the threat."

   "You have no authority. What a convenient excuse," the Drazi countered. "You had authority enough when Drazi displeased you. Drazi Freehold has no Ranger garrison, Madame President…as you well know. You withdrew them just before you shamefully embargoed us…crippling our own fleet in your attempt to twist Drazi economy to your will." Turning away from the Minbari woman in disgust, he faced the Earth Alliance ambassador. "And what of Drazi's human friends? Your fleet is the largest in known space and you saved the League from the Dilgar once before." Spreading his hands, he said, "Surely those who recognize the evil the Dilgar represent better than any of the other great powers can spare a few ships to help Drazi now?"

   "We can and we will," the human replied. The Drazi brightened momentarily, only to have his expression turn to disappointment as the ambassador added, "But not…uh, right away. Earthforce ships are spread thinly. Many of our most capable warships are exploring deep space and it'll take time to recall and reposition them. The ones that aren't are busy securing our borders. Right now, we have our own systems to defend." Placatingly, the Earth Ambassador added, "Later…when the situation is sorted out and we know a little more…then we can help. We will help…as soon as possible."

   The Drazi snorted and jerked a finger at Delenn. "Your association with the bloodless ones has taken the fire out of your bellies. Your fathers would already have been strapping on their weapons." Turning back to the seats containing the former League ambassadors, he spat, "You see, League brothers? Drazi knew how this would go, and now so do you! The major powers have had sand kicked in their faces, and now they cower!" Grabbing a sheet of paper off a table, he strode up to Delenn and crumpled it. "Drazi signed the Declaration of Principles at your urging all those turnings ago…and now, when Drazi need help, your noble document is merely scrap paper!" Tossing the wad down in front of the silent Minbari, he said, "The big worlds…they do not know the Dilgar like Drazi know the Dilgar…and the Dilgar know Drazi! Your worlds felt pebbles, but Drazi…more than pebbles will come to us! Many Dilgar ships have been detected entering Drazi space, and come to our homeworld they will. Drazi will be bombarded, as we were before. Your…help…will not come in time!"

   "We are doing everything we…" Delenn began. The Drazi ambassador cut her off.

   "You have never been a friend to Drazi. Drazi wish your husband were here. He is a friend to Drazi. You know words. Sheridan knows words, but also realizes when it is time to stand beside friends! Things were better when your male was President." Peering intently at the stonily glaring Minbari woman following his offhand insult, he continued, "Drazi will show you something, Minbari." Grabbing his shirt collar, the ambassador ripped at the fabric, shredding his tunic and throwing the remnant to the floor. Turning around, he showed Delenn his back.

   Neither Delenn nor Susan could resist a gasp. The ambassador's back was criss-crossed with mottled, livid scar tissue.

   "Dilgar did this to Drazi," the ambassador explained. "When just a little one. Dilgar overlord did not like young Drazi's posture. Overlord thought it would be interesting to expose spine and examine skeletal structure. You find this shocking?" Turning around, the Drazi recovered his shirt and slid the remnants back over his shoulders. "Now, my young ones face the same fate! Sheridan is a warrior and would understand this! You Minbari think you were attacked? You are being deceived! We now see how powerless you are and Drazi have no confidence in you, Delenn!"

   "A vote of no confidence?" the Gaim ambassador chimed.

   "I second it!" an unidentified representative from the former League shouted from the room's rear. With that shout, the chamber descended into pandemonium, everyone present loudly voicing an opinion…or many opinions.

   Above the din, Susan pounded vigorously on the table with her gavel. In her loudest parade ground voice, she shouted the chamber into silence. "HAVE YOU ALL LOST YOUR FUCKING MINDS? WE'RE AT WAR!" Once she had their attention, she lowered her voice, but only slightly. "Do any of you think for one minute that you could do any better than we are? Do you? Do you think the ships will move any faster? Do you think the worlds will be better defended? Do you think the Dilgar will pause while we form a new government? DO YOU?" Susan was heating up for a blow, and she knew it. She didn't want to, but she couldn't seem to stop herself. "I swear I'm about ready to come across this table and start knocking some sense into your hard skulls." Pointing at the Drazi ambassador, she continued, "And you think the green-purple thing is bad? Buddy, I've got your number…"

   A slight tug at her sleeve stopped her just before she flew over the edge into a rage. "The no confidence motion has been made and seconded, Susan." Delenn murmured. To the human woman's surprise, the Minbari's voice was calm and steady. Rising, she linked her arm through Susan's and continued, "It is on the floor. Let them vote. Everything will be all right."

   "Are you sure?" Susan whispered. "There's no way the major powers will vote to oust you, but they're far outnumbered by the former League. If they vote in bloc, you're done."

   "It will be all right," Delenn repeated. "Call the vote."

   Looking at her friend, Susan noted that her expression was not the one she would have expected. Delenn gazed out over the assembled delegates confidently, with a hint of a smile on her lips. As Susan banged the gavel once more and called the chamber to order, Delenn slipped her arm away and sat once more, calmly folding her hands in her lap to await her fate.

   And the inevitable occurred. As Susan had predicted, the voting quickly went against the woman who had led the Alliance for the last five years. The major members…Earth, Minbar, the Narn and Centauri, recognizing the danger inherent in turning over power during a time of crisis, voted against…but the League, frightened and feeling betrayed, voted overwhelmingly for. And through it all, Delenn remained calm, composed and unnaturally passive while her friend became increasingly confused. When the voting was done, the Minbari rose, bowed respectfully to acknowledge the will of the representatives and turned to Ranger One.

   "Susan, you have served more loyally than I could ever have asked, and I know you will support them equally as well as you did me. They are not fools, despite what you may think of them right now and they will no doubt assemble an ad-hoc committee to run the Alliance until a new President can be selected. Our political structure can function that way for a time, but I am relying on you to ensure what we have built over the cycles survives our present military crisis." With a slight chuckle, she took the human's hand and quietly added, "I wish there had been another way. If not for the confidence I have in you I would never have allowed this to happen, but…you humans have a saying: 'And This Too Shall Pass'."

   "You…knew? You knew this was coming?" Susan breathed incredulously.

