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Earth Year 2285
Far from the population centers of known space...
...Three massive warships slowly coasted in orbit above a cold, forgotten world. Beneath their triangular brownish-tan hulls and closer to the upper atmosphere clouds of debris...the remains of a short but fierce battle...spun uncontrolled in virtually every direction. Below even that, the twisted wreckage of a once-proud Minbari Warcruiser...now barely recognizable scrap...hung in space.
Given time, most of the more sizable remnants would de-orbit and burn up in the planet's atmosphere, as would the shattered components left over from the destruction of an aged yet surprisingly formidable automated defense system. In fact, the slow disintegration was already beginning. Both the derelict ship and the satellites were already falling under the influence of the subtle but irresistible lure of gravity. Those few operational weapons remaining had exhausted their energy reserves delaying the pursuit and termination of a man until recently thought dead. Their job done, they were now at the mercy of the planet below.
This man once thought dead...John J. Sheridan, former Earthforce Captain and one-time President of the Interstellar Alliance, was uppermost in War Marshal Ghe'dan's thoughts as he watched expired satellites flare brightly, immolating themselves as they brushed against the upper atmosphere of the planet the Minbari warrior caste called Khon'dar. From his balcony on the bridge of his Penetrator, the Advance Guard commander of the Dilgar Fleet-In-Exile could see the main viewer as well as survey the hushed activity below him in the darkened command center. Sheridan was still alive, he mused, much like an accursed Lik'ra bug...but he was stranded, his location was known, and he was in no position to interfere with the Hegemony's activities. This satisfied him...for the moment.
"Tenacious, isn't he Bha'laa?" Ghe'dan murmured to the Dilgar female standing obediently to his rear. Turning to face his companion, he continued, "Sheridan, I mean. He and his pilot crash-land on a frozen, barely habitable planet with almost no available resources and he still made it to the mines. He even managed to eliminate a whole squad of our troops in the process." With a snort, he sarcastically added, "Two shipwrecked Rangers against fifteen heavily armed commandos. I'm theorizing that they weren't your best since they fell into such an obvious trap?"
"They were too eager," Strike Leader Bha'laa, Ghe'dan's ground commander, replied. "It has been a long time since our soldiers fought a determined, thinking enemy. Their deaths will serve as a lesson to the rest not to underestimate those we will soon be fighting." Her voice silky and submissive, she continued. "It has been so long since our last contact with humans...it doesn't hurt to be reminded that they can be just as ruthless as we under certain circumstances. Still, I've already had the officer who authorized that squad to enter the enemy wreck terminated and I've deployed a whole cohort of assault troops to track our two Anla'Shok strays down. They've disabled the safeguards on the mine entrance and we can breach it whenever you're ready. The only decision you need to make now is whether you want them alive or dead once we have them."
"After the display Sheridan just gave us of his cunning I think alive would be best...if it can be managed," the War Marshal offhandedly remarked. "While experience teaches that the best way to deal with one's most capable adversaries is simply, quickly and permanently, it will give me some idle pleasure to listen to his screams as we publicly dismember him. A simple death...a plasma burst to the head, for example...would rob us of the propaganda value. Yes...paingivers, the electro-whip and the bone saw will be far more ah...dramatic?"
"Oh, yes, War Marshal," Bha'laa smoothly acknowledged. "Imagine the chaos in the Alliance that video transmission of the torture will create." Thinking a moment, she then noted, "We will need to find a way to make the experience last. Research data from our last war indicates that humans expire quickly. They are not particularly hardy and we don't want our pleasure to end too soon."
"I'm sure you will come up with something suitable. Life's little pleasures should be enjoyed to the fullest," Ghe'dan agreed. Reaching out, he stroked one of his subordinate's ample breasts through the fabric of her medal-bedecked uniform and added, "As you and I both know, hmm?" Sighing, the Dilgar shook off his desire, lowered his hand and turned back to the rail, indicating the holographic situation map located to one side of his C&C. On it, the relative positions of the colony, Dilgar troop locations and the mine were highlighted. Pointing out the colony's deserted landing pad, he said, "Unfortunately, I'm afraid that our personal indulgences will have to wait. I want you to give Sheridan and his pilot your personal attention. Go to the surface and take command of the capture team. Have your troops enter the mine as soon as they are ready and flush the human garbage out. And...begin landing the transports. I want the weapons our devoted sister developed for the bald ones located and recovered quickly. The orders of the Cabal leave no room for deviation. The Earthers must have their attention drawn away before the Cabal will allow the main body to deploy, and Jha'dur's silent killer is the key to distracting them."
"And what of any rescue teams that might come?" Bha'laa asked. "Respectfully, my War Marshal...remember that Sheridan managed to send a warning before we could destroy his remote transmitter. That warning has undoubtedly been received by now."
Ghe'dan wave a dismissive hand. "It is a warning that will gain his mongrel female and her lackeys little. The Anla'Shok are overextended. Their fleet is spread over almost all the worlds of the Alliance and it will take time for them to concentrate their combat power. Even with a minimal amount of advance notice, they will be unprepared." Smiling contentedly, he explained, "It is one of the disadvantages of being police rather than warriors, wouldn't you agree? The Anla'Shok are deployed to keep the peace, not to fight a war, and the Alliance governing body isn't known for quick decisiveness. I think we have enough surprises planned for them to ensure that repositioning to counter us will be a daunting proposition...as will reaching a consensus on a course of action."
"The weak, pathetic races that make up the Alliance have never been able to agree about anything," the Dilgar female noted. "It was that way when they were the League and nothing has changed. They have some utility as slaves and for experimental purposes, I suppose, but they are inferior."
"And this is why we will be victorious and why the humans cannot be permitted to interfere. For all their faults, they excel at uniting disparate factions under a common purpose...the human trapped beneath us most of all. Without any unifying element the rabble that inhabits this section of the galaxy will remain a squabbling bunch of self-absorbed little fiefdoms. When we strike, each one of the former League systems will be screaming for assistance...assistance the whore of Minbar and her lapdog Ivanova will be unable to immediately provide. There's nothing more satisfying than watching paralysis by committee...in fact, the Alliance may even fracture when its members learn that they cannot be instantly protected." Chuckling evilly, he added, "As for Sheridan...any help for him is far away, assuming the Alliance can spare even the meager resources needed to come looking. You will have more than enough time to take him at your leisure, and I want his capture well-documented."
"I will do as you command, my Marshal," the Strike Leader demurred. "But...even within the Alliance most of the member races still possess their own militaries..."
"Ah, yes...even after we remove the humans from the equation, there are others. The Cabal has considered this. Of those remaining, only the Minbari pose any real threat. If the intelligence our loyal crèche-sister passed us before her death is to be believed, the Warriors as a caste do not hold President Delenn in particularly high esteem. To their minds, she capitulated to the humans and has become one of them. I think she will find it difficult to enlist their assistance in defending species they consider of no value to them, particularly if they have their own world to worry about."
"Ghe'dan," the subordinate Dilgar cautioned, "Even with the entire Advance Guard, to make war directly against the Minbari would be suicidal. Without the reserves of the concentrated main body to draw upon, we would eventually be overcome."
Ghe'dan laughed. "Relax, Bha'laa. We are taking small steps...a direct assault against even a death cloud-weakened Earth or an uncertain and divided Minbar is out of the question for now. First, we will gain a foothold in Alliance territory...not a large one, just enough to take control of an industrialized world's population and resources. Once that foothold is secure, we...negotiate. After a pause we move again, securing a little more...another prime world or two...before pleading for a cease-fire. Each time the Alliance starts to move against us we return to the bargaining table and...eventually...the major powers such as the Earthers and Minbari will find themselves surrounded. The outcome at that point will be inevitable. They will be cut off from each other and we can eliminate them at will."
"That is in the future. With the weapons, we can divert the humans' attention. How do you plan to keep the Minbari occupied?"
"As a ground commander, I am sure you are familiar with the concept of suppressive fire?"
"Utilizing just enough combat power to keep our adversaries focused on protecting themselves while we move rather than fighting us? Of course."
Ghe'dan nodded and smiled. Turning to face the main viewscreen, he clasped his hands behind his back and, seemingly in response, jump points began to open...each vortex disgorging a Penetrator and its support ships. As he silently observed, the massive wedge-shaped destroyers...backbones of the Dilgar Armada...continued to arrive, taking up the free space in orbit around the little forgotten planet in such numbers that they shortly began to blot out the stars around the flagship. After a few minutes, the War Marshal grunted in satisfaction and murmured, "The target world has been selected and our invasion force has now arrived. Our other forces...our deception ships...are already in position. As for the Minbari...unless our hyperspace engineers have miscalculated badly, their homeworld and several others should be getting their first taste of our suppressive fire shortly."
"And so it begins." Bha'laa proudly murmured, gazing at the ships.
"Yes, it begins now..." Ghe'dan confirmed. Almost in a whisper, he continued, "I was there...I was a young crèche-born when the humans came for us, forcing us back to our dying world and sun. They blockaded us...and when our star entered its death throes, they did nothing! They watched as the nova enveloped our world without lifting a finger! I was on one of the few ships that escaped to rendezvous with our sister Jha'dur's hidden fleet. From the little we had left, we rebuilt...always watching from the shadows, hiding under the very noses of those who condemned us to die in the cold blackness between the stars...knowing that our moment would come. The Minbari...we thought some among them could be allies for a time, but those that our Leader approached were too weak and shortsighted to envision true galactic domination. Now, after more than fifty human years, we have returned...and we will do ourselves what the Minbari lacked the strength of will to do alongside us. Those who once thought us a fading memory of past horrors will utter our names in awe and fear yet again. Welcome to the Gathering, Bha'laa...and prepare to taste victory."
"We don't have a lot of time," John Sheridan muttered to himself as he searched the interior of the nearest GROPO armored fighting vehicle. Pulling down various olive drab boxes and bags from the storage racks that lined the vehicle's interior walls, he quickly opened several and dumped them out on the floor. Picking through the contents, he grunted in disappointment as he discovered most of what he found was either decayed from the passage of time or otherwise unusable in their present situation. Going farther into the interior of the personnel carrier, he muttered, "They haven't followed us down yet...but they will soon. They're probably waiting for orders from the ships in orbit. Damned Dilgar...thank God they aren't too keen on taking the initiative..."
Grabbing hold of a large, heavy duffel stored near the front of the troop compartment, he gave it a jerk and was rewarded by being thrown backwards as the cloth of the grip parted from dry rot. "Shit!" he barked as he picked himself up, adjusted his breather to ensure it was still firmly affixed over his mouth and nose and dusted himself off. Pulling at the bag more gingerly, he called out, "Uh...David? I think I've found what we're looking for. I could use a little help getting it out...David?"
Glancing back, John saw that David wasn't with him as he'd first thought. He'd hoped that seeing the bodies lining the interior of the Cathedral wouldn't shake the younger man too much, but he was taking it hard. His son had said little after John had finished telling him Oz Altenbourg's story and revealing the fate of the colonists to him. John didn't blame him. It had been a lot for him to take in even while it was happening. Why should it be any different for someone else?
Shaking his head, he turned back to his task. Giving the duffel a harder tug, he grunted as the cloth sack finally came free and fell to the floor with a loud metallic clang. Heaving the sack up onto his shoulder, he was thankful for his genetically enhanced strength. The object he was carrying normally would take two people to lift. For him, it was still heavy but he could manage...barely. Turning to the hydraulic hatch at the vehicle's rear, a hatch that had been down and without power for over thirty-five years, he lugged the bag out and tossed it on the ground, looking around for his companion as he did so.
