2285/IXa : Conflicts of Interest

By John Hightower

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

******

Earth Year 2285

The spark of blade on scabbard, coupled with Ardennís Minbari reflexes provided just enough warning to preserve her life. Reeling away from her attacker, she slammed back-first into the corridor wall, managing to get an arm up to block the blow in the process. As the dagger slashed by her, she staggered and yelped as a sensation akin to fire lashed across her forearm. Just as quickly, her attacker drew away, with his prey never having seen him.

She had to get away. Heedless of what might be ahead, she slid down the passage as quickly as she could manage, praying the whole while that no unexpected turns presented themselves. In the darkness behind her, she could hear the leisurely following Dilgar laugh softly. Thinking Ardenn was weak and helpless...a foolish woman separated from her protectors...he was unhurriedly stalking her, repositioning for another attack.

Foolish, perhaps...but thinking she was helpless? That was his first mistake.

DenníkaleníTha, ritual unarmed combat, is practiced by every Minbari to a greater or lesser degree, but by none as assiduously as the Sisters of Valeria. As they were not permitted weapons, it had been their only means of defending themselves in the ancient times when Minbari killed Minbari...and even after Valenís Peace was imposed, that tradition had not wavered. While Ardennís proficiency level probably ranked in the bottom fifth of the Sisterhood, she knew that in a hand-to-hand contest she could at least surprise anyone less capable than another Sister, fully trained Warrior or Thaídomo monk. Her skills had certainly been more than sufficient to put an unready David on his back once when he caught her practicing and needled her playfully about it. The ensuing match had not lasted long, and humbling the newly minted Ranger had been satisfying. The look on his face as she straddled and pinned him...not surprise or embarrassment but a mixture of pride and tenderness...well, after later watching him spar with other opponents, she suspected that perhaps he had not resisted quite as strenuously as he could have. In retrospect, it seemed to her that the tone of his softly murmured ĎDefa Ehírustí was more an invitation to claim the spoils of victory on her part than it was surrender on his.

But this was no playful sparring. Painfully aware that she was now fighting for her life, Ardenn applied pressure to the gash on her arm and tried to smother the panic she could feel knotting in the pit of her stomach. ĎDo not be afraid of being afraidí she muttered to herself over and over like a litany. It seemed to work...at least enough to help her get her breathing under control. Mentally, she began reviewing her options...and there were few. She could not see. Her assailant evidently could, so she would have to establish conditions where sight was not an advantage and there seemed only one way to do that. Pressing herself against the wall, she tried to present as small a target as possible and continued to edge along. Every now and then she half-played at stumbling, hoping to emphasize her apparent helplessness and draw her attacker in closer.

Straining to listen, she relaxed as much as she could and presently she heard what she was listening for...the slight quickening of breath and the soft rustle of clothing as her assailant closed. Having tired of toying with her, he was preparing to move in and deliver another strike. She could hear soft footfalls now...he was almost within reach...

Faster than the eye could follow, the knife shot out of the darkness once more. Darting off the wall, Ardenn reversed position, grabbed the Dilgarís wrist and pulled him off balance. Simultaneously, she pivoted and blindly lashed out with a vicious side-kick. She was rewarded by the solid contact of her foot against bone and an audible grunt as the still-unseen commando slammed against the wall where she had been a split-second before.

Recovering quickly, the Dilgar lashed out, only to find empty air where his supposedly easy target had just been. Off-balance once more, he felt his arm grabbed again...shortly followed by another kick, this one to the solar plexus. Doubling over and retching, he was just starting to straighten when he was backhanded across the face with enough force to shatter several of his teeth, immediately followed by a spinning kick in the ribs. Groggy now, the commando retained just enough sense to realize that he might have bitten off more than he could chew when a knee smashed into his chin, straightening him up and forcing him back against the wall once more. Desperately, he swung his dagger back and forth in a wide, clumsy arc, hoping to force the little twirling demon away so he could run.

That was his last mistake. Now possessing a good idea of the extent of his reach, Ardenn stepped inside the blundering swing and let his arm strike her ineffectively across the shoulder blades. Having gotten what she wanted...inside the disoriented soldierís defensive circle...she pivoted, shattered his nose with the heel of her hand and seized his wrist. Bones cracked and he screamed in agony as she twisted the dagger from his hand, flipped him over her shoulder and slammed him to the floor.

Following her distressed assailantís weak groans, she grabbed the first part of his body she touched...his neck...and with every ounce of strength she could muster, jerked him clear off the ground and pinned him, feet dangling, against the wall. "You will tell me where David Sheridan is...NOW!" she harshly demanded. "Or I will damage you further!"