   Delenn smiled faintly and nodded imperceptibly in acknowledgement. "I suspected it would." Her face clouding over slightly, she added, "And to permit the Council to shame me by declaring me incompetent without rebuttal was difficult. Even now, I am reluctant to turn my back on the needs of the many and terrified at what may result, but I have chosen duty over my heart so many times...this time, I cannot do it. Everyone I hold dear…everyone I love stands alone in darkness, and as one of the powerful, I was powerless to help. Now, perhaps…I will not be." With that, she released Susan's hand and pressed her palm against the human woman's heart. "Watch over and protect our people for me, Anla'Shok Na." Concluding with a smile, she turned and strode proudly from the chamber, leaving the delegates, ambassadors and other representatives to squabble over the details of assembling an interim government.

   As she watched the Minbari's retreating back, realization dawned. She now understood why her Minbari friend had stayed so calm as her responsibilities were stripped from her. With a rueful laugh, Susan shook her head in admiration of Delenn's passive manipulation, even as it made things that much more uncertain for the Alliance as a whole.

   Delenn was relieved of her authority and it was what she wanted. She could never have voluntarily turned away from her responsibilities…but to be involuntarily released, that was a different set of circumstances entirely. And if, perhaps, she didn't fight that relief as hard as she might have? Given where her heart was leading her, Susan doubted the Minbari would worry too much over her lack of effort in forestalling her ouster. Her priorities had changed drastically in the past few months.

   She was no longer President, Satai, Entil'zha, or Ambassador. She was simply 'Delenn' and she was no longer…encumbered. Yet, she was far from powerless. She was free.

   And, Susan noted with a slow smile, it was time for some manipulation of her own. Delenn might be a free agent now, but she was going to need some help. Smothering her grin, she turned away from the door and, with a resigned sigh, waded back into the chaos of the Council meeting.

   ***

   The spaceport at Tuzanor Main Ranger base was a chaotic maelstrom as the mobilization of the Anla'Shok began in earnest. White Stars, seemingly countless in number, jockeyed for tarmac space and launch clearances with smaller Minbari flyers and other atmosphere-capable warcraft while recalled Rangers, some arriving after a full days' travel without rest, scurried every which way to get to their ships. Family members, mainly human and Minbari but with a few representing Rangers of other races, stood just outside the launch area, craning necks and waving to catch the attention of their loved ones one last time…bidding them 'Bon Voyage', as the humans called it.

   Cutting a swath through all the activities around her, Susan Ivanova seemed to be everywhere…stopping every now and then to check a detail, sign an authorization or give direct and pointed guidance when minor glitches occurred. Around her, ships began lifting out as they received their orders, and the bright reddish-blue sky over the small Minbari city was soon filled with the contrails of Anla'Shok cruisers…some perhaps biting through the air of their homeworld for the last time.

   In the day since the tumultuous Council meeting, the Dilgar situation had grown worse. While the major powers had suffered no new attacks, the initial fears of the League ambassadors were proving well founded. Many systems in the former League were reporting increased sightings…even engagements with heavily armed warships. The intelligence arm of the Anla'Shok had received vids from those systems, and had confirmed that these warships were the long-dreaded Dilgar Penetrators and their support ships…ships once thought resigned to history. At present, none were reporting encounters in sufficient strength to mount an assault directly on a planet, but the few that were there were more than sufficient to wreak havoc on the primarily civilian traffic along the local hyperspace lanes…not to mention keeping populations panicked and the Anla'Shok confused as to the Dilgars' true intentions.

   Susan couldn't remember when she had last slept. As reports continued to pour in, she had found herself simultaneously monitoring the updates of her staff, rushing to answer the questions of the five-member panel that had assumed Delenn's presidential functions and struggling to coordinate the Anla'Shok mobilization. So far, she was successfully juggling all the glass balls that had been thrown at her…but it couldn't last. At this pace, she couldn't last. Making her way to the spaceport's command and control facility, she found herself wearily wishing that John were with her. He'd never fought the Dilgar, but he'd been at the Academy during the first Dilgar War and had studied their tactics extensively. Most of her staff was either Minbari or too young to remember, and those old pensioners still alive on Earth who remembered the previous war had been lower ranking at the time. None of the senior strategists that had been decision-makers were still alive.

   Besides which, she reflected, she'd just feel better with him beside her…just like the old days on B5 when they faced the Shadows. Now, even in the crowd that seemed to follow her wherever she went, she felt totally alone…much as she had when John fell at Z'ha'dum.

   <Well…maybe not completely alone…> she thought as she entered the spaceport's command center and spied a familiar, brightly colored robe among the dark clothing of the Rangers. The slight woman wearing it was gazing impassively…almost sadly…out of the plasteel observation window at the departing ships. She had her back to the Ranger leader, and Susan motioned to her aide and the members of her staff that were accompanying her to leave them alone before approaching the solitary figure. Those other Rangers present understood and, following their companions' lead, quietly departed.

   Slipping up beside the silent, drawn Minbari woman, Susan leaned in and nudged her with her shoulder softly to get her attention. "So…couldn't stay away, huh?"

   Delenn glanced over and smiled sadly in acknowledgement before turning her gaze back to the window. "No. It occurred to me that you needed a loved one here to say 'Bon Voyage' to you as well. As everyone else is…is otherwise indisposed, I thought you might appreciate the gesture."

   Susan glanced the link on her hand, checking the time. "Yeah, my White Star will be lifting out as soon as I'm aboard." Linking her arm through Delenn's, she continued, "But…I have a few minutes to spare. I hoped you would come, and I'm glad you did." Turning to look out the window, the two stood silently…arm in arm…as the deployment continued, the incredible noise created by the launching ships muted by the thick walls and floor.

   After a time, Delenn murmured, "What course of action has the interim leadership decided on?"

   "Oh, I made my case," Susan remarked with a trace of sarcasm, "but they decided on the deployment the League wanted. They've ordered every operational ship to the more lightly defended worlds to bolster the ships already there. They're breaking up the fleet."

   "If an Alliance-wide war is coming," Delenn noted, "we will not win with defense alone. The most we can hope for is a stalemate."

   "Yeah, I know. That's why I've adjusted the parameters of their decision a little," Susan replied with a chuckle. "You'd be amazed at how many first-line ships suddenly developed maintenance problems and became non-operational on this morning's report…including several Victories. I hate to tell you this, Delenn…but we've got so many maintenance problems I could almost make a separate task force out of them. I can see that I'm going to have to jerk knots in the asses of some of our Readiness Officers…after the present crisis is over, of course."