John sighed when he saw the younger man. David was just inside the Cathedral entrance, kneeling over Oz's body bag and gazing at the contents. "Son," he called out gently, "Let her rest. The time when she could've been helped came and went a long time ago." Turning from the sack, he made his way over and laid a hand on David's shoulder. "I didn't intend for you to see this when I brought you here..."
"Then why did you bring me?" the younger man quietly replied. His face devoid of emotion, the young Ranger carefully zipped the black bag, hiding the GROPO within, and stood. "You wanted to take my mind off of Ardenn? A little father-son adventure while Mother works things out back home? No, you're not telling the whole truth. Maybe you didn't mean for me to see this...but you were going to tell me about it...tell me the story, weren't you? I want to know why."
"We don't have time for this. The Dilgar will be blowing the entrance any minute."
"And they're going to all this effort for what? This?" Waving a hand at the collected remains of the GROPOs and colonists, he sighed and continued, "I still can't believe that Minbari could be responsible for this...I mean, it's staggering. A few deaths are a tragedy, a few hundred an atrocity...but five thousand? The only reaction I feel is...well, a kind of numbness."
"Son," John sighed exasperatedly, "It's a sad fact...where death is concerned...sometimes a point is reached where the numbers become so high that we can't deal with them on a personal level any more. The dead cease being individuals and become statistics. That's why you feel the way you do. Take my advice...don't get used to it."
"Well, they're not statistics and someone has to be held accountable. You told me that most of the Minbari who fought in the war are still alive. I know that Clan Leader Shakiri is. When I get back...if I get back...I'm going to see to it that he and his clan answer for this."
"And where do you suppose going after the Wind Swords will lead? What do you suppose they'll say if you confront them?" Squatting and eyeing Oz's body bag sadly, John quietly added, "They didn't develop this weapon in a vacuum, son. They may have used it on their own, but others knew about it. Others even higher than Shakiri authorized its creation. Others saw the tests they ran before they resorted to this. How high are you willing to go?"
"As high as necessary to get justice for these people," the young man standing at John's side replied with conviction. "Straight to the top if I have to."
"Straight to the top, eh?" John echoed, remembering a time when he was young and thought he, too, could right every wrong in the universe. It seemed so long ago now. "You don't know what you're proposing. Listen to me. We have other concerns now. Let this one go. You won't gain any justice for these people. They're dead. They won't recognize it. All you'll do is hurt the living...open old wounds that are best left closed."
"Let this one go?" David retorted incredulously, "Is this the John Sheridan who commanded the Army of Light I hear talking?" Stabbing a finger at the body bag, he heatedly continued, "The woman lying there meant something to you...she was at least a personal friend and could have been more had the circumstances been different. You had to pull the trigger on her yourself! And now you say let it go? Why? The people responsible for this...these crimes...aren't fit to be called Minbari! Minbar will be better off if they're flushed out of their hiding places and made to pay!"
John fought to keep his voice down and his temper in check. "Son...stop. Please...sure, you might topple Shakiri and embarrass the Wind Swords with this...but it's like a cancer. You'd have to cut healthy cells away with the bad ones to completely address the problem...it's a cure that's worse than the disease."
"If they're accountable, they should answer for it."
The older man's attempts to control his temper failed. "Goddammit, David! Don't you understand? There are Minbari...good, decent Minbari...who knew about the weapon and either didn't recognize how horrible it was or acted too late! Should they be dragged through the mud too?"
"Absofragginlutely!" David hissed vehemently, completely missing his father's veiled hint. Refusing to back down in the face of what he considered inexplicable reluctance to right a wrong on the part of someone who'd made a career out of doing the right thing, he continued, "Turning a blind eye is just as bad as committing the act yourself! Anyone who would condone creating such a weapon is right up there with those who used it, and ignorance is not an excuse! Any Minbari leader who knew of this weapon and failed to do something about it is negligent as far as I'm concerned! You and Mother taught me that as leaders we're always responsible for what we do...and what we neglect to do!"
"And it never occurred to you that your Mother and I might have learned those lessons we passed on to you...the hard way?"
David paused a moment to absorb the veiled implication the older man was making. In the back of his mind, a seed of uncertainty was sprouting. "What are you saying?" he hesitantly asked.
"I'm saying that I've known about this since long before you were born without telling anyone other than Susan...and if I hadn't been drunk as a skunk the night I told her, she wouldn't know about it either. Son...I brought no one to justice over this. I guess...well, I guess that constitutes being negligent in your book."
"I don't blame you for this," the younger man hastened to explain. "I understand why you did what you did. Announcing this at that time would've only led to even more deaths, but now things are different..."
"No, they're not. Let me finish," John interrupted. "You asked me recently what your mother did during the war..." With a wave of his arm, he loosely indicated the bodies. "Well...she never talks about it, at least not on a personal level, does she? I ask you again, how high are you willing to go? Who are you willing to ruin to pursue this to its conclusion?"
The young man fell silent. After a moment, he hung his head. "You're saying Mother was involved in this somehow?"
"I'm not saying anything...just trying to protect a few good Minbari from your wrath." Standing up beside his son, John grasped the younger man lightly by the shoulder and coaxed him to look up into his face, "This is bad, really bad...but the remains of brave people who died for no reason aren't what the Dilgar are after. They want the cloud itself. What you see here was done a long time ago out of spite, but the potential for more today is contained in the warheads the Wind Swords prepared for Earth and the core colonies. Those are farther down in the mine, and we can't let our persistent interlopers get them...or, trust me, they'll get used. Millions, maybe even billions of lives are at stake." Clapping the Ranger on the shoulder, he moved to retrieve the nearby duffel and concluded, "Now...if you'll help me set this..."
"Was Mother involved in this?" David repeated, cutting his father off. "You didn't answer. I need to know."
"Dammit, you and she are exactly alike sometimes! Once either of you get your teeth into something, you don't know when to turn away and leave it alone!" Exasperated, John flung the bag he had retrieved to the ground and spun to face his son. "Yes! Yes, she was involved! Your mother was born a leader of Minbari, son! She had no choice...it was her lot in life! She was a leader...no, a ruler during the war and there's no way she couldn't have known! But before you go off on her, you ought to know that she had nothing to do with what you see here! She didn't order this, and I don't think she even knows about it!" Pointing at the greenish haze that surrounded both of them, the older man strove to calm himself and after a moment, he more quietly said, "At least, not until now. I told Susan to show her my logs."
"If she didn't know, she should have."
He just wasn't getting through, John realized. In frustration, he raked his fingers through his hair. "Look...when she realized how horrible a device the Wind Swords had designed, she ordered the project terminated. If she hadn't...if her moral center had been just a little weaker...there would've been no Battle of the Line and no surrender. Instead, the Minbari fleet would've swept down on Earth, launched their death cloud missiles into our atmosphere and sat back to watch my homeworld die without firing a shot, just like the Drakh tried to do when you were a kid...only it would've taken just a few weeks instead of five years. There would be no humans today...and probably no Minbari, either. Humanity wouldn't have been around to unite the races against the Shadows when they reawakened, and the Minbari would've been eventually killed off in that war. So...now you know. Are you satisfied?"
"Satisfied? Hardly. Any Religious caste ruler who could direct a Warrior caste clan leader to do something would have to be Satai." Chuckling mirthlessly, David shook his head. "I always kind of suspected she had been Grey Council at one time...but I was afraid to ask her. I always assumed that if it were true, her membership would've been after the war." Gesturing at the bodies, he concluded, "You said terminated. I wonder...was that the word she used as well? What an appropriately multifaceted term to pick when addressing warriors...particularly from a person known for carefully considering everything she says. It looks like they followed their Satai's command very closely, doesn't it? Everyone's asses are covered."
"She didn't intend this, David! You know her! She never would have knowingly been a party to something like this!"
"I thought I knew her. Now...I'm not so sure."
"You're trying to reconcile the person you know now with actions that occurred when she was far younger...and it can't be done," John whispered. "They say that leopards don't change their spots, but in your mother's case that adage doesn't hold true. She isn't the same, both literally and figuratively. She wasn't the experienced leader then that she is now and she can't undo the past, as much as both you and she might wish it." Casting about for an appropriate analogy, he continued, "Imagine this. Imagine Ardenn as a Satai...because two or three cycles as an aide was the sum total of your mother's leadership experience at the time. Imagine there's a war going on. Young Satai Ardenn...a woman who knows next to nothing about war...suddenly finds herself having to counter an enemy whose nature, motives and capabilities are unknown to her people. After you've imagined all that...then imagine her not being allowed to make a mistake. Not a single one. Could Ardenn do it?"
"Of course not," David retorted. "Ardenn is smart and determined, but she's not infallible."
"My point exactly," John indicated. "No one is. But your mother was placed in just that predicament, a position where she had to make decisions without any time to learn. She was out of her depth and she made a mistake. In fact, she made more than one. As a Satai she made a lot of them, and if you don't believe anything else about her, understand that she looks back with the benefit of hindsight and remembers each of them with crystal clarity...and they all gnaw away at her to this very day."
David glanced around, uncomfortably eyeing everything but the man facing him. In his heart, he knew his father was right, loathe as he was to admit it. His father...throughout his whole life, the older man had been David's role model...sometimes close and loving, but more often a towering, mythic presence, one touched by powers and destinies his mortal son could never be party to...and this had always kept them apart in a way the young man couldn't explain. David knew that his father had never meant to appear that way, but it had taken growing up for him to begin to understand.
His mother, though, was different. David and she had always been close. Until Ardenn entered his life, Delenn had been the brightest star in her son's sky. She, too, was powerful...in a way separate yet complimentary to his father. Where he inspired admiration, respect and even a trace of awe in his son, she nurtured love and peace; she was warm and tender...and her strength was a force he could touch and understand. She never seemed to make any mistakes, always knowing the right words to say, the right things to do. To find out she could err so...so horribly...he didn't want to believe it. In a way, it was easier for him to picture her knowing about and condoning the atrocities he was seeing than it was to admit she was...human. Human and fallible. He needed to consider things...needed to figure out what he would say to her when he saw her again. If he saw her again, he mentally corrected.
It would be best to end this for now...concentrate on matters at hand. Later, when he had some time, he would return to this. Weakly, the young man shrugged, seeing that John was eyeing him closely. "Yeah...well..." indicating the bag at John's feet, he continued, "Uh...I guess we'd better see what's in your Christmas stocking before the...uh, Dilgar come tromping down the stairs to get their presents."
"Good idea." Nodding, John bent to retrieve the bag once more, chewing his lower lip thoughtfully. His son was changing the subject...but he was just burying the issue for the moment, not forever. As David knelt to help him, John murmured, "Your mother didn't know humanity then, son. She didn't know that we attacked out of fear, not malice. All she knew was that we had killed someone she loved without provocation...but she still spared us when it mattered most. After the war ended she learned the truth, worked beside us and even came to like us after a while. In the end, she grew to love us...to love me, to love you. Whatever you may be thinking about her right now, don't ever forget that she loves you."
"That's not the issue."
"Yes, it is." Almost pleadingly, John concluded, "It is because she can never make this right no matter what you say to her, but an unkind word from you...she would try. Do you understand? She would try so hard to find a way to redeem herself in your eyes...but there's no way to undo this, and the futility of searching for something that would make you forget she was involved would send her into despair. So I'm asking you...not as your father, but as the man who loves your mother...don't hurt my wife. I don't want you to forget, but I am asking you to also remember the person she is now and let this one stay buried...please."
David grunted neutrally and shook his head. "Let's just drop the subject, huh?" he finally muttered as he grabbed one end of the equipment carryall. "Is that all right with you?"
On the surface, a determined Strike Leader Bha'laa surveyed the closed clamshell doors leading into the mine as her ground commander and his subordinates stood stiffly at attention. Her cursory inspection complete, she turned from the entrance, looked out over the abandoned human city situated across the valley and nodded in satisfaction.