The flailing Dilgar only gurgled in reply. "I am afraid animal noises will not do," Ardenn murmured, squeezing harder. Gradually, his struggling began to taper off and she was sure his resistance was weakening. Answers would soon follow, and perhaps if she promised him safe passage she could use this cowed soldier to help her find her way.

Unfortunately, she had not been paying attention to her surroundings. Fully engaged with her attacker, she had given no thought to others that might be nearby. She was abruptly reminded when an energy bolt grazed by her, narrowly missing her head. Tossing her captive aside, she spun to face the new threat...realizing in that instant that there was no way she could find and disarm him before he fired a killing shot. Behind her, she could hear pounding feet approaching...no doubt more Dilgar coming to reinforce their comrades.

The Dilgar weapon discharged again...and everything seemed to happen in slow motion after that.

******

A fraction of a second before the second energy bolt screamed through the space she was occupying, Ardenn was roughly grabbed from behind and jerked off her feet. She found herself face down on the floor, another body covering hers. Dazed by the impact, she felt cloth brush against the back of her crest as the new arrival rose from atop her and soon thereafter she heard a metallic click, followed by screams and the sound of metal repeatedly striking flesh.

After a moment, all became quiet. Sensing that this might be her last chance, the young Sister began crawling in the opposite direction from where the fighting had been. Her own defensive skills, she knew, would be of little further use. Forewarned by the fate of their comrade, the new arrivals would certainly shoot first rather than trying to take her at close quarters again. She could not outrun them in the dark, but perhaps if she could feel out a side passage before the others remembered her she might be able to duck down it and hide.

Regrettably, they were not going to let her escape. As she started to rise hands grasped her shoulders, pressing her to the floor once more. Already in an awkward position, she could do little more that thrash ineffectively as her new assailant unceremoniously flipped her over and straddled her hips before she could scramble away. Envisioning the worst...that she had become some sort of sick prize among competing primitives and this latest assailant intended something more sinister than simply killing her...she continued to struggle; twisting, punching and clawing while belting out a continuous string of insults and curses in every language she knew. She might be beyond help, but she was determined to leave this incarnation as a fighter, not a victim.

With considerable effort, her adversary wrestled against her. He was shouting, flailing and grunting as well, but she refused to give him the satisfaction of cowing her. Finally, after managing to get a strong grip on her wrists and applying his greater weight, he forced her back to the ground and pinned her arms over her head. Her breath hissing heavily through her breather, the young Sister glared defiantly at the blackness where she imagined the vile creatureís face would be. "You may have your way with me but there are others close behind!" she spat. "You will not leave this place alive!"

The figure above her sighed, weariness intermixed with a hint of pain. Rather than the rending of garments she was expecting, the next sensation she felt was a soft, chaste kiss on her cheek. "I probably wonít leave here alive," a familiar and infinitely welcome voice tiredly whispered in her ear, "Thatís true. But in Valenís name Iím going to make sure you do, sweetheart."

Ardenn gasped, not sure if her heart had stopped...or if it had just started again after a long period of inactivity. "David?" she breathed. "Oh, Valen...it is...it is you..."

"Hell, yeah itís me," the young Ranger bemusedly murmured, resting his forehead against hers. "How many other Davids do you suppose are running around down here?"

"But...but you attacked me. Why?"

"I didnít attack you, Ardenn. You were going to bolt and I couldnít let you. You donít know where youíre going and who knows how many more lost Dilgar are hiding out down here? Besides, given your last demonstration I figured youíd still be a little feisty. Should I have let you beat me up? Everybody else has." With a grin Ardenn couldnít see, he regarded her fondly. "Nice outfit, by the way. Youíve definitely got the body for Spandex. You realize youíre supposed to wear something over a thermal suit, donít you?"

"If you think I appear scantily clad, you should see your mother."

"My mother in something skin-tight?" David softly snickered. "Now thereís a memorable mental image. Not that Dadís complaining, Iím sure." Easing off of Ardennís wrists, he leaned back, pulled her up into a sitting position and enfolded her in his embrace. "And Iím not complaining, either," he murmured, his voice catching slightly as his fingertips found their way into the folds of her crest. "Iíve missed you. You couldíve shown up in sackcloth and Iíd still think you the most beautiful creature in the universe." Clearing his throat, he forced humor he didnít feel back into his tone. "Now...whatís a nice girl like you doing in a place like this, hmm? I let you go off and visit your Sisters for a few days and youíre already trawling the bad side of town?"

Even as Ardennís heartbeat gradually slowed under her belovedís idle banter and comforting caresses a little voice warned her that something was not quite right, but she could not isolate the reason for her unease. Not that it seemed important at the moment. Burying her face in his chest, she felt the steady throb of his heart against her cheek and drew in a ragged, tremulous breath. It was him. No matter what might have happened, no matter what horrors he may have undergone, only her David could have said something so...so lame...at a moment like this. "That is not funny," she shakily murmured into him, certain that he could hear the tears in her voice. "I was...I thought I was coming to rescue you."