   "You have been lax in your care of the fleet, Ranger One?" Delenn retorted with mock seriousness. "I am afraid that is unacceptable. You are fired."

   "Well, up yours! You never paid me enough anyway," Susan laughed. "And you can't fire me…you're just a private citizen, remember?" Raising an eyebrow, she cocked her head and added, "Say…are you even authorized to be in here? Should I be calling security right now?"

   "That will not be necessary," the smiling Minbari woman replied meekly. "I will be very quiet and I will stay in the corner and out of the way. You will not even know that I am here." Her smile fading, she gestured out the window at the ships. "May I ask…which ship have you assigned to retrieve John and David? If possible, I would like to have a word with the Captain before they depart?"

   Susan's expression became troubled. "Uh…I'm sorry. I haven't assigned one."

   Susan's words struck Delenn like a body blow, but she covered her shock and dismay quickly. Keeping her voice as level as possible, she murmured, "You…intend to leave them? Knowing what you know of the horrid place they are stranded in?"

   Ranger One saw through the Minbari's emotionally level facade to the fear and disappointment beneath. Reaching out, she grasped Delenn softly by the arms to support her. Motioning at a nearby seat, she whispered, "Let's sit for a minute," before leading the shaken woman over. Once they were seated, she took Delenn's hands in hers and whispered, "Honey, I tried to get the interim Council to authorize a rescue ship, but they expressly forbid it. They said that every operational ship was needed to protect the threatened systems and not even one could be spared to go after just two Rangers…even two important ones." Shaking her head, she continued, "And I can't order one of my 'inoperable' ships to go. If I did, the Council would find out and ask how I could send a supposedly non-functional ship on a mission. My whole ruse would fall apart, we'd lose the small reserve I'm putting together and I really would be fired. With you no longer President and John unavailable, I can't allow that to happen…without at least one of us at the tiller, the Anla'Shok will lose confidence and the Alliance will founder."

   Delenn looked forlornly at her hands, no longer sure she could hide her anguish if she looked her friend in the eyes. "I was hoping to…to pass the Captain a personal message to give John when they arrived."

   "No…you were hoping to wrangle your way on board," Susan gently corrected. "Sometimes you're a enigma wrapped around a riddle surrounded by a mystery to me, but we've known each other too long for me to buy such an obviously lame explanation." Leaning back in her seat, the human woman sighed. She also knew Delenn well enough to realize that the woman would not give up. Susan started to speak, but a low rumble outside the observation window pulled her attention away. Immediately adjacent to the building, a White Star was setting down. Glancing over at the exit, she noted Tulann peeking in and, seeing that he had Ranger One's attention, he pointed at her and then the ship. Susan nodded and turned her attention back to her crestfallen friend. "Well…it looks like my ship's come in. I have to go." Reaching over, she pulled her silent companion into her embrace. As she held Delenn, she whispered, "I love you, Heart Sister…and I love John, David and Ardenn, too. I know you. Nothing I say will make you stay where it's safe…but I can't order a ship to take you where you want to go. Maybe if I had a ship that wasn't on the manifest…one the Council had no visibility over…"

   "I…I understand…"

   "No…you don't," Susan murmured. "Listen carefully, sweetheart. I can't give you a ship that's on the fleet roster. The Council's tracking them and they'd know. I'm sorry." Releasing her friend, she gazed at her with both fondness and sadness in her expression as she rose. Pausing at the door, she turned back to the puzzled Minbari. "Do me a favor, huh?" she asked.

   "It does not seem that I am in much of a position to do anything," Delenn replied morosely as she looked up at the departing Ranger leader. "What do you require of me?"

   "Stay until the last ship leaves. Will you do that?"

   Delenn thought a moment. "That is an odd request…but if you wish it, I will comply."

   "Good. The last ship, Delenn…not before. Got it?"

   The Minbari nodded uncertainly and Susan smiled. "Good enough." Coming to attention, she executed a perfect, respectful bow and held out her hand as she straightened. "Farewell, old friend," she intoned as Delenn rose and mirrored the gesture.

   "Farewell…and May your God keep you and protect you from harm in all the empty places you must walk."

   Susan smiled once more. "You're learning," she chuckled…and then she was gone.

   The Minbari sighed as she watched the Ranger leader depart, saddened both by the parting and her seemingly helpless position. Her entire plan hinged on securing a berth for herself on the rescue ship she was sure Susan would send…yet it seemed the interim Council had blocked that avenue and tied Ranger One's hands. There was to be no rescue.

   Delenn wanted to cry. Frustration was an emotional state she was not used to, and she turned back to the observation window and concentrated on watching ships leave to hold the tears at bay. As Susan requested, she observed each and every one, and after a while she lost track of the time. Gradually, traffic thinned out and she was surprised to find that where once there had been many people and many ships, now only one remained. From the freshness of the ship's blue-tinted skin, she could tell that the straggler was a newer White Star…one that had never seen real combat. The ship seemed in no hurry to leave, and the former President, with what she recognized was uncharacteristic impatience, was starting to regret her promise to Ranger One when something about the ship caught her eye.

   Over the cycles, Delenn had learned that one way to differentiate White Stars captained by humans from those commanded by Minbari was the human tradition of painting the names of their ships on the hull. Minbari named their ships as well, but for some odd reason human males often chose to name their ships after the significant females in their lives.

   There was no mistaking the race of this White Star's Alyt. In bold English script, the name 'Light Wanderer' was emblazoned horizontally across the nose. If that were not enough to identify the waiting ship's captain, the stylized outline of a white-robed Minbari female holding a candle aloft above the name surely would. Delenn was looking at her own son's ship…a ship he had named in honor of his beloved…

   And Susan had told her to stay until the last ship left. The normally serene woman did cry then. "You are learning as well, old friend," she murmured through grateful tears. "You were as subtle as a Minbari…" Hastily drying her eyes, she then darted to a low table set in the corner of the room. Reaching behind it, she retrieved the traveling bag she had hidden there before Ranger One arrived and slung it over her shoulder as she headed for the door, afraid the opportunity Susan had generously left her might disappear in a puff of smoke if she tarried too long…

   ***

   The tarmac of the spaceport, until recently bustling like a nest of irritated Ver'chya, was quiet as a deserted temple as Delenn made the long walk towards the waiting ship. All she could hear was her own breathing, the wind and the tapping of her heels. No one else was around, and even the ship she approached seemed unmanned at first. Slinging her bag more firmly, she quickened her steps and wondered if she were expected to pilot the craft herself. Well, if going alone was the only way to save her family she could and she would if she had to, she decided. The fact that the last ship was her son's had undoubtedly been why Ranger One had instructed her…with unusual vagueness…to remain.