The city was no longer abandoned. As she watched, a long line of atmosphere-capable spacecraft were beginning to arrive...transports dispatched to carry the Minbari warheads she and her troops would retrieve for the Hegemony once the mine was breached and secured. The ships now arriving hovered over the broken dome momentarily, orienting themselves, before continuing on to the colony's small spaceport. The facilities there had long since been destroyed, but the landing pads and blast pits remained.
So far, she noted silently, everything was proceeding according to the War Marshal's plan. The diversionary attacks had been launched, and the Interstellar Alliance would shortly find itself facing so many crises that their weak, tired priestess and her squabbling rabble would not know which way to turn. Here in this forgotten corner, matters were proceeding as well. All that remained to be done before she and her troops could leave this barren rock was to deal with two stranded and surrounded runaways...minor obstacles who would be dealt with quickly, but not necessarily painlessly.
Bha'laa was looking forward to meeting the 'Great' John Sheridan...a man who had supposedly returned from the dead twice, if rumors were to be believed. Such a man would be worth studying...preferably, she reflected amusedly, on a dissection table. Certainly, finding out the truth behind the puny human's ability to defy death would be fascinating from a medical perspective if nothing else.
Snorting softly, she turned from the city in the distance and faced her subordinates. "Once the entrance is breached, what will we be facing?" she intoned without preamble.
"According to the schematics our noble sister provided before her demise, we will enter the central corridor, which leads to a large chamber known as the 'Cathedral' by those who once inhabited this place," her ground commander replied. "That chamber is the mine's main axis. All other shafts branch off from there."
"And the weapons?"
The subaltern nervously hesitated a moment, glancing furtively at his intelligence officer before replying, "Our sister was not specific about their location. We know only that they are situated deep in the mine."
"Jha'dur did not know exactly where?" Bha'laa snorted incredulously. Turning to face the mine doors, she eyed them suspiciously and continued, "I find that hard to believe."
"Her Minbari...ah, hosts...were more than willing to use her expertise in the development of the weapons, but she was still an outsider, a non-Minbari," the subordinate explained. "They did not completely trust her."
Bha'laa nodded. "I see. Our Minbari allies of circumstance were prudent. I would not have trusted her either, were I a bald one." Sighing, she turned back to the assembled officers and announced, "It would seem then, that we should enter the facility and simply proceed...down. Eventually we will encounter what we seek, once we eliminate a couple of minor inconveniences."
"If our two Anla'Shok strays mean to put up any resistance, we will encounter it before we reach the Cathedral," the ground commander noted. "As long as we are confined to a single passage, they stand their best chance of delaying us. Once we reach the main chamber, there will be too many avenues we can use for them to cover all."
"You say...delay." The Dilgar female muttered, furrowing her brow and gazing at her subordinate dangerously. "How much...delaying...can two humans armed with plasma rifles and those...those ah, sticks they sometimes wave around accomplish? Do they have capabilities I'm unaware of?"
"Oh, yes...err, no. They are only lightly armed of course," Bha'laa's subordinate backpedaled. "Any resistance on their part would be illogical. They would be wiser to recognize that fighting us is a lost cause and hide. We would still find them, naturally, but they would retain the illusion of freedom for a little longer."
"I have studied something of these Rangers," the Dilgar Strike Leader replied. "They are said to fight with great determination, even against incredible odds. I suspect they will resist and I want them overrun quickly...without any of your so-called delays. The Hegemony will not regain its rightful place in the galaxy by tolerating wasted time...nor will I." Turning back to the clamshell doors once more, Bha'laa concluded, "We have already wasted far more time here than was budgeted for this project. Blow the entrance and send the shock troops in. Flush the human vermin out."
*** "As for overrunning us..." John patted the blue steel barrels of the GROPO minigun he'd dismounted from one of the AFVs, "I think they'll find that more challenging than they think."
David eyed the squat, cylindrical slug-thrower his father had mounted on a tripod facing up the central tunnel dubiously. It certainly looked impressive enough for the job. The weapon appeared to David's eye to be a spinning series of slender metal tubes. When his father had dry-fired the device earlier, it made a high-pitched whine and the barrels had spun faster than the eye could follow. "You think that...uh, antique...will stop them?"
"Son, this antique spits out three thousand rounds a minute and was probably the weapon most feared by Warrior caste ground troops during the war. It's a portable air defense cannon that was worthless for shooting down Minbari ships...but was sheer hell on dismounted Warriors when pointed at the ground. They hated these things because they were powered by their own recoil and didn't require a separate power source...so they didn't show up as 'high technology' on their battlefield scanners. This baby won't stop the Dilgar forever, but in this confined space it'll sure make them hunker down and think twice before sacrificing themselves...assuming it doesn't jam up or overheat."
"Terrific," David snorted. "So we're relegated to depending on an outdated Earthforce slugthrower that may or may not jam up. Given our luck so far, it's probably a triumphant testament to the wisdom of contracting with the lowest bidder. So let's say it jams up. What do we do then?" Hefting his denn'bok, he noted, "I figure I've got your back for at least one or two before I get the old plasma burst to the head. Guess that leaves you the other two or three hundred."
"They won't come down with that many," the older man chuckled weakly. "Dilgar normally attack with an advance guard...a smaller probing force...before committing their main body against any weak points they find. They've never been down here and until they have a better idea of what they're dealing with, they'll lead with scout commandoes...probably no more than a platoon."
"And that's how many?"
"About forty, give or take."
The younger Sheridan rolled his eyes. "Just forty? Oh...and here I was all worried."
John recognized David's sarcastic attitude for what it was...a coping mechanism. Given their situation, he didn't begrudge the younger man a little skepticism. David hadn't counted on this when he agreed to come along. Neither of them had. His son was preparing himself to fight to the death over weapons hidden away long before he was born. His expression turning somber, John hesitantly said, "Well, I have a few other...uh, options."
David stared blankly at his father for a moment, his sarcasm forgotten. Looking over his companion's shoulder, he noticed the conical device set up on a tripod in the center of the chamber almost as if he were seeing it for the first time. His attention had been so focused on the dead and his mother's role in their demise he'd forgotten about the 'safeguards' Earthgov had ordered left behind. "Do you think it'll come to that?" he whispered, for the first time acknowledging what might be required of them.
"When we came in, I only disabled the surface trigger and the motion sensors," John replied softly, knowing what his son was referring to without even needing to turn around. "The device is still armed...as is its companion." Holding up a link, he continued, "Son...if it does come to that...I want you to see Ardenn and your mother again. I want you to make it home, and I intend to see that you do. I'm not joking around with you now...you're a Ranger and I'm Entil'zha, and when I tell you to go, you won't argue with me. You'll go where I tell you and when I tell you. Period. End of story. You got that, Ranger?"
"You're pulling rank on me? Your own son?"
"Absofragginlutely," John decisively declared. With a resigned smile, he explained, "If it comes to lighting the candle...well, I'm here on stolen time anyway. The cosmos somehow managed to creep along without me for three years, and it'll continue to do so...but you've still got a whole life ahead of you."
"And so do you!"
"Don't fight me on this one," John continued gently. "For twenty long years, I wondered what your mother's life would've been like had I not gone to Z'ha'dum...if we'd had a real life together, one that didn't involve her watching the clock every day. I don't want your mother or Ardenn to have to wonder that about you. Don't throw yourself into the Abyss with me. It isn't your time."
The younger man snorted in exasperation and shook his head. "Look...if it makes you feel better, I'll do what you say," he conceded. "But don't patronize me, okay? I may be young, I may be inexperienced, but I've been around just long enough to realize that you pee standing up and put your pants on one leg at a time...just like every other guy. You're not always right." Furrowing his brows, the young man pointed at the bomb and declared, "You want to play the rank game? All right...as your subordinate, it's my duty to point out that you've forgotten something, Entil'zha. If it comes down to setting that thing off, it isn't going to matter whether I obeyed you or not. Even if I left now, there's no way my little legs are going to carry me away fast enough to escape a five hundred megaton blast. You key that switch and the top's coming off this mountain like a rocket, so instead of cooking us both in your zeal to make Mother a widow again, I recommend you develop some sort of goddamn plan for dematerializing both our asses out of here. And if you can't come up with another option, then dispense with the heroics and just blow the thing now...because, quite frankly, even if there was a way to save myself I'd rather painlessly disintegrate than have to go back and explain to Mother that you've pulled a 'John Sheridan' on her again."
"Uh...yeah, I guess you have a point there," John chuckled after stewing over his son's words for a moment. Staring idly at the link in his hand, he slowly mused, "The top of the mountain...hmm...well, there may just be a way, but it might be worse than blowing up..."
"Good...because I don't relish the thought of getting snuffed out here. Ardenn and I have a life together that needs living, and you've got a woman who loves you waiting at home. We both have people to go home..."
Up the tunnel outside the Cathedral, a distant 'crump' sounded, lightly shaking the floor and cutting David off. Both men looked up. Above them, the greenish haze of the death cloud began moving...filtering slightly as tendrils of the gas began wafting towards the entrance arch. "Ah, hell. That tears it," John declared. "They've blown the main shaft doors. If they push hard, they'll be on us in about ten minutes." Motioning to his now silent companion, he trotted back through the stone archway to the idle AFVs. Grabbing two PPG rifles, he tossed one to David and said with a lopsided grin, "Well, seeing that simply nuking the place is out for the moment, are you up to living for me and dying for me today?"
"Dying?" the younger man repeated with a nervous smile of his own. "Nah. Not this young Ranger. Hell...as one of my instructors once said, we may live and die for the One, but of the two...it's a lot better to live. I was just wondering what was taking them so fucking long."
"Son," John murmured as he took up position behind an AFV near the GROPO minigun and sighted his PPG up the corridor, "When we get home, your mother and I are going to have to have a long talk with you about your rapidly degenerating language skills."
"What can I say? I'm experimenting with epithets. You ought to hear Mother sometimes. And Ardenn? She copies her. She never uses the right words, but when she gets pissed...hell, she can singe hair. That is, if you can keep from laughing too hard."
"Singe hair? Uh...okay. So...I guess it's a good thing her people are bald then, eh?"
The first cohort of Dilgar shock troops trotted in two files down the central corridor at double time, their pace causing the equipment they wore to jingle, a sound that echoed hollowly off the stone walls and floor in rough cadence with their steps. Not expecting much resistance, they hugged both corridor walls loosely, only the front commando, the point, paying any real attention to what lay ahead. Immediately behind the point, another soldier tracked their progress on a handheld LED schematic of the mine. Deeper in, the map would be required, but as there was only one route until the chamber known as the Cathedral was reached, the 'navigator' merely glanced at the readout from time to time.
"Tell your troops to stay alert!" Bha'laa hissed warningly to the cohort commander as she and the subordinate officer followed the soldiers down the shaft. "They've had several hours to prepare whatever surprises they're planning for us!"
"We have over forty of our best troops leading us in," the subaltern replied, secretly irked that War Marshal Ghe'dan had sent his ambitious subordinate down to take command of what had been his operation. Mentally rolling his eyes at his overly intense superior, he recalled the rumors surrounding the circumstances under which she became the Advance Guard commander's most 'trusted' assistant. In true Dilgar fashion, the relatively young Bha'laa had risen within the ranks of the Armada through a combination of ability, assassination and a willingness to perform any act demanded of her in the Marshal's bedchamber...acts in which Ghe'dan, whom it was whispered had both a twisted imagination and a penchant for voyeurism, was not always the only other participant. Not that the knowledge did him any good, he reflected. She was here, and for better or worse his fate was now tied to hers. Smoothly, he continued, "And we know the layout of this place. Our prey does not. Do not be concerned. We will catch your Anla'Shok quickly."