"You were coming to rescue me..." he quietly reproved, serious now. "Alone? In the dark? Do you understand how much danger you placed yourself in? How important your safety is to me? Donít you realize Iíd face death a thousand times to keep you from having to face it once?"

"So the human male holds the monopoly on taking risks for the people they love?" Ardenn countered, looking up sharply. "Do not thump your chest over me, David Sheridan. You are my One, but make no mistake...I stand beside you, not behind. When necessary, I can and I will defend the blessing the Universe has given me in you." Nestling against him once more she nudged his now-stilled hands with her crest, indicating he should resume his explorations. "Even if I do...ah, lose my way occasionally in the process," she quietly admitted, luxuriating in the brief flicker of arousal his touch engendered inside her even in this forsaken place. "Do not misunderstand, love...I was praying that you would come for me."

"Iím glad you came for me, too," David murmured softly, not even catching his intendedís double entendre at first. When he finally did, he chuckled. "Funny girl..." he whispered, drawing his reason for living more closely against him. "Itís still way too dangerous for you down here alone. Unless Minbari sight is a lot better than Iíve been told, you canít see in here. Twenty more meters and youíd have blundered into a Dilgar ambush. I managed to scatter them, but theyíll be back this way when they regroup...and theyíll be expecting trouble this time. Now," he continued, "weíve got a few minutes I think. Let me have a closer look at that arm."

"It is not a serious injury," the young Sister demurred, sensing from her belovedís labored breathing that he was likely hiding injuries of his own. "I hardly feel it."

"Thatís because the excitement hasnít worn off." Pulling away from her slightly, she felt David take her injured arm and gently turn it over, peeling the sleeve of her thermal suit back to examine the slash. "Youíre still pumped up on endorphins. You may not feel it yet, but I guarantee you will in a few minutes." She heard him fumbling around in his pocket and, after a moment, a cool astringent spray wafted over her skin, causing her to hiss from the chill. "Hmm...this is deeper than I thought," he conversationally mumbled as he gingerly probed the wound. "You know, Iíd almost forgotten how skillfully you can mop the floor with unsuspecting idiots when you set your mind to it. I donít think your Dilgar friend realized what a can of Minbari whup-ass he was popping open when he decided to mess with you."

Hearing the smile in his voice, Ardenn returned it and glanced down demurely. "Whoops-ass? That sounds like a term Susan would use. Is it like slipping and falling down?"

"Oh, yeah...he fell down, all right," the young Ranger amusedly snorted as he wrapped the now-sterilized knife cut with gauze. "You were slapping him around so hard I was starting to think he owed you money or something."

Ardenn regretfully shook her head. "I...I have never before had to defend myself against someone who actually intended to harm me. When I served your mother I knew...I understood that as her aide I was also her last line of defense should such have ever been required, but I did not enjoy hurting that person. Had he allowed me to run away, I would have." With hindsight, she felt the Dilgarís throat constricting unnaturally beneath her fingers once more and shivered. "Did I...did I kill him?" she quietly asked.

Davidís grin faded, and he was grateful Ardenn couldnít see his expression. The Dilgarís lifeless body lay in a crumpled heap only a few feet away, invisible to his beloved. Minbari, even petite ones, were incredibly strong for their size when compared to most other species and when that strength was enhanced even further by terror or rage...well, from what heíd seen as he rushed to pull her down she had crushed her attackerís windpipe and maybe even snapped his neck before tossing him aside like a rag doll. Not that he cared...the Dilgar was an enemy combatant and any creature laying unclean hands on his intended deserved to be throttled...but she would care. "Killed him? Are you kidding?" he clumsily sidestepped, adopting a bad Cockney accent. "Why luv, Eí ainít dead...Eís restiní!" Redirecting her attention with a caress, he continued, "Iím not worried about him. All Iím concerned about is you. Youíll have to take it easy on that arm for a while. Itís going to need a regen pack and some synthiskin when you get back."

Normally, Ardenn would have realized that he wasnít being completely honest about the fate of her assailant but her earlier unease had returned. "When...we...get back," she quietly corrected. "David, is something wrong?"

"What? You mean other than the fact weíre crawling around in a mine full of dead colonists and supposed-to-be dead Dilgar, the most important person in my universe was just in a knife fight and Iím running on way too many stims and way too little sleep? Nope...nothing I can put a finger on at the moment."

Peering ineffectively into the darkness where his voice originated, Ardenn frowned. Sarcasm. David always fell back on humor and sarcasm when he wanted to deflect attention away from uncomfortable subjects. It was his way of lying without lying. Drawing in on herself, she glanced around as if she could feel the darkness closing about her. "It...it seems very cold in here all of a sudden, beloved...and I do not mean the temperature."