   Rounding a large, empty cargo container close to the Light Wanderer, the Minbari woman spied a Ranger…a fellow Minbari…waiting by the lowered personnel ramp and breathed a sigh of relief. So Susan did not intend for her to go alone. She started to approach the Anla'Shok, intending to collect him and be on her way, when she abruptly remembered she was no longer president. As Susan had humorously remarked a short time ago, she was now a private citizen and had no authority to make the waiting crewmember or his mates go anywhere. It would be better, she decided, if she ascertained exactly what they had been told before she attempted to convince them to allow her aboard. <What do the humans call it? Ah, yes…making conversation…'Small talk'. That should not be difficult,> she thought. <Not for a Minbari who has been a diplomat for most of her life…>

   With that in mind, she hastily formulated a plan and put it into action. First, she deposited her carryall in the empty cargo container, knowing she would appear too obvious and needy if she approached with a bag under her arm. Once it was out of sight, she fluffed her hair, took a deep breath and pasted an expression of polite interest on her face before clasping her hands behind her back and sauntering over to the waiting Minbari Ranger. The Anla'Shok did not immediately notice her, but Delenn recognized him…and she could tell he was preoccupied. A human would not have noticed, but to the hybrid woman he appeared impatient…his posture stiff and his expression neutral. Only the hard glint in his eyes gave his mood away. "Ahem…ah, excuse me," she began as she sidled with seeming timidity up to the Minbari, thankful that she remembered his name. "You are…ah…Nashon, yes? Alyt Sheridan's Shai?"

   "I am," the Minbari replied in clipped tones. Turning to face her, he continued, "And you would be…oh, forgive me Madame President…" Hastily, he formed a triangle with his fingers and bowed deeply as he recognized his visitor. Without rising, he stammered, "I apologize…I did not sense your approach, Respected One."

   Delenn smiled indulgently. Confirmation of her removal had not yet spread. Given the circumstances, it would be easy enough to keep her change in status secret, and the thought of deceiving the young Minbari and his crew quickly flashed through her mind...but she discarded the notion almost instantly. It would not be fair to them. Shaking her head, she said, "You may look up, Nashon. 'Delenn' is the only title I came into this incarnation with and it will suffice."

   The Ranger straightened. "We heard rumors…"

   "They are true," Delenn confirmed. "I am no longer President."

   Nashon shook his head angrily. "So they did remove you? I did not want to believe it. I hesitate to speak ill of our leaders, but I fear they have shown a regrettable lack of common sense. One in my position is perhaps not fit to judge, but I believe you are a gifted ruler."

   "I was a ruler," Delenn acknowledged. "Whether or not I was a 'gifted' one is a matter best left for history to decide. But…" she sighed, "I did not come here to discuss situations already passed." Indulgently, she waved a hand at the waiting ship and continued, "I am simply here to see our brave Anla'Shok off and I came over to admire my Ier'ma's ship. It is a beautiful one."

   "Respectfully, uh…Delenn, the Light Wanderer is a 'she'," Nashon corrected. "She carries the name of your son's female companion, and as Alyt Sheridan explained it to me, she is thus imbued with a measure of her namesake's spirit. I do not completely understand this tradition, but he is the commander and I respect his beliefs."

   "Humans have some odd traditions," the former president agreed. "But it is an honorable name, nonetheless. Your ship's namesake is indeed a spirited woman. I do not think she will mind." Turning back to the ship, she added seemingly as an afterthought, "But why is she still here? Should you not be with the fleet?"

   Delenn could almost hear her companion's teeth grind. "Because Ranger One…" hastily, he stopped himself as his voice started to rise. "Forgive my tone," he amended. With a trace of shame, he continued, "We are here because Anla'Shok Na in her wisdom has refused to accept us into the fleet. Our crew is ready, but our ship has not yet been on her shakedown cruise…and your son is not here to take command. She cannot be manifested onto the active rolls until an Alyt declares all systems are functional."

   The Minbari woman was hard pressed to conceal her glee. Her expression sympathetic, she mentally cast a blessing in Susan's direction and knuckled her chin with a forefinger to hide her smile. "Well…Anla'Shok Na is within her authority to make such a decision," she murmured. "Your ship has not yet been commissioned, and both human regulations and Minbari tradition state that the ship must be declared safe to operate before we entrust living beings to her."

   "But she is safe to operate!" Nashon declared, his temper flaring, "And Anla'Shok Na knows this! I do not understand…every ship is needed and she chooses now to follow regulations? Added to that, she told me that we would be receiving a temporary Alyt! Forgive me, Delenn…I have known your son since we took Ranger training together and he is both a highly capable commander and my friend, but I am also highly capable."

   Delenn pretended to consider his words, furrowing her delicate brow ridge and pursing her lips. "I think we have reached the root of your frustration," she stated after a moment. "Anla'Shok Na would not grant you command, even if temporary, and you feel that she insulted you…yes?"

   "I have great respect for Anla'Shok Na…and she has always expressed confidence in me in the past," Nashon replied, morosely shaking his head. "I do not understand."

   Delenn understood. Shaking her head as well, she said, "I see." Glancing around at the barren tarmac, she continued, "So where is your temporary Alyt?"

   "I do not know," the Minbari Ranger answered. "He or she was not identified to me by name. I went to the command center, thinking the Alyt might be waiting there. Except for the traffic controllers, the place was empty."

   "When I was President," Delenn commiserated sadly, "I could have overridden Anla'Shok Na and appointed you. Unfortunately, I no longer have that authority. Still…" she paused, pretending to consider a new idea, "I am Anla'Shok myself, you realize…and I think you will agree that I am a qualified Alyt. Given the present crisis, your temporary Alyt has no doubt been given higher priority duties than a shakedown cruise. If you are willing, I suppose…well, I could make the time to certify my own son's ship…" Not wanting to appear too eager, she quickly added, "Ah…in the interest of expediting your commissioning and getting you into service, of course."