"Very well," the Strike Leader commented, "But see to it that Sheridan is taken alive! We intend to make a spectacle of his capture and subsequent torture for the benefit of his Alliance...and things will go badly for you if he is killed out of hand."
"And the other one?"
"His pilot? He is not important. Dispose of him on sight."
The subaltern momentarily noted to himself that all humans generally looked alike so telling the difference would be a problem, but it occurred to him that Sheridan would undoubtedly be the older of the two, so he bit back the obvious question. It was just as well. Up ahead, he saw his point trooper stop and raise a hand. He peeked around a corner and the commander heard the soldier quietly murmur, "There's something up ahead of us..." through the tiny earpiece in his helmet. "It appears to be a large vehicle and it's blocking the entrance to the first chamber."
"No doubt Sheridan managed to emplace an ore transporter to block our progress," Bha'laa whispered. "Have your soldiers proceed around it."
"Respectfully, Strike Leader," her subordinate murmured, "the Anla'Shok are not fools. It makes no tactical sense to leave an obstacle without covering it somehow. Obstacles not overwatched and supported with fire are not obstacles at all. Let me send a few soldiers forward to check it out before we commit the main group."
"We need to hurry!" Bha'laa hissed. "How much obstacle coverage do you think two Rangers can provide? Order the lead squad to move now! If the two castaways pick off a couple of our troops in the process, so what? We'll still overrun them by weight of numbers!"
"As you command," the troop commander replied uneasily. Raising his arms over his head, he signaled the lead fire teams to move around the bend in the passage that marked the Cathedral entrance.
As the first squad lowered their weapons to the 'ready' position and disappeared from sight, all was initially quiet. It didn't last. After a few seconds, Bha'laa and the commander jumped at a strange, high pitched ripping sound emanating from around the corner...a sound quickly replaced by agonized screams of terror and the moans of wounded echoing through their headsets. Simultaneously, tiny projectiles...flechettes...began ricocheting off the walls and zipping by them with a harsh buzz, causing the two and the other soldiers still with them to throw themselves flat to the ground.
"They've got a meat grinder!" the subaltern hissed at Bha'laa in surprise as he struggled with incredible determination to crawl completely into his helmet. "Withdraw!" he shouted into the pickup on his throat.
"Withdraw?" Bha'laa angrily repeated as the pinging of flechettes around her prostrate form invited her to become one with the floor as well. "What in the name of our ancestors are you thinking? Overrun them!"
"You lead us in and I promise I'll be right behind you!" Bha'laa's subordinate retorted. His voice filled with stress, he continued, "You should have listened to me! Our two strays have somehow gotten their filthy hands on a heavy slugthrower! Anyone who goes around that corner won't get a meter...so, unless you intend to take the point, pull us out! Pull us out and send down an armored vehicle to clear it!"
"Maczyk Kahrun!" the Strike Leader cursed vehemently in her native tongue. Into her pickup, she growled, "Withdraw! Pull back to the last bend in the tunnel and regroup!" Switching frequencies as her troops began crawling past her she radioed the surface. "This is Strike Leader Bha'laa! I'm observing heavy fire to my front and I need armor down here immediately!"
"Acknowledged, Strike Leader. We are bringing an assault gun forward now."
Once that was complete, the Dilgar leader turned and began crawling back on her belly behind her soldiers. She wasn't leaving...to do so would be inviting execution at her superior's hands, not to mention the shame such an act would subject her to. <Crawling away in the face of the enemy...> she disgustingly reflected, <I am already shamed in front of these...pitiful humans.> "Enjoy your momentary reprieve, Sheridan!" she shouted back over her shoulder in the human tongue as she crawled away. "We will be returning for you very soon...and your little weapon will be no match for us when we do! You cannot stop us, and every delay you create will only increase my pleasure as I watch you writhe under the paingivers!"
Behind her, the buzzing human weapon fell silent with a metallic clank.
"That's it," John muttered as the barrels of the GROPO ceased spewing out flechettes and ground to a halt with a metallic clank. Kneeling to examine the minigun, he grunted as he noted several cartridges jammed at odd angles in the firing mechanism. Looking up at his son over the still smoking barrels, he announced, "Like you said...a triumphant example of contracting with the lowest bidder. Still, it bought us a little time. It'll take them a few minutes to bring down something to clear this with. I think we've done all we can do here. It's time to bug out."
David looked up the corridor. Just in front of the nearest bend, several crumpled bodies lay...none exhibiting any signs of life. "Shouldn't we check those Dilgar out? There may be wounded."
"If any are still alive, they're beyond our ability to help," the older man noted. "It's too dangerous. One or more of them may be playing possum. If you or I got within arm's reach, they might jump us."
"They haven't left," John explained. "Dilgar troops are more afraid of their commanders than they are of dying. They've probably pulled back only as far as they think we can reach. They'll take up a position there to block our escape. Now that they know what they're facing, they'll be prepared when they come down again. We can't stay."
David pointed at the vehicle behind his father. "That thing's got a wicked-looking pulse cannon on top. Any chance we could use it to deal with the second wave?"
"Unless you think we've got an hour and you feel like turning a hand generator...no. The power cells have been dead for years, and I have no way of telling whether the internal electronics are still good even if we had the energy. I'd lay even money that it'd blow up on us."
"Not so fast," John countered. "Your comment about blowing the top off this mountain got me to thinking. The top of this mountain is riddled with ventilation shafts." Pointing across the Cathedral to the far side, he continued, "That's where the lift tubes are...and that's where we're going. The fusion reactor is still running down here, so maybe the lift tubes are as well. If we're lucky, we can take the lift as high as it'll go and then find a shaft large enough for us to crawl out to the surface." Shaking his head, he added, "It'll be a long climb. A kilometer at least."
"Hell, I can make it."
"It's not the climb I'm worried about," the reborn Entil'zha noted. "I heard the Dilgar commander saying that they're coming to get us as they pulled back. They don't just want us out of the way. They know who I am and they want us...alive." Gazing thoughtfully up the corridor, he continued, "That means they plan on running us down like animals. They'll be chasing us the whole way."
"We'll face that when its time to face it, Dad." David countered. "Once we're on the surface..."
Holding out the link in his hand, John indicated the toggles. There were two, David noted. "We'll probably be dead...unless a rescue ship has arrived. Whether we get out of here successfully or not, I still have to make sure the Dilgar don't get the weapons...and, unless we're prepared to sacrifice ourselves, I can't set our friend Bomb off down here. So, we're going to do this another...wait..."
John trailed off...listening...and raised a tentative hand to indicate silence. David strained to hear as well. Up the main corridor, both men could hear a faint metallic sound accompanied by a high-pitched whine. "What is that?" David whispered.
"That's our signal that we've stayed too long," John replied, grabbing the young man by the shoulder and hustling him back into the Cathedral arch. "They've moved faster than I expected. That whine is an engine turbine. We have to go...now!"
As the sound grew louder, John and David scurried to collect up the few items they brought with them. Hoisting his rucksack onto his back, the older man pointed across the chamber to a series of what appeared to be pipes running from floor to ceiling. "Those are the lifts, David! Run like hell, and pray that they're still working!"
"What about you?"
John released David's shoulder and darted over to a niche in the chamber wall near the entrance. Reaching in, he retrieved a paper bundle. "I'm right behind you...I doubt we'll make it back here and I have an old promise to keep. Now...GO!"
David didn't wait. He bolted for the far side of the Cathedral like a horde of Shagh Toths was chasing him waving crystal globes, his father close behind him. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion...everything but the sound of the approaching Dilgar vehicle, which was becoming louder with alarming speed. "We're not going to make it!" the young man huffed.
"We will!" John wheezed. "Just keep going! That sound isn't as close as you think! It's the echo!"
Just as he said it, the whine revved up another notch, and the two Rangers heard the scream of an energy bolt being discharged followed by an explosion. "Ah, Hell!" John amended, "Forget everything I just said! They just blew the APC out of the way! Faster!"
David glanced back, and was rewarded for not paying attention as he smacked full force into the nearest lift tube. Ignobly, he bounced off and fell to the ground, only to be hoisted to his feet by his father. Heaving the dazed young man up by his collar, John frantically punched the button to summon the lift. "Come on you bastard!" he growled. "Open up, Goddammit!"
God must have been listening. Much to both men's surprise, the lift door slid open...partially. John didn't waste any time. Roughly, he shoved David through the opening and tossed his bundle of letters in behind him. Spinning quickly, the older man glanced behind him at the area they had just vacated. Through the entrance, he could see a large armored crawler shoving the burning remains of a GROPO fighting vehicle aside. From experience, he knew that Dilgar ground troops would be coming in right behind it to mount their assault. They were out of time.
John turned to follow David into the lift...only to find that the door, barely opened wide enough to admit a person before, had slid almost completely shut. Through the crack that remained, he saw David sitting on the floor, shaking his head in an effort to clear it. "David!" he hissed, "The door is closing! Block it open!"
Abruptly realizing he and his father were stuck on opposite sides, the younger man jumped to his feet and threw himself frantically against the inside panel. Desperately pressing the 'open' button, he cried, "It isn't working!"
"Use your denn'bok!"
With a frustrated grunt, the young Ranger pushed away from the panel and withdrew the ancient weapon. A flick of his wrist snapped the pike open, and he shoved an end into the crack and pulled hard, attempting to force the door to widen. On the other side, John did the same. It was no use. The lift door, constructed to tolerate the heavy abuse equipment associated with mining operations was often subjected to, was far too rugged to pry open under muscle power alone. "In Valen's Name!" the younger Sheridan cursed, "They're coming in any second and you're out in the open! This isn't working!"
Recognizing the futility of trying further, John made a decision. Locking eyes with his son, he pulled his own denn'bok out and, as the door started sliding fully closed his yelled, "Listen to me, son! I want you to go up, understand? Up! Take the lift as far as you can, find an airshaft...but don't leave! I'll take another tube and join you in a few minutes...but if I don't, wait for the signal before you start climbing!"
"What signal?" David asked, a trace of panic in his voice. "Dad? I don't know the signal!"
"You'll know it when you hear it! Trust me! And be careful!"
"Dad!" the young man hollered, "Rash ta'al Quith! They're coming! Find a place to hi..."
The lift door slid completely shut, cutting the two Rangers off from one another. John pressed his forehead against the door and murmured, "Godspeed, son. I love you," before turning back to face the chamber entrance. The Dilgar would be on him long before another tube could arrive. Far across the cavern, he could hear the bellowing of Dilgar troops as they followed their assault vehicle, the rattle of their equipment echoing off the walls as they approached.
Hefting the denn'bok he still held in his hands, he grimly considered his options. There weren't many. Blow the place...sacrificing himself and his son in the process. Fight it out here, his denn'bok and PPG rifle against a whole platoon of Dilgar troops...with the outcome being a foregone conclusion. Or...hide and hope they overlooked him.
Despite his son's conviction that he carried some sort of death wish around with him, John didn't want to die. He wanted to get back to Delenn desperately. She wasn't telepathic as the Minbari reckoned such things, but at times of crisis he could occasionally sense her presence. Now that David was no longer present, she was no longer masked. John had never understood how the connection between the two of them worked, but he could feel her in his bones, could almost hear her voice in his head at times...like now. Undoubtedly, Susan had informed her of what had happened to him and David, and her thoughts were now focused on them.
Delenn could feel him as well, perhaps even more strongly than he felt her. If he died...if the Dilgar killed him, she would become aware of the loss instantly. If they captured and tortured him, she would know.