"Well," David responded a touch too brightly, "Iíll guess Iíll have to warm you up." Making an exaggerated show of rubbing her arms, the young Ranger then drew her into his embrace once more. Leaning forward, he nuzzled her ear and murmured, "Youíre right...thereís a lot wrong at the moment. Youíre still in more danger than you know, and I have to protect you. Iím just...Iím really tired right now and thereís still so much to do." Lowering his voice to a whisper, he continued, "Thereís more to the darkness around you than the absence of light, so be very careful."

"What...what is going on?" Ardenn breathed back nervously. "David...let me help you. Whatever it is, we can face it together. I love you..."

"And thatís why youíre in danger!" David curtly breathed back. "I canít explain it right now...youíre just going to have to trust me and not get too curious. Can you do that?"

Nodding against him, Ardenn swallowed nervously and whispered, "Your mother thinks..."

David quickly cut her off, putting his hand over breather. "I can guess what she thinks!" he hissed. Rocking her in his arms, he kissed her cerulean patch and huskily murmured, "Just...trust me...please. I swear to you that nothing is going to touch you." Raising his voice a little, he peered around and added, "You hear that? No matter what happens...no matter how bad it gets, I wonít allow anything to touch her."

Her. Not you. It was true, then...they were not alone. David was issuing a warning even as he comforted her. Shivering, Ardenn drew herself more closely into her loverís embrace. What had happened to him in this place? What had he been through? She wanted to ask, but no longer dared to. "Touch me? No one touches me but you, beloved. I will allow no others."

David sighed. "Yeah, I know. Look, everything will be all right. I know I sound a little confused...itís the stims. Iíve shot up too many over the past couple of days. Just act normal. Do you understand?"

Ardenn did not completely, but she nodded her acquiescence anyway. "Now," he grunted, rising off of her and lifting her to her feet with considerable strain, "Iíd like nothing more than to hold you forever but Iíve got to get you...Iíve got to get everyone out of here. Youíre all at risk and itís my fault."

Beside him, Ardenn stiffened, feeling as if her whole body had turned to ice. She had finally pinned her unease down...or, more accurately, the caress of his lips against her skin had. "David?" she hesitantly stammered.

"Hmm?"

"A moment ago. You...you...kissed me."

"I know. Itís one of those nasty little habits I picked up from watching my folks. I thought it was gross when I was a kid, but with you I kind of like it...oh..." Pulling away from her abruptly, he held her at arms length. "You...youíre a Sister of Valeria now, right? You had to forswear me. Hey, itís okay...I understand. And Iím really sorry if I broke one of your rules or made you uncomfortable, but I canít help it."

"No!" she hissed. Reaching out to him, her hands sought and found his face. What she felt made her breath catch in her throat...cuts, swelling, bruises...he was indeed injured, far worse than she. But that was all secondary. "That is not what I meant! You kissed me! Beloved...where is your breathing apparatus? Why are you not wearing it?" She could feel her heart breaking all over again as the full implications settled in. "Oh, Valen!" she wailed as her now-shaking fingertips traced the outline of his lips, "You have been exposed!"

"Oh yeah...that. Well, um...I was just about to get to that part..."

******

There were few times David could remember when Ardenn...or any Minbari for that matter...seemed alien to him. Yes, they werenít particularly open with their emotions even under normal circumstances...but that didnít mean those emotions werenít there. Truth be told, Minbari tended to be far more passionate than humans, and restraining those passions so they could work together was one of the reasons they lived by ritual. Ritual and ceremony grounded them. Having grown up surrounded by his motherís people, the younger Sheridan understood this. He knew their personality quirks and nuances better, perhaps, than any other human.

But even with that experience and understanding heíd never considered himself truly one of them and their opinions of him, he knew, were similar. His motherís family, even Callenn, was unfailingly polite when he interacted with them but at the end of the day he was still veríkaff Min...an alien. Given all that, situations occasionally arose when they seemed inscrutable and this was definitely one of those times.

Never particularly adept at masking her true feelings, at least by her peopleís standards, his companionís expression as they wound their way through the maze of corridors would have done even the most aesthetic among the Chuídomo proud. Her features, those he could see through her breather, were studiously devoid of expression and her words revealed even less. In fact, she hadnít spoken at all except to offer the barest acknowledgements as the young Ranger guided her, forcing him to carry the conversation entirely. Frankly, escorting a smoldering, uncharacteristically quiet Ardenn was starting to make David even more nervous than he had been when he was alone. She wasnít just restraining her emotions. She was smothering them.

Perhaps, he speculated, the unease he felt was because Ardennís present demeanor was all too recognizable. Maybe it was that...a very human coping mechanism coming from a Minbari...