   Nashon stood dumbfounded for a moment, not believing his ears. Was the Blessed Delenn offering to personally captain his ship? Second only to serving under Entil'zha himself, he could think of no greater honor. "I…ah, we would consider it an honor," he stammered, bowing once more.

   Having gotten what she wanted, Delenn returned the bow with a secretive smile. Rising, she became all business. "Very well then, Shai. Time is not a luxury we have in abundance, but tradition demands the Assumption ritual be conducted. We will perform the abbreviated version. Please assemble the crew here as quickly as possible."

   "As you command," Nashon replied in the tradition of a subordinate leader to a superior. Turning, he bolted back into the ship to roust the crew.

   Delenn, for her part, bolted as well…back to the cargo bin to retrieve her bag. Grabbing the small satchel, she looked down at herself and noticed she was wearing her everyday robes…functional enough when planet bound, but awkward when working aboard a warship. Slipping into the cargo container, she quickly fished her green coverall out of the bag, followed by its matching wrap. She had not worn the garment in over twenty years, but as her clothing size had not changed in the intervening period, it would suffice. Not wanting the crew to see her emerging from the container, she broke several speed-changing records, hurriedly divesting herself of her robes and slipping into the skin-tight utility garb before stuffing her old clothing back into her bag. Hastily, she slid into the matching overgarment and wound it around her. Finally, she slung her carryall and dashed back out to the tarmac in front of the ship.

   When Nashon and the rest of David's crew came down the personnel ramp, they found their captain's mother patiently standing in the same place she had been before. What little whispering there was among them ceased, each recognizing the diminutive woman instantly. With amazing discipline, the thirty-seven human and Minbari crewmembers gathered around her, waiting for her to officially assume command.

   Without preamble, Delenn gazed at them determinedly…catching the eye of each one as she began to speak. "I am not your Alyt," she intoned. "That honor belongs to another. I am Delenn of Minbar…of the Religious Caste. I am the mate of Entil'zha John Sheridan and the mother of David. I walk in the dark places. I fear, but I am not afraid. I am Grey, but I face the Light. I am Anla'Shok." Pitching her voice lower, she asked, "Will you follow me? Will you follow me into darkness? Will you follow me into fire?"

   In unison, the crew answered, "We will follow you."

   Satisfied, the Minbari woman nodded and smiled without mirth. "Good. We have several tasks ahead of us. None will be easy…but I know you will serve with honor." Turning to Nashon, she said, "Have the crew take their stations and prepare for departure. We will lift off immediately."

   Nashon nodded and repeated the command. As the crew dispersed, he turned back to Delenn and asked, "What destination should I pass to navigation?"

   "Our first destination will be…Yedor."

   "Yedor?" Nashon questioningly repeated. "That seems an unlikely destination for a shakedown cruise."

   "On the contrary," Delenn replied without a trace of humor. "It is most appropriate. There is one there who requires a good shaking…and I fully intend to provide her one..."

   ***

   "…Regretfully, the Mistress Irilenn is unavailable to speak with you, Delenn," the anonymous Sister answered through the comlink. A little reprovingly, she added, "Surely you understand. Given the present circumstances, she is far too occupied with matters important to our world as a whole to grant personal audiences to…ah, individual citizens."

   From her position in the Light Wanderer's command chair, Delenn nodded. "Yes, I understand…completely. I am aware of the current crisis. Despite that, it is imperative that I see her. Please tell her I will only require a small amount of her very valuable time."

   The Sister on the screen averted her eyes momentarily. "That is not possible. Forgive me for remarking upon it, but your, ah…status change…has been noted. Even during periods of normalcy, the Mistress sees no private petitioners without advance scheduling. If you desire an appointment at some time in the future, perhaps that can be arranged…at some time in the future."

   "I see," the hybrid muttered darkly. "So I am no longer…important…enough to rate a personal audience?"

   "The Mistress cannot possibly meet with everybody," the Sister replied pertly. "She would have no time left to actually lead. As a, ah…former leader yourself, you know that a standard must be established somewhere." Glancing at a card in her hand, she continued, "Now, if that concludes your business, I have been instructed to ask that you move your ship. Its weight exceeds the structural tolerances of our pad. While no damage has resulted, we recommend use of a smaller civilian flyer if you intend future visits." With a short, neutral bow, the Sister said, "Valeria's blessings be upon you" and terminated the communication.

   Beside her, Nashon sucked air through his teeth sharply in irritation. Delenn looked over at him and smiled grimly. "You have never dealt with the Sisters, I take it."

   "Only on the few occasions that Alyt Sheridan socialized with the crew while accompanied by his Sa'fela." Nashon muttered. "But she was not like…like that one. She was pleasant company and spoke very respectfully to even the lowest ranking crewmember. I believe you displayed great patience, Delenn…far greater than I would have under similar circumstances." Putting a knuckle to his chin, he considered the situation for a moment before continuing, "Still, it is puzzling. I sensed an unusual level of tension from the Sister you just spoke with. I do not believe her words were completely her own."

   "I know they were not," the Minbari woman confirmed. "My presence has made her superiors nervous…and they will be even more so in a few moments." Turning back to the forward display, she commanded, "We shall increase their tension level. Lift us off the pad, Shai. Point our bow at the main entrance and set us back down."

   Nashon merely nodded at the helmsman, who began manipulating her control board. "I take it we are not departing."

   "And make things easy for them? No…they have pushed me beyond polite civility." Delenn muttered. Glancing over at David's second, she lowered her voice and whispered, "Nashon…in a few moments I will ask you to follow me in an activity that may seem rash and irresponsible, perhaps even criminal. Even as your acting captain, I cannot compel you to obey in this…so I am requesting that you trust me. Will you?"

   Nashon hesitated a moment, noting that the Light Wanderer's nose cannon was now squarely centered on the massive doors of the main temple. "I ah…assume you intend to force entry?"