John wasn't about to put her through any of it. As long as he was free and fighting, she could concentrate on other things...so the trick was to stay free. Closing his denn'bok with a slight shake, he glanced about quickly, reluctantly acknowledging that he had only one choice for a hiding place...one that almost caused him to reconsider fighting it out...
"Dad? Goddammit, Dad!" David bellowed, pounding on the lift door with his denn'bok. Close to panic, he cast the Ranger weapon aside and began repeatedly punching the 'open' button on the control panel, ignoring the older man's injunction to get away.
With an anguished, helpless groan, the younger Sheridan shortly recognized the futility of trying to get out of the elevator and stopped trying to force the entrance. He wasn't going anywhere, and even if he succeeded in getting the door to open somehow, he realized he'd likely find himself stepping back into near-certain capture. If his father had managed to get away, he'd be doing nothing more than giving the enemy a hostage to use against him. It would be a worse situation than the one he was in now.
Still glaring daggers at the recalcitrant barrier, he forced himself to relax, closing his eyes and breathing deeply, slowly. While he wasn't nearly as skilled at divorcing his emotions from his actions as his mother was, he was still a Ranger leader well trained in maintaining control during tense situations. As he centered himself, he allowed thoughts, pleasant thoughts, to creep in and after a time a faint smile found its way to his lips. In his imagination, a young Minbari woman took his hand and, twining her delicate fingers between his, gave it a reassuring, possessive squeeze as she smiled up at him in return.
Ardenn's spirit was with him...standing quietly beside him and keeping him company even in this lonely, forsaken place. Chiding himself, David realized that with all that he'd seen and learned in the short time since entering the mines, he'd almost forgotten about her. Now that he was alone and all was quiet, he could feel the part of his soul that she had claimed as her own exerting its influence. Fear and worry had no place within their little circle, no place in her presence...so, with a cleansing sigh, he rejected both. Her faith deserved no less than the absolute best he could muster.
His calming exercise complete, David opened his eyes. "Valen be with you, Dad," he murmured. His father was beyond his ability to help for the moment, as was he to the older man. They were each on their own...but neither was alone. Shaking his head, the young man stooped to retrieve his PPG rifle, denn'bok and the bundle of letters his father had tossed into the lift with him. As he knelt, he noticed for the first time that the floor was an open grid constructed out of steel mesh. Through the honeycomb pattern he could see the elevator shaft spearing downward below him, the bottom seemingly veiled in nothingness. Glancing up, he was greeted with a similar perspective as the shaft soared into darkness. He was standing in an open maglev tram suspended in a passage that seemed to stretch towards infinity in both directions.
Reflecting that it was good that heights weren't a problem for him, David closed his denn'bok and tucked the weapon away. Slinging his rifle across his back, the young Ranger hastily examined his surroundings and considered his options. The thick, steel elevator door was protecting him from whatever was occurring in the chamber outside, so he was relatively safe...at least for the present. It wouldn't take the invading troops long to figure out his hiding place, however. If he remained, they would simply use a laser torch to cut through the door and get at him. In this confined space he'd be virtually helpless and Ardenn's calming presence...strong as it was...would do little to stop the Dilgar energy bolt that would surely find him.
No, he decided, if he had anything to say about it, Ardenn wouldn't find herself a widow before they were even joined, so a defiant last stand in the elevator wasn't an option. Snorting, the young Ranger looked up at the seemingly endless tram shaft over his head once more. The gloom didn't look particularly inviting, but his father had said to go up as high as the lift would take him. There was little else he could do...assuming the lift worked at all. Certainly the door controls seemed non-functional.
Acceding to the inevitable, David Sheridan shrugged and whispered, "Well, here goes the homeworld..." to himself before reaching out and punching the topmost button on the control panel.
He hadn't even realized he'd been holding his breath until it whooshed out of him. With a satisfying clunk, the lift's magnetic drivers engaged their conducting rails and David breathed a sigh of relief as he felt the lift silently start to rise. Below him, he could see the outer door that separated the shaft from the Cathedral. Faintly, he could hear pounding coming from the other side and noted that he'd started up none too soon. Undoubtedly, the Dilgar pounding on the other side could use the level indicator to ascertain his destination, but he should have enough of a head start to find an airshaft and get positioned before they could follow. At that point...well, hopefully his father would get there ahead of them. If not...
David decided to postpone considering the 'if not' scenario until it was upon him. No sooner had he decided this than the point became moot. With a harsh grating sound, the elevator ground to a halt...and started back down.
"Ah, hell!" the Ranger cursed, "They've overridden the controls!" Knowing it was probably useless even as he did it, David stabbed a finger at the top button again. The lift continued to fall. This was it, then. The End. <Sorry, Ardenn,> the young man thought sadly as he unslung his PPG rifle, braced himself and aimed it at the door, determined to make at least the first troops through pay before they took him down. <I guess you and I weren't meant to be after all...huh?>.
The Ranger's green eyes widened in both surprise and consternation as the elevator slid by the Cathedral level and continued falling, slowly but steadily picking up speed. Down...he was still going down! His earlier determination to surrender reluctantly to his next incarnation was replaced by shock as his downward velocity reached the point where wind began to whistle warningly through the floor grate. He had fallen far below where he had started and the lift was picking up speed far faster than its makers could have possibly designed it to.
Somewhere in the corner of his mind that wasn't involved in trying to defy gravity's effect on his stomach contents, David realized that the Dilgar couldn't have had anything to do with his descent...the lift's magnetic couplings had failed! Even as this horrifying realization came to him, the lift started to shudder against the steel rails that, under normal circumstances, guided the clamps and kept the small car steady. Struggling with great difficulty over to the control panel once more, the young man attempted to pry the cover off. If it were just a loose wire, he wildly reasoned, perhaps he could reattach it and engage the emergency override.
The panel refused to budge, and the wind was beginning to scream through the cart with a high, keening wail...his lonely death knell if he didn't do something soon. Despite appearances to the contrary, David knew that the shaft wasn't bottomless. Soon...too soon...he'd be a greasy spot on the floor of the lift tube's rapidly approaching terminus. He had to get behind that control panel...it was his only hope. Praying that he didn't burn up what little might yet be operable beneath it he set his rifle against the panel, averted his eyes and pulled the trigger.
With a shower of sparks that was immediately sucked up and thrown out of the shuddering lift by the wind, the panel flew from its hinges and careened about the small enclosure, cutting a deep gash into the young Ranger's cheek as it did so. <That's going to leave a scar...> the young man thought absently as he wiped the welling blood away and braced himself against the lift's bulkhead to free up both his hands. Peering through the acrid smoke, it only took him an instant to discern the source of his problem.
The magnetic clamps had indeed failed...but not on their own. Most of the wiring behind the panel was either deliberately cut or otherwise mangled. On the inside of the cover was the telltale signature of the saboteur or saboteurs...a crudely drawn representation of an Earthforce GROPO with his pants around his ankles, his massive penis poking straight out...and into the mouth of a Minbari warrior who was on his knees lapping at the oversized erection. Underneath the drawing was a caption, scrawled in English...
"DO YOU LIKE GOIN'DOWN, BONEHEAD? SEE YOU IN HELL!"
"Rash ta'al Quith!" David groaned, shaking his head. "In Valen's Name, I can't buy a break, can I?" In smaller, neater script, a second caption read, "Elevator modifications courtesy of your friends at the 325th Planetary Assault Company (GROPO), EAS Lexington, MAJ Ocelina Altenbourg CMDG."
"You bunch of fragging assholes," the young man muttered resignedly as he began picking through the confusing bundles of sparking, multicolored wiring. All those years ago, his father's ground troops had evidently found more to occupy their time than sitting around playing cards while they waited to die. In anticipation of a Minbari return to this place, they'd set a few booby traps of their own...and their old CO's son had unwittingly stumbled into one of them.
"It's...just...not my goddamn day today..." the younger Sheridan growled through gritted teeth. Clamping his feet down against both wind and gravity, he frantically began trying wire combinations at random as the shimmying lift finally reached terminal velocity, every shudder threatening to pitch him off of his feet if his concentration faltered. As he tried to match up the colors and crimp them together, he noted that the fall was the least of his problems. The sudden stop at the end...that's what got people every time...
*** "What do you mean GONE?" Strike Leader Bha'laa almost shouted as she stormed into the Cathedral behind the first phalanx of Hegemony commandoes. Grabbing her second in command by his lapels, she held the larger but thoroughly intimidated lieutenant in place as she glanced quickly around the huge but mostly barren chamber. "Gone WHERE? Deeper into the mine? They didn't have time! This cavity is too large!"
"We...we don't know, Strike Leader..." the shaken officer stammered. Gesturing at the mute rows of body bags stacked against the chamber walls, he continued, "They...they were here a few minutes ago, and now they are not...no one is here but the dead..."
"I want them found...now!" Bha'laa cursed. "We will not leave them free to harass us as we bring up the weapons!"
"Strike Leader! Over here!"
Bha'laa turned at the sound of a new voice, that of one of the subalterns. Seeing that he had the female commander's attention, the soldier gestured at what appeared to the Dilgar to be a lift tube...one of a series of tubes lining the far wall of the chamber. "This tube is in operation!" he called out. "But the door is too thick for us to penetrate!"
In a harsh whisper, Bha'laa gave her subordinate a final shake before releasing him. "Be very careful. Fail me again and I will make a...permanent...change in the leadership structure of your unit." Shoving the shaken officer aside, she strode across the Cathedral to where the soldier nervously waited. "Where is the lift headed?"
"The level indicator is heading up...no...down?" The soldier confusedly indicated, scratching his thick mane of coarse black hair. "That doesn't make sense."
"It makes perfect sense," Bha'laa interjected. "Sheridan and his pilot initially meant to make their escape...but their foolish code of honor will not allow them to leave us unfettered access to the weapons. Instead of trying to avoid capture, they are going to attempt to destroy them." Grasping the soldier roughly by the shoulder, she hissed, "This is our opportunity to get this business concluded, get off this miserable rock and get back to the real war! Get your squad assembled! They do not have much of a head start! We can take one of the other lifts and catch them before they accomplish their suicidal goal! Do you understand? Jha'dur indicated that the weapons were deep in the mine and if I'm correct, Sheridan will lead us right to them!"
The subaltern knew Bha'laa was displeased with his commander and he was no fool. Smelling a possible promotion, he nodded and scurried off, wasting no time in gathering his squad and herding them into another lift. At the last, Bha'laa herself entered. As the lift doors clanged shut behind her, she keyed the bottommost button on the control panel...and screamed along with her soldiers as the floor seemed to fall out underneath them.
The lieutenant Bha'laa had berated earlier heard none of this through the heavy doors of the lift...not that he would have done anything to help her if he had. With his commander gone, the lower-ranking officer attempted to muster what little command authority was left him after his humiliating degradation. Stationing two soldiers to remain in the Cathedral, he then took the remainder of his platoon and split them up to search the corridors adjacent to the central chamber. If he were lucky, he would locate the Blessed Scientist's weaponry before his accursed companion. That would redeem him from what he knew would be a personally damning report back to War Marshal Ghe'dan once this business was concluded. Yes, he thought, finding the weapons before Bha'laa might turn the tables on the odious Strike Leader...
Behind him, the two soldiers he had left on guard remained alert...until their lieutenant and subalterns had departed. As soldiers left unsupervised almost universally will, their attention began wandering almost as soon as the footfalls of their supervisors became distant. It did not take them long to become curious about their surroundings...especially the strange, conical human device set in the middle of the floor. Until now, it had been overlooked, but it seemed that they now had time for a little exploration. First one, then the other approached the object and poked at it experimentally with their rifle barrels. At the first touch, a loud warning klaxon sounded and a strident female voice boomed, "SECURITY PERIMETER VIOLATED! ANTI-HANDLING PROTOCOLS ARE ACTIVE. YOU HAVE ONE MINUTE TO PROVIDE THE CODE WORD OR I WILL SELF-DESTRUCT. NOTE! IF YOU ARE MINBARI, YOU SHOULD HAVE STARTED COUNTING THIRTY SECONDS AGO!"