   "Force…such a strong word," Delenn mused as she rose from the command chair. "No. I will not force anyone to do anything, but the humans have a saying…Speak softly, but carry a big stick. I have spoken softly. Now I intend to show them the stick I carry. The conclusions those within the temple draw from seeing it are their own." Collecting a link, she moved to the rear of the bridge and said, "Lower the ramp, please."

   "You are going outside?"

   "Of course," the Minbari noted. "We are guests here. I cannot very well announce myself without knocking on the door, can I? Now, will you trust me?"

   "We will…up to a point," the Shai replied. "If you intend what I think you do, injury to those within the temple could result. If we reach that point, can I trust you to stop if I tell you to?"

   "I suppose that is a fair enough agreement," the hybrid acknowledged with a short, respectful bow. Nashon had given her a less than ringing endorsement. Until she had begun associating with humans, Delenn had been accustomed to unquestioned obedience. Humans, she had since discovered, were many things, but 'unquestioningly obedient' was not one of them and those Minbari like Nashon who trained among them were taught to ask questions when the situation warranted. "Monitor my communications. I will tell you what I intend as the situation demands."

   Leaving the bridge, Delenn made the short walk down the main corridor to the ramp and exited the Light Wanderer. Once on the landing pad, she took a deep, calming breath before crossing the distance between the ship and the temple's main entrance. As Nashon had surmised, she intended to bluff her way in to see Irilenn…but her bluff would be a dangerous one. Any miscalculation on her part would at the least result in her losing the confidence of her son's crew. At most, someone could be injured…even killed. No…she could not risk that, even to free Ardenn. If this did not work, she would have to back down.

   She stood for a moment before the ornately engraved crystal of the portcullis, estimating its strength. Her expression hardening, she shouted, "I know you see me here, Mistress Irilenn! I know you can hear me! I promised you I would be coming through the front entrance the next time we met, and that time has arrived! Now, in the name of Valen, I demand that you grant me entry…or I will throw down your doors myself!"

   Not unexpectedly, nothing but silence greeted her announcement...silence, and the whisper of the wind. Stepping aside, Delenn muttered, "Very well, we will do this the hard way." Into her link, she commanded, "Nashon, consider this your first operational systems check. Nose cannon…one pulse…three percent power."

   After a short pause, David's second replied, "Nose cannon, one pulse, three percent...acknowledged." and a brief burst of light emanated from the forward array of the Light Wanderer, accompanied by a high-pitched whine. The bolt of white-hot plasma struck the door like a mallet striking a gong, but the pulse was merely a warning and possessed little associated energy. Other than shearing off a few crystal shards, no damage was apparent.

   Not that the diminutive woman seeking entrance intended any. "That was my ship's lowest setting!" Delenn intoned, moving back to face the entrance. "I do not wish harm on any within your walls, but I will not allow you to hide from me!"

   Again, she was answered with silence. "Nose cannon…one pulse…nine percent power."

   There was a longer pause this time. Nashon, no doubt, was worriedly trying to estimate the integrity of the gate's composition, Delenn reasoned. If the White Star's weapons discharge were too powerful, it would implode the entrance and injure or kill anyone foolish enough to be standing nearby…including her. After a moment, he acknowledged, "Nose cannon, one pulse, nine percent power…" and a second shot screamed from the bow cannon of David's White Star. This pulse, triple the power of the first, had more obvious effect on the temple entrance. The gates remained closed, but they rocked on their gimbals and a portion of ancient crystal relief separated and crashed to the pavement, exposing the door's steel core.

   "I am not leaving!" the hybrid shouted. "You will open this gate, Irilenn, or I swear on the names of our ancient gods I will hammer at it until it collapses!" Angrily, she raised the comlink and said, "Nashon…one pulse…fifteen percent power!"

   After a moment, the Minbari Ranger replied, "Delenn…the entrance structure is already weakened. It is not a starship hull and it is not dissipating the energy as a starship hull would. I do not believe it can withstand another blow even at nine percent. At fifteen percent, the hinges will certainly fail and the resulting collapse will crush anyone unfortunate enough to be standing on the other side. Do not do this."

   She was stalemated, Delenn realized. The portcullis likely would not withstand another strike, yet the Sisters within were still defiant. She found herself facing either departure with nothing to show for her efforts or trusting the strength of an ancient door that was not designed to withstand high-energy fire and hoping no one was standing on the other side. Neither alternative was acceptable. "Recommendations?" she snapped in frustration.

   "I recommend you listen to your Ranger," a new yet familiar voice commented from behind her. As the Minbari hybrid turned to face her new companion, Irilenn continued, "It is good he is displaying some sense, as it appears yours has shamefully but not surprisingly deserted you." Stepping around the glowering woman, the Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria clasped her hands behind her back and looked up at the damage to her temple's entrance. With a sigh, she shook her head and murmured, "Irreplaceable engravings, Delenn…nearly sixteen hundred cycles old…now totally destroyed through your irresponsibility and anger. You may present a gentle facade to your human friends, but you do not fool me. The enraged child who bathed Dukhat's name in blood is still who you truly are."

   "I have come to collect Ardenn," the Minbari hybrid announced in a low voice, ignoring Irilenn's observations. "I do not care about the damage to your door or your engravings. I do not care about your opinions. Even the war that is upon us is of secondary importance to me for now. I care only about putting my family back together. I did not want matters between us to develop as they have, but you have forced these extreme actions upon me."

   "And you have become unstable and dangerous," Irilenn retorted with a scowl. "For lesser beings, the Advisory Council showed amazing wisdom in removing you before you could do irreparable harm." Sighing, the elder Minbari motioned for her former daughter to follow her. "Well, come on…"

   "Where are you taking me?"

   "You wanted to enter through the front, did you not?" Pointing at the gate, Irilenn continued, "You have left me little choice. Either I allow you in or I allow my own daughter to become the first Minbari in the history of the Sisterhood to cross our threshold without invitation. So…enter."

   The rebuke momentarily shamed Delenn as she approached the damaged gate, but only momentarily. The small lump securely ensconced in the fold of her overgarment dispelled any shame that her former mother might try to inflict on her. Chin up and eyes flashing, she stepped through the portico…and found herself facing dozens of Sisters, all blocking the way.

   "Had you ignored your Ranger, these women would have died," Irilenn whispered beside her.

   "Had you let me in when I initially asked, they would not have been put in that position," Delenn countered. Accusingly, she whispered, "Had you released Ardenn to me when I first came here, none of this would have happened…but you could not, could you? By then it was too late. By then, you had done too much damage to her to easily hide it."

   "Ardenn is completely healthy and in good spirits," the Mistress archly retorted. "Do you think we would harm one of our own Sisters? I do not know what delusion has possessed you."

   "Do not insult my intelligence or think to coddle me!" the younger Minbari hissed, "You know exactly what I speak of! But I do not think you want me to describe my…delusion…here in front of your subordinates. Dismiss them."

   Irilenn glared angrily at Delenn for a moment before waving the assembled Sisters off. The hybrid watched the crowd slowly disperse, only turning back to her companion once the last had moved out of earshot. "I want you to return Ardenn to me, Irilenn. Not in a little while, not tomorrow, not in an hour. I want her…now. I have no intention of leaving you alone until she is safely with me."

   "Then should I fetch you some tea? We may as well be comfortable, because you will be staying here for a long, long time," the older woman replied with mock civility. "Sister Ardenn was not here when you previously visited, and she is not here now. I would not give her to you before, so what makes you believe anything has changed?"

   At the mention of tea, Delenn's stomach clenched. It had been some time since she had taken one of the human pain suppressants, and the remaining pills were in her bag on the White Star. She tried to hide the flash of discomfort that passed across her face, but the older Minbari noticed. "Are you feeling ah, as your human friends say…a little under the weather?" Irilenn condescendingly asked. "That is a pity. I understand that human women are subject to cyclic reinvigoration of their reproductive systems…but I was given to believe that the associated cramps no longer affected you. Perhaps this explains your present ill temper."

   "No. My ill temper is the result of your violation of Ardenn and the death that resulted from it!" Delenn intoned vehemently. "Do not shame yourself or your Order further by trying to deny it!" Standing close to the older woman, the hybrid harshly continued, "You are right about me…mother. You are so very, very right about me. I call myself gentle, and I try so hard to keep my temper in check, but I do have the capacity for rage. In anger, I have risked my life and I have manipulated others…even others that I love…into risking theirs. I have fought…but with all the fighting I have done, only twice in my life have I actually wanted to…to kill another. I wanted to kill humans for taking Dukhat…and I did. Not with my own hand, but I took their lives nonetheless." Digging into her robe, she produced the crystal Susan had given her and growled, "The second time I wanted to kill was when I viewed this. If you have never feared me before, Irilenn…you should be fearing me now."

   Irilenn eyed the crystal Delenn held in front of her face silently for a moment before muttering "Rakell…vash ta'al Quith!" under her breath. "So you know," she said bitterly. "But it is no matter. The mishap that befell Ardenn is the business of the Sisterhood…not that of an impotent ex-public official who has not only been declared incompetent by her own organization but has also overstepped herself here."

   "The business of the Sisterhood?" Delenn repeated incredulously, her eyes widening. "You killed a Minbari! You violated our people's most fundamental tenet and you consider it…business?"

   "It was not a Minbari!" Irilenn seethed in frustration. "It was a collection of doomed hybrid cells floating around in the body of a thick-crested dreamer who could not see fit to keep her legs together! I do what I do for the benefit of our people! If you and that lovesick fool Ardenn had merely acknowledged your places in the Plan and our Order's requirements of you, I would have returned her! By Valeria, you and that traitor Rakell…why can I not even make my own younger Sibling understand?"

   "I think Rakell understood…and was so horrified at what a woman she once admired had become that she thought this the only way. Is this what your so-called Plan has reduced your organization to? Bartering in life and death as if our people were foodbeasts in the marketplace?"

   "You think us so crass? You understand so little…standing here and no doubt intending to blackmail me with that crystal in your hand. You can do that and yet insinuate that we barter lives at the same time? Do not deny it, Delenn. I see through you so clearly…and I both laugh and weep at how clumsy your human-influenced emotions have made you. You came here intending to offer your silence as the coin to buy Ardenn from me. You call me a slaver while you simultaneously attempt to purchase a slave. You are a hypocrite."

   "Blackmail?" Delenn repeated. Eyeing the crystal in her hand as if seeing it for the first time, she arched her brow ridge curiously and said, "Well…yes, I suppose I am blackmailing you…but there is a difference. Other than damaging your front entrance, I have committed no crime. The same cannot be said for you. Perhaps I am compromising my integrity somewhat by offering you this opportunity to make matters…well, not 'right' precisely…but as you noted, I keep so many shameful secrets already. I can probably accommodate one more. To gain Ardenn's return, I am more than willing to act as a…a blackmailer and hypocrite in this instance."

   "What…exactly…are you proposing?"

   "As I consider it, you have a choice between two courses of action. In the first, you choose wisely, suppress Ardenn's obligation and reveal her location to me. I leave here, retrieve her, and nothing more concerning your use of me or my family members as experimental subjects is said."

   "And if I choose not to return Sister Ardenn?"

   "That would be your second course of action. In it, you choose unwisely…and I present this crystal to the Grey Council along with my testimony and the testimony of Anla'Shok Na. Make no mistake, Irilenn. If such is your choice, their chambers will be my next destination and they take a very dim view of Minbari killing Minbari." Leaning in close, Delenn whispered dangerously, "They would demand explanations and they would compel both of us to give them…and I am certain you understand enough about the properties of Triluminaries to realize what that entails. I subjected a human to the process during the war…and I know it is both painful and humiliating. The harder one resists revealing the truth, the more secrets pour forth. You would try to resist, I think. How many other questionable activities of the Sisterhood might you divulge?"

   "I cannot believe you would stoop so low."

   "Normally, I would not…but when I picture my David's Sa'fela lying naked, drugged and helpless on a table while your carrion eaters invade her womb and callously extinguish the light of one who would have been my grandchild, I find that I can stoop very low indeed."

   Irilenn's expression hardened and her brow ridge furrowed angrily. Glancing around in frustration, she mentally weighed her options and realized she had been outmaneuvered…for the time being. She knew what Delenn said regarding the capabilities of the Triluminary was true and she would never allow any secrets of the Order to be aired in front of the Grey Council. Bitterly, she cursed at Delenn and ripped an envelope from her robe, tossing the slightly crumpled parchment at the younger Minbari's feet. "Take her," she spat, pointing at the envelope. "I will transmit the coordinates to Sister Ardenn's present location to your ship once you depart…which cannot be soon enough for my taste."