The two soldiers jumped back, startled by the unexpected noise...not that the warning did them any good as neither spoke the nasty human tongue. The faint echo of running footsteps behind the first soldier needed no translation, however. He turned...right into the dun-colored shaft of a denn'bok slamming into his face...
"WARNING: This tram has exceeded safe operational speed. Emergency stopping procedure is recommended."
"No Shit!" David barked at the unseen voice that had activated as soon as terminal velocity was reached. Hastily, he twisted another bundle of wires together as the rattling cage he was falling with threatened to toss him onto his fourth point of contact.
"Passing Level Five," the voice continued. "Rate of descent still exceeds safe parameters. Passing sublevel Five-alpha..."
"Come on, dammit!" the young man growled at the now dead lift controls, "Give me a jolt...a spark...a sputter. Something...anything..." Glancing down between his legs, he imagined he could see the bottom of the tube already rushing up to meet him. How many levels had Dad said this place had? Deciding the bundle of wires he was working with was getting him nowhere, he jerked them aside and grabbed a new set.
"Passing Level Six," the elevator's emergency subroutine intoned, and David was sure he could almost hear a fearful tremor in the mechanical voice. He knew there'd be one in his...if he had anyone to talk to. "WARNING: Terminal level approaching. Emergency stopping procedure is highly recommended."
Below him, David could see the bottom of the shaft. It wasn't his imagination this time, and it was approaching even faster than he'd thought it would. The Ranger redoubled his efforts. "Sorry, Sweetheart," he grunted as he frantically manipulated the wiring, "Maybe they'll find something to return to you...if they bring a small enough bucket..."
It was no use. Dropping the wiring harness, David prepared to meet his fate...not by calming himself or meditating, but by staring dumbly between his legs, mesmerized by the bottom of the shaft as it rose to meet him. He was so mesmerized that the sudden braking of the lift caught him completely by surprise. Without warning, he was lifted off his feet and slammed with bone-jarring force into the elevator's roof grille, only to be slammed with equal force into the deck as gravity reasserted itself and peeled him off the ceiling. The impact dazed him, and through a foggy, semiconscious haze, he heard the emergency subroutine announce, "Level Seven fail-safe activated and auto-stop initiated. Moria Central has been notified and emergency repair crews are in transit. This elevator is temporarily out of service. Universal Terraform apologizes for any inconvenience and urges you to have a nice, productive workday...and always remember: Earth is counting on you."
"Earth is counting on me...wonderful..." David mumbled thickly while gingerly trying to disentangle from the awkward position he found himself in. The lift door slid open, and he dragged himself out onto the rough stone floor of the mine's deepest chamber, barely able to do more than crawl. Raising himself up on his arms, he shook his head, trying to clear it. Drawing in a deep breath, the young man felt a sharp pain lance through his chest and he was immediately overcome by wracking coughs. Glancing down at his breather, he saw several drops of mottled blood staining the clear mouthpiece. "Ah, Hell," he muttered, noticing for the first time how short of breath he was. "I think I've broken a rib."
With a grunt of pain, he twisted so he was in a sitting position, at the same time gently probing for further injury. After a moment, he concluded that other than a throbbing headache and the probably broken rib, he was marginally functional...and about as far from the place he was supposed to be as he could get. With a hard grunt, he levered himself to his feet using his denn'bok and, leaning on the pike for support, looked around at his surroundings.
He was in a dimly lit chamber far different from the one he had left. The green-tinted fog of the death cloud still followed him here, as it had above, but it seemed somehow thicker in this new area than it had before. Through the haze, he discerned that his new locale was far smaller, and it appeared more or less naturally formed, with only the barest improvement. The chamber had rough, uneven walls and there were fewer passages branching off from it...in fact, there were only two. One was cut into the wall near the lift shafts and seemed to slope up and away from the chamber, and the other...
The other was not even a passageway. It was a gaping crack where a wall should have been, a wound in the structure of the chamber that seemed to open into nothingness. Peering at the second opening intently, David noticed that a slight air current seemed to issue from it, lazily stirring the mist. What had his father said during his story? That there was a natural pit at the bottom of the mine, a subterranean chamber that the miners had struck...one that no one knew the depth of.
So this was the infamous Pit, then. After his wild ride in the elevator, David wasn't sure how much further down he could go before starting out the small planet's other side. Curious despite himself, he was sidling over to take a look when the chamber's contents, until now obscured from view, caught his attention and explained why the mist was so thick in this particular area. Along the far wall stood dozens of crates, neatly stacked for the most part. One had broken open at some point in the past, spilling greenish goo into the chamber and contaminating it even more thoroughly than it already had been. Although he needed little other confirmation, the young Ranger changed direction and hobbled over to examine them. As he neared, he noted that the packing labels weren't in English...they were in Lenn'ah, the language of the Warrior caste. Pulling a label free of one of the boxes, he scanned the contents.
Each crate contained a warhead with hundreds of concentrated bomblets. Given the number of crates present David realized that there was enough, if used as intended, to overcome an entire planet...an entire human planet, such as Earth. "In Valen's Name, Mother...how could you even entertain the idea of using something so despicable?" the young Ranger mused thoughtfully as he fingered the label, totally at a loss for other words. He was so enraptured by what he'd found that he almost failed to note the brush of wind on his cheek. When he did notice it, he at first discounted it as the flow of air from the Pit...but it was too strong. Turning back towards the elevator shafts, he gaped in surprise as he noted that another lift was falling...descending just as quickly as his had a few moments before.
"Hell...I hope that's you, Dad," he murmured. Somehow, he found the odds of his hope being realized highly unlikely. If it wasn't his father...David glanced quickly back at the elevator he'd vacated a few moments prior. His PPG rifle...or, more precisely, what remained of it...lay within, broken when he was slammed to the deck and now useless. Hiding in the chamber would be impossible...with the exception of the crates the room was barren. The single passage leading out was available, but a warning twinge from his ribcage told him that running was out of the question. If the lift carried Dilgar troops, they'd chase him down before he got a hundred meters and he'd be forced to fight in the confines of a corridor rather than on open ground.
Straightening, the young Anla'Shok captain moved as quickly as he was able over to the operating lift tube. Hefting his denn'bok, he gazed at the weapon, remembering how he had received it...not from Anla'Shok Na as those others who had graduated with him had, but from his mother. Virtually all newly minted human Rangers and most Minbari received new denn'boks, but a few received older ones as gifts from their families. David's weapon was truly ancient; it had once belonged to the great Neroon himself, widely acknowledged as one of the most skillful warriors in Minbari history.
He never asked how his mother, a woman not held in especially high regard by the Warrior caste, had obtained the weapon. Neroon had no children, but the Star Riders clan surely could have given it to one of their own. Not that it mattered. One did not question gifts of such intrinsic importance. One graciously accepted them and hoped that he or she could make the gifts meaningful by living up to the expectations of their previous owners.
When the time came, David desperately hoped he'd pass Neroon's muster, wherever his mother's deceased warrior friend was. And that time was fast approaching. He could hear the howl of the second lift's gas shocks engaging as the fail-safe system kicked in. "Well...it looks like I've got what I've got," he muttered, pressing his back against the side of the tube and hoping that if it were the enemy, it would just be one or two. They'd be disoriented from the same quick stop he'd experienced earlier. Even injured, he might be able to take them before they regained their equilibrium.
The tube rumbled as the elevator within ground to a halt and the door hissed open. Taking a deep breath, David muttered a quick pain suppression mantra and darted around to face the opening, his pike in attack position. He found himself facing not one or two, but ten heavily armed Dilgar soldiers sprawled on the deck...
"Yuck!" John breathed, just barely managing to suppress his gag reflex.
Twisting slightly to get more comfortable, he found himself staring into the ghoulish face of his macabre companion. "Sorry about the arm, buddy," he grunted, shoving the freeze-dried appendage he'd dislodged from it's socket back onto the corpse whose body bag he had hurriedly appropriated, "If it helps any, I'm not planning on staying. You can have your sleeping bag all to yourself again in a few minutes."
Poking a hole in the bag just large enough to put his eye to, John watched as the Dilgar assault gun finished shoving the durasteel hulk of its abandoned Earthforce counterpart out of the way. Almost immediately afterwards, two concussion grenades sailed through the entrance arch, bouncing hollowly across the floor several times before detonating and setting the older Sheridan's ears ringing. As the echoes subsided, he thanked the sentient universe that he hadn't been close and watched as Dilgar troops in full battle armor stormed into the chamber, weapons down and ready. Quickly ascertaining that neither of their quarries was in sight, the soldiers then fanned out and away from the Cathedral entrance in a search formation, every now and then nudging a body bag as they passed.
John lay as still as his deceased companion when the troops drew near his hiding place, not daring to breathe and praying to any god that might deign to look favorably on him that none noticed his bag was larger than the others. Directly in front of him, a soldier paused and lightly kicked John's hiding place. It took every ounce of self-control the former President of the Interstellar Alliance possessed to fight off the urge to clench up as the soldier's toe made contact with his groin. <That was to keep me humble...> he groaned to himself as he silently thanked Delenn for teaching him at least a few rudimentary pain mitigation techniques. Apparently satisfied, the ranker moved away to check another bag.
When the soldiers reached the far end of the chamber, one of them shouted what John assumed was the Dilgar equivalent of 'All Clear' and he got his first good look at the leader of the Dilgar pursuing him. The commander strode through the entrance arch, and the hidden man wasn't entirely surprised to see that his hunter was a huntress. The female officer was tall, carried herself haughtily and, John noticed, she was in a foul mood. Sallow-complexioned and cat-eyed like the rest of her race, she had a face that, to John, looked as if it could stop a speeding freight shuttle. Her lips were thin and cruel, and her head was topped with thick, black hair that cascaded out from under her helmet and down her back. With a suppressed snort, he noted that she'd probably be considered attractive to another of her kind, but the mental imagery he immediately associated with her involved bubbling cauldrons, black cats and evil cackling under the full moon. Altogether, she looked like someone John had no desire to meet outside of a Halloween party.
The Dilgar commander and a large male John assumed was her exec surveyed their surroundings with distaste, evidently disappointed that there was nothing more to the chamber her troops had fought so hard to get into. <Hoping that the warheads would be here waiting for you? > John thought sourly. <Well, tough luck, Esmerilda. Them's the breaks. Now, if you'll just collect up your hobgoblins, plant your warty fanny on your broomstick and fly back to your coven...>
Fortunately for the hidden man, the Dilgar commander was concerned with matters other than conducting a thorough search of the Cathedral. Rather than taking a hard look in the chamber, she seemed preoccupied with getting on with her search for the weapons. Her words were unintelligible, but from her harsh demeanor and the short but pointed confrontation she was having with her subordinate, John deduced that she was in a hurry to reach her goal...perhaps even running behind schedule...and that caused the older Sheridan to worry. For the enemy to be in a hurry here meant they were likely trying to coordinate the retrieval of the weapons with activities occurring elsewhere. Not for the first time, his thoughts turned to his wife and he wondered what she was doing right now.
John sighed. Knowing Delenn, she was probably handling things on her end far more efficiently than he was here. He'd botched just about everything he'd touched on this mission. He'd brought David along, which he never should've done. He'd gotten his ship shot down with only the barest of warnings sent back. To top it off, he'd failed to keep the Dilgar away from their objective. Once they gained entrance to the Cathedral, any hope of keeping them away from the weapons vanished. There were simply too many avenues open to them at this point for John to cover them all. At least David had gotten away, he forlornly reflected. By now, he should be well on his way to the mine's uppermost level. No matter what happened to his father, he'd find a ventilation shaft and get out. After that...well, the young man was resourceful. He'd survive.