   Delenn eyed her angry former mother distastefully for a moment before kneeling. Just as she was about to grasp the envelope, Irilenn stepped on the paper and firmly grasped Delenn's crest…using her full Minbari strength to force the physically weaker hybrid completely to her knees.

   "Have you gone completely mad?" the surprised Delenn hissed. "Release me!"

   "Silence!" the Mistress retorted harshly. Leaning over the pinned woman, she put her lips to Delenn's ear and heatedly whispered, "You have what you wanted…now you will listen!" In a low, dangerous tone, she continued, "You think you have beaten me, former daughter…but understand this! Ardenn will always be a Sister and will always be subject to my recall if ever she displeases me! You will surrender your crystal to me, and you will never reveal what you know about her abortion to her or to any others! Do you understand?"

   Immobilized, Delenn could barely nod.

   "Any you have already told of this will remain silent as well," Irilenn continued. "If you do not or they do not, Ardenn will disappear back into cloister one night…and I swear to you she will never be seen outside our temple walls again! You may also want to inform your Ier'saia…" she spat the word like an epithet, "…that I possess the Chrysalis device. I have revealed to Ardenn her hybrid form and it is indeed one that your son will find pleasing. She denies it, but in her heart she desires to become the person I have shown her for him. To do so, she will have to face me again…and I will then pass judgment on how faithfully she has served us. If ever she starts to drift away from our purposes…remind her of that." With that, she released the younger woman and stepped away as her enraged former daughter rose to her feet.

   For a wild moment, Delenn was severely tempted to lash out at the waiting woman, but she resisted the inclination. Instead, she tucked the suppression she held into the fold of her overgarment and, with a flick of her wrist, tossed the crystal she held at Irilenn's feet. With a grim smile, she said, "Would you care to test my strength now?" It was an empty comment…the Mistress was far stronger than she…but the defiant retort made the part of her that was emotion rather than reason feel a little better.

   "I believe I will pass," Irilenn murmured. Lowering her foot on the crystal, she ground it into dust with her heel. "This is your only copy?"

   "It is."

   "Good. Then our business is almost concluded." Waving a hand to indicate the ornate entrance chamber, the Mistress continued, "I want you to take a good look at this hall, Delenn. Go ahead…admire it."

   Following Irilenn's gesture, the younger Minbari glanced around with mild curiosity. Some of the frescoes adorning the walls were indeed ornate and breathtaking…but so were others in more familiar and friendly temples. "It is a hall," she eventually commented.

   "Most of the greatest females of our race have eventually found their way to us here." Lowering her hand, Irilenn explained, "Each one passed across the very spot you now stand on." Regretfully, she continued, "I once hoped a day would come when you would cross our threshold as well…and I prayed that I would still be young enough for the two of us to truly come to know one another before my time in this incarnation was over. But it is not to be. For as long as I live, the place you now stand is the farthest you will come into one of our temples. It is the closest you will be to becoming one of us." Her voice rising, the Mistress intoned, "Delenn of Mir, I am Irilenn, Mistress of the Order of the Sisters of Valeria, and from this day forward I ban you from defiling this temple or any other of our Order with your presence! You are no longer welcome among us, so take your ship, take Ardenn's nefariously obtained suppression and take your leave!"

   Delenn gazed sadly at the woman who had once been her mother. "So be it," she softly murmured before turning to leave. With her back straight and her chin high, she passed back out of the portcullis as Irilenn watched her depart.

   ***

   Once the hybrid was out of earshot, Sisters began filtering back into the entrance chamber. Turning to face them, Irilenn motioned one over. "Did the monitors record our conversation?" she asked.

   "Partially, Mistress," the Sister replied. "The assault on the gate damaged the audio collectors, but we obtained a full video record."

   "Including video of Delenn kneeling before me?" the Mistress specified. The Sister nodded and Irilenn smiled humorlessly. "Good enough." Under her breath, she muttered, "You are not the only one who understands blackmail, Delenn."

   "I do not see how the video footage will assist us," the Sister noted. "Delenn no longer holds a position of influence. She is merely a citizen now."

   "Yes, merely a citizen…for now," Irilenn agreed, "but she will not always be so. She has fallen from power before, yet she always recovers. She will eventually recover once more…and we may have to face her again. I intend to hold that image of her bowing before me as…insurance…for the future."

   "You are wise, Mistress."

   "Not wise enough, it would seem," the Minbari corrected. "It appears I unwisely misplaced my trust in at least one matter." With a sigh, she shook her head and added, "Regrettably, blood has indeed proven thicker than water, as the humans say. Locate the Most Reverend Sister Rakell, and instruct her to appear before me in my private chambers…immediately."

   ***

   Once back out on the temple steps, Delenn raised the link on the back of her hand and said, "Nashon…are you there?"

   "We are here, Delenn. I am glad everything worked out satisfactorily."

   "Ah, good. So you did listen. I was uncertain about whether or not I left my link activated. Did the communications log record everything?"

   "A full transcript of your encounter has downloaded into the ship's computer core. I turned the address system off once you entered the temple…I did not think you wanted the crew overhearing you." On the other end of the link, Nashon paused. "If I may ask," he finally continued, "What use do you intend to put this record to?"

   "Hopefully, none whatsoever," the hybrid replied. "But, as my old friend Mister Garibaldi used to say, all testimony is a lie unless you have hard evidence to support it. I surrendered my one piece of hard evidence to Irilenn…so I wanted to be sure that I had another to replace it." With a weary smile, Delenn patted the envelope tucked into her robe and instructed, "Now, download the conversation record onto a crystal, and wipe the original from the core. And…Nashon?"

   "Yes, Delenn?"

   "Understand me with crystal clarity. You have been privy to extremely sensitive and personal information concerning my family. The matters you overheard would cause both David and Ardenn great anguish were they or others to learn of them. After you complete my task, I trust you will forget everything you learned."

   "The crystal download is complete. What were you saying?"

   The hybrid nodded. "I see we understand one another. Ready the crew. We will be receiving new coordinates as soon as we are off the pad."

   ***

   To Be Continued in Part 6b, Wheels within Wheels…

 

*****

 

 

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