At different times, David, Delenn...and even Lorien...had told him either directly or indirectly that he was too old for this sort of thing. Maybe he should start listening. Sneaking around in abandoned mines on worlds best forgotten was work for young people like David. Hell, he reflected, maybe being Vice-President wasn't such a bad idea. After all, there weren't many veeps who could claim that they worked the kinks out of important policy initiatives in their President's bed...at least not many who could claim such without inciting a scandal...
Idly, John fingered the link in his pocket. He couldn't stop the troops in the mine from eventually getting to the warheads containing the death cloud, but he could stop them from removing them...at least for a time. If the Dilgar were striking at other places, every moment he bought Delenn and Susan might turn the tide, make an enemy success here nothing more than a hollow victory. Seeing where his thoughts were inexorably leading him, he hastily released the remote. No, he decided, it was still too soon. It wasn't enough to simply buy time. He also wanted to survive, and if he and David were going to walk away from this one alive, the timing had to be perfect.
A shout from one of the soldiers pulled the older Sheridan away from his musings. The Dilgar was pounding on the door to the lift David had taken and calling out to his leader. John had figured they'd notice that one was in operation sooner or later...he'd been counting on it, hoping that the invaders would assume both men had made their escape. It was a calculated risk, but if the Dilgar commander were smart, she'd let the lift go, writing off pursuit and concentrating instead on going deeper into the mine. Deathwalker had to have informed her remaining people about her work for the Wind Swords...otherwise they wouldn't be here in the first place. No doubt she'd also informed them about the location of the weapons.
For David's sake, if nothing else, he hoped so. More than anything else...even seeing his own beloved again...at that moment, he wanted his son to get away.
As the elder Sheridan continued to silently watch, events in the chamber seemed to be going his way. As he hoped, the Dilgar began to disperse. The female...named Bha'laa, John determined...assembled a squad and piled them into another lift. Once she had departed, her subordinate divided his troops up into teams and sent them off to search other areas of the mine. This was what he'd been waiting for. As the teams disappeared down the myriad of different corridors branching out from the Cathedral, he eyed the soldiers left behind. There were two that he could see. He would've preferred none, but Dilgar weren't renowned for physical strength and two he thought he could handle...as long as they stayed close to one another and he surprised them before they could shoot him.
Appraisingly, John eyed the distance between his location and theirs and considered his options. Using his PPG rifle was out. While powerful and reliable, the weapon was designed for close-quarters shipboard combat and had neither an especially long range nor armor-penetration capability...winning a pitched battle aboard a ship, after all, would mean little if the vessel's hull was irreparably breached in the process. The Dilgar he was facing, conversely, were ground troops armed with handheld DEWs, ground-specific directed energy weapons that were more primitive than PPGs but had a far longer reach. John knew that by the time he got out of his hiding place and got close enough to penetrate the Dilgar's Kevlar-like body armor with the PPG, he'd have been seen and shot. He needed an opening...and as he watched the two soldiers slowly relax and begin milling around as their compatriots left the chamber, one occurred to him.
First one, then the other noticed the device sitting quietly in the center of the Cathedral. In the Dilgar's rush to get on with their search for the death cloud warheads, they hadn't recognized it for what it was and had paid no attention to it. Had they recognized it, John knew, they would undoubtedly have called in a bomb disposal team to deactivate it before preceding any further with their search.
Despite his precarious situation, the reincarnated Entil'zha managed a smile. Evidently, the Dilgar were unaware of his reputation regarding explosives, and that was mistake number one for the enemy. As the soldiers turned their backs to him and curiously began to examine the device, they committed mistake number two. John gingerly slid the zipper of the body bag he was occupying down and carefully rolled out onto the stone floor, realizing that any noise he made would be magnified by the acoustic effects of the Cathedral. Without taking his eyes off the guards, he raised himself into a crouch, nearly giving himself away as his knee joints popped. <That's aging for you...> he thought, involuntarily holding his breath. <Well, that'll be one for Delenn to put on my headstone... 'Sold out by his own creaking bones'>
Somehow, he doubted she'd find the epitaph amusing. Fortunately, neither soldier seemed to notice. Softly letting his breath out, he set his PPG rifle aside and pulled out a small, cylindrical tube. This wouldn't be easy...he'd have to run about fifty meters across the open floor to close with the Dilgar, and he needed their attention to remain directed away.
And he would have to deal with both of them within one minute.
With his free hand, John again fingered his link. In front of him, the first unsuspecting soldier nudged the bomb he had left behind so long ago with his rifle barrel. This was it...his only chance at surprise. John keyed the first button on the link and immediately launched himself across the floor at a dead sprint, shaking his denn'bok open as he ran.
The strident warning bellow of the device was having the intended effect. Both soldiers were momentarily startled into total immobility by the unexpected noise, giving the elder Sheridan time to cross the distance between them unimpeded. Scrambling up behind the nearer of the two just as he was turning, John wasted no time in delivering a crushing blow to the Dilgar's face. "You violated her security perimeter," he growled as the soldier reeled away. Hooking the other end of the fighting pike between the retreating trooper's knees, he continued, "Where I come from, that's no way to treat a lady," and took his feet out from under him. The soldier crashed to the floor on his back and, without hesitation, John rammed the pike's blunt point directly into the distressed Dilgar's face once more, the grinding sound of pulverized bone signaling the elimination of one threat.
Just as he was turning for the second soldier, John felt a flash of heat scream by his hip, followed by an instant of agonizing pain. The second soldier had gotten his weapon up while John dispatched his companion and, his first shot seemingly wide, was lining up for a second. If given time, John knew, the second wouldn't miss. Without any thought of finesse or tactic, John spun his weapon and threw it at the Dilgar, striking the guard in the ankles and sending him tumbling before he could fire again. As the soldier was falling, the brown-garbed human launched himself across the short space between them, noting in passing that his left leg felt a little odd and was slow to respond. Coming down just short of the Dilgar, he grabbed his adversary's thrashing legs and dragged himself atop the struggling ranker.
The soldier tried to pull away...he had lost his DEW in the fall and was frantically trying to get his sidearm out of its holster...but the human's grip was like an iron clamp.
Pinning the pale alien with his body, John grasped his wrist and fought for control of the pistol. The soldier wasn't as strong as he, John could tell immediately, but the instinct for self-preservation was strong and whatever passed for adrenaline among the Dilgar was fueling his resistance. The two enemies strained against one another silently and seemingly timelessly, the soldier's desperation-fueled muscles against John's gravity-enhanced ones...until John finally began to win out. Grunting "Not...this...time...bastard!" the elder Sheridan slowly forced the barrel of the hand weapon back towards the Dilgar.
As John turned the pistol in the soldier's hand away from him, the Dilgar's eyes widened and he began to scream as the barrel wound up pointing at his own temple. John didn't enjoy killing...he hated it, but war was war and during war one did what one had to do. Working his finger over the top of the Dilgar's, he gazed into the alien's eyes and saw hate...hate, defeat and realization...and squeezed the trigger. A burst of energy surged through the guard's head and blew a large portion of his brain out the other side.
In that instant he knew he was done for, but David didn't pause. The soldier nearest him saw him and tried to scramble to his feet. The young Anla'Shok didn't wait. Swinging the trailing end of his denn'bok in a vicious uppercut, he slammed the butt of the weapon upwards into the commando's chin with enough force to lift the hapless soldier physically off the floor. The Ranger heard the trooper's neck snap, but paid no further attention as he targeted the next warrior, reversing his swing and slashing the fighting pike into the second soldier's face as he rose to his knees and tried to get his rifle up. The second soldier went crashing back to the floor, giving David an opening to attack the third in line.
This soldier had regained his feet and managed to get his rifle up to parry David's first strike. The force of the blow destroyed the delicate weapon, but the spoiled attack gave the Dilgar to the rear time to recover. With space so limited, David couldn't enter the elevator to get at the soldiers massed at the back, and the Dilgar couldn't get out. The adversaries seemed momentarily stalemated until...in a heart-warming display of camaraderie...the remaining Dilgar grabbed the foremost soldier from behind and pushed the now unarmed commando into David's whirling attack, using the trooper as both a shield and a battering ram to force the Ranger back and away from the door. The unlucky Dilgar at the front was dead by the third strike, but his purpose was served. Once clear of the elevator egress, the remaining six soldiers and their commander quickly scattered, out of the reach of the deadly pike and its doomed but determined wielder.
It hadn't been a long fight, but it'd been an interesting one while it lasted. David found himself ringed by Dilgar, each aiming their rifles at him. Grimly he faced them, his expression defiant. He'd never had the courage to admit, not even to Ardenn or his mother, that there were times when he doubted he was made of stern enough stuff to face death without fearing it as his father had. Now, as he spun, trying to keep the Dilgar in his peripheral vision from slipping up behind him and certain he was about to die, he understood. On some level, he knew he was afraid...but it wasn't controlling him. Yes, there was fear...but it was a good, healthy emotion he could either channel to other uses or detach himself from.
The Dilgar tightened their cordon around him and the young Ranger found himself being forced to backpedal. Somewhere behind him, he knew, there was a gaping drop-off that would end his life as surely as the soldiers facing him. They hadn't fired yet, obviously wanting him alive. David snorted. They obviously didn't know much about the Anla'Shok if they were waiting for him to throw up his hands in surrender. Glaring at the invaders as they finally closed their circle behind him, he thought of his mother at her most intimidating and disdainfully spat, "Oh, that's really good...stand in a circle. Has it occurred to any of you that you'll be shooting at yourselves when you shoot me? With tactics like that, I don't think the Alliance needs to worry too much about you."
The Dilgar commander, hovering just behind the soldiers facing David, smirked. "I am Strike Leader Bha'laa of the Dilgar Hegemony, Anla'Shok. I tell you this just so you know who killed you. You speak brave words, but they are wasted ones. None of these soldiers speak your language...not that it matters. They are trained to hear only the voices of their betters. Those of the lesser species have nothing to tell the Dilgar, so learning your vile tongue serves no purpose for the master race."
David almost laughed. "I notice you speak it. Slumming, are we?"
"In a sense," the commander acknowledged with a nod. "Learning English was...necessary...for one in my exalted position. It allows me to ask you questions, like...where is your companion? It is obvious you were left to delay us while your cowardly so-called Entil'zha hides. Your death is certain, pilot, so you gain nothing from preserving him."
"If you know anything about the Anla'Shok, you know our oath. We live for the One, we die for the One. You'd do well to bear that in mind." Gesturing at the elevator, he continued, "Three of your companions didn't, and they paid for their ignorance."
Bha'laa continued to pace to and fro, her catlike eyes glistening. "We are far from ignorant, human. We studied your race and the others for many years while we were in hiding. It is a pity the bald ones lacked the necessary ruthlessness to finish your people when they had the opportunity...but mercy is a weakness we do not suffer from, and the weapons I see stored in this chamber will aid us in rectifying their error. Once Humanity's destruction is complete, the Minbari will answer to their betters for their lack of will...and your puny collection of stick wielding policemen will not stop us. Your Alliance, stick-man, is nothing more than a flimsy house of paper, ready to dissolve at the first hint of moisture." With a slow smile, she added, "And, just so you know, it is raining outside." Her expression hardening, she said, "Now, you have wasted enough of my time. Where is John Sheridan? Answer correctly, and your death will be a quick one. Otherwise, it will be slow and you will give me my answers at the end anyway! You decide now!"
David stared silently at her.
"Very well," the Dilgar amusedly intoned after a moment. "Actually, your recalcitrance pleases me. I was hoping you would give us some sport." Motioning at her soldiers to lay down their weapons, she grinned evilly. "My commandoes have never fought a human in personal combat, only in simulations. This will be a learning experience for them."
Looking hastily around at the circle, David backpedaled some more to give himself fighting room. "I get to go out as a training aid, eh? Fair enough, I guess," he growled as the circle closed further, "I was at the bottom of my denn'bok class. If you live long enough, you'll have the honor of dying at the hands of some real masters. So...who's up first for their ass-whipping?"
Bha'laa laughed. "It does not work that way among us, human." Gesturing at her soldiers, she barked a command in her guttural native language and the soldiers responded, surging forward en masse. "We do not fight with what you call 'respect'. We seek to destroy our enemies, not honor them."
"I was...afraid of that," the young Ranger grunted as the six soldiers fell on him all at once. David fought back like an enraged demon, seeming to weave a curtain of steel in front of him with his fighting pike and cleaving Dilgar soldiers with every swipe and jab, but six to one odds was just too much. He managed to dispatch two more of the attacking soldiers, but he slowly found himself being forced back once more as his adversaries closed to grappling distance. Once they got under or around his spinning weapon, they would...with a snap, the inevitable happened. A Dilgar penetrated David's defensive circle and his denn'bok was knocked from his grasp, sailing off to land near the crates in the corner.
During his training, David had been adept at most forms of unarmed combat. His height and reach made him a natural for martial arts and boxing, but those same physical qualities had made him a poor wrestler. Rangers smaller and wirier than he, both human and Minbari, had made mincemeat of him regularly on the mat. The losses didn't shame him especially...everyone had to be bad at something...but he found himself wishing for more wrestling skill now. His denn'bok gone, he managed to land a few good kicks and punches before being overwhelmed by the four aggressors still arrayed against him. One of the soldiers took his feet out from under him and he went down, snarling pale aliens crying like jackals as they piled on top of him and began working him over.
As fists, elbows and kicks rained down on him, David continued to fight but felt his consciousness beginning to slip under the intense punishment his body was receiving even as he did so. A particularly sharp punch landed on his jaw, loosening several teeth and, more ominously, dislodging the small breather apparatus that was all that stood between him and the death cloud. He didn't even notice as the greenish haze that had been his constant companion sensed an opening and began to descend...he was so groggy he could barely feel the punches and kicks.
A particularly hard kick to his groin registered, and he began to retch. As his stomach heaved, it occurred to him that Minbari could sometimes sense when a loved one was in distress and he wondered if his beloved was aware of what was happening. With what foggy control he could muster through the beating he was taking he tried to suppress the pain, not wanting Ardenn to suffer the anguish of feeling him die as his mother had felt with his father. It was becoming so hard, though...so hard to focus...
Dimly, the young Ranger became aware that someone had come up behind him. There was a savage blow and he felt a sharp pain explode through his head...
John rolled off the now-dead soldier, chest heaving as he gasped for air. <One minute...Ah, Hell...> he mentally groaned. Raising his link, he shouted, "Bomb! This is Commander John J. Sheridan! Voice-recognize and deactivate anti-handling protocols! Code word obsidian!"
"Code word obsidian acknowledged," a low, almost sexy voice intoned from the nearby device. "You had four point three seconds left before primary fusion sequencing. Thank you, Commander."
"Yeah, ah...you're welcome." John wheezed in reply. With effort, he tried to scramble to his feet...only to have his left leg collapse numbly underneath him. It was only then that the burnt stench of smoking meat assaulted his nostrils. Already half-knowing what he would see, John looked down at himself.
<Ah, Shit! Fuck it all to hell and back...>
The Dilgar soldier hadn't missed after all. A blackened burn slashed across his hip, beginning at the front of his pelvic bone and scorching his skin for several inches before penetrating deeply into the underlying muscles and tendons. It looked livid and nasty, but the heat of the energy bolt's passage had already cauterized it so at least there was no bleeding. A dime store holonovel author would've called it a 'grazing wound'...ugly but not life threatening...something a paperback 'hero' would shrug off before hopping up and limping back to the business of galaxy-saving. To John, however, stuck in the real world and trying not to whimper from the pain, it was starting to hurt like goddamn hell now that he was aware of it. It was also more than enough to render him essentially immobile until he could get medical attention. One thing was for sure, he painfully mused as he moaned and searched his pockets for a first aid kit. He wouldn't be climbing up any airshafts anytime soon.
And, to top everything else off, he could hear the pounding of footsteps coming up one of the side passages...the dead guards' companions, undoubtedly rushing back to see what the noise was all about. What John wouldn't give to be a paperback hero right now...
With a grunt of sheer agony, the wounded Ranger rolled over onto his stomach and grabbed the DEW rifle the second guard had dropped in the fight. Crawling over to the guard's body, he settled behind it, using it for what little cover it would offer, and sighted down the Dilgar weapon at the passage entrance the approaching enemy would momentarily appear through. Appraisingly, he eyed the link in his hand once more.
David had to be at the uppermost level by now...and the Dilgar commander had to be at the bottom, no doubt greedily pawing through the warheads stored there and imagining the chestful of medals she'd receive for recovering them. He couldn't get to David...but he could certainly do something about the Dilgar and start the young man on his way back to his mother and fiancée.
"Remember me fondly to your mother, son," he whispered softly. "Tell her I love her." Sighing, he keyed the link just as the first Dilgar soldier loped through the passage arch.
Dropping the link, John fired and was rewarded as the first invader dropped face-first onto the floor. He was taking aim at the second when, with a deep rumble, the wrath of the gods was loosed.
He had no way of knowing that David was about as far from where he was supposed to be as one could get...
"I think he is regaining consciousness, Strike Leader."
"Excellent. Get him up."
One of the Dilgar soldiers grabbed the beaten, crumpled Ranger by his tunic collar and dragged him to his feet. He was barely recognizable, his eyes blackening, his face livid with swollen bruises and blood issuing from his mouth and nose. His awareness slow in returning, David stared dully at his captors and slowly ran his tongue across his rapidly thickening lower lip as he tried to collect his jumbled thoughts.
Immensely satisfied with the attitude adjustment treatment her soldiers had inflicted on the young Anla'Shok, Bha'laa triumphantly sidled up beside him and grasped him roughly by the hair, jerking his head back to force him to look at her. "You do not look so proud and haughty now, Pilot. What do you have to say for yourself?"
"Is...that all...you've got?" David slurred, barely able to form the words through swollen lips. "I was barely...getting warmed up."
Bha'laa snorted amusedly and shook her head. "I am impressed. You managed to defeat five of my best troops without reinforcement. If that is any indication of Anla'Shok fighting skill, this war will be costly for us. Still...your organization is a small one. The Hegemony can spare five soldiers for every one of yours, I believe."
"You will face...more than the Anla'Shok," David wheezed. "You will have to defeat us...defeat Earthforce...the Warrior caste...the Narn, the Centauri and the League. Can you spare soldiers and...and ships for all that?" Though in extreme pain, the young ranger managed a sad chuckle. "I don't think you can. You'll lose...and you'll truly find the extinction that you managed to escape all that time ago."
"Oh, we do not need to defeat every force you named...at least not all at once," the Dilgar countered. "The wise warrior remains alive by choosing battles judiciously...fighting only those she knows she can win. The Armada will defeat your Alliance fleet, not because we are stronger, but because we are inherently superior and fight smarter. The weapons you fought so hard to protect, for example, will virtually eliminate one of the adversaries you named without the Hegemony needing to fire a single shot. This will allow us to concentrate our admittedly limited resources on adversaries more easily defeated. By the way, how does it feel to be alive yet know you are dead?"
David glared uncomprehendingly at her and she laughed, gesturing at the ground. Following her finger, the young Ranger saw his broken breather and understanding dawned. "Yes," the Dilgar commander continued, "Even if I do nothing more with you, you will still die. It is regrettable that we do not have the time to observe the effects of our sister's weapon on you...but, as you say, the game is afoot...and our plans cannot wait for - what is that sound?"
The haughty Dilgar stopped in mid-sentence and David listened. He could hear it...a soft rumble that gained intensity almost in time with the lifting of his spirits. Almost immediately thereafter, they felt the vibrations through the floor, the Dilgar looking wildly about as they tried to discern the source of the tremor. From the passageway near the lift tubes, the young Ranger could hear the sound of collapsing machinery and see dust...good, honest dust rather than the greenish death cloud...wafting down. For some odd reason, he managed a short, barking laugh even though there was nothing funny about his situation. "That sound?" he chuckled, "Why, I think that's the sound of your 'inherent superiority' getting flushed down the crapper. Looks like you'll be playing against the varsity team after all."
"This area is geologically unstable!" Bha'laa cried. "Contact the surface! Tell them we need the extraction crews down here now! We have to recover the weapons before this chamber collapses!"
One of the soldiers spoke quickly into a link, only to be met with silence on the other end. "The surface does not answer," he relayed back. "Perhaps we are too deep."
"Problems?" the young Ranger asked rhetorically, divining from the expressions of the Dilgar that they were suddenly worried. "Is there nobody home? Aww...that's too bad. No Christmas presents for you today...just a lump of coal."
With a frustrated snarl, Bha'laa turned back to the still-defiant Ranger and struck him across the head with the butt of her sidearm, driving him back to his knees. "I think we are done with you," she hissed. "I would say you've outlived your usefulness, but you were never useful. Go die now, Ranger, and know that everything and everyone you care for will be close behind you."
Giving David a hard, final kick, she sent him tumbling over the edge into the Pit.
And David Sheridan fell...the opening into the lowest chamber of the mine seeming to fade as he drifted lazily away.
He thought of many things...hell, he had the time...time didn't really seem to mean much any more. He thought of his mother...had he been angry with her for some reason? That wasn't right. Dad was right about her. Dad was always right. He'd have to let her know he forgave her when he saw her again...In the Place Where No Shadows Fell...
Dad. Sorry we didn't get more time. I wanted more than anything to know you as an equal. I always loved you, but I was really starting to like you, too. We never had that before...
Ardenn came last, just as the dim light of the crack faded from view and he was engulfed in total darkness. Unbidden, their one night together came to mind. In his imagination, she snuggled up against him, settled her nude body under the crook of his arm and gazed lazily but expectantly up at him.
"I'm so sorry, Sweetheart," David murmured. "I wish I had the words. I want to be with you so much right now. I want to be wherever you are...
"Ardenn, I love you!"
The last was a shout. Abruptly, David shot up in his bed, tossing the bedclothes aside and gaping at his surroundings. He was back in his batchelor quarters in Tuzanor. He'd been falling! He was sure he'd been falling! "Wha...what the hell is going on!" he stammered.
"Are you not comfortable here with me?" a pert, familiar voice piped up beside him. "I have heard that among humans, it occasionally happens that a male's female companion looks far better in the evening than, how do you say...the morning after? I hope this is not the case with us, seeing as I irrevocably committed myself to you last night."
"ARDENN?" David breathed. "How did you get here? How did I get here? I was falling...I know I was falling..."
"And I caught you," the diminutive Minbari patiently explained. "Do you not remember? You called out for me."
"Yeah...uh, yeah. I don't understand...I should be dead..."
"You should be, but you are not." Slipping her nude body atop him, Ardenn straddled his hips and looked the young Ranger in the face, reaching out to draw his attention to her. David gazed up into her eyes and involuntarily recoiled in horror as she continued, "You called out for me as you fell from the world above and I heard you. I caught you...and now you and I can stay here and make love together...for as long as you wish it..."
Ardenn's eyes were jet black.
"This is what you want, is it not?"
To Be Continued...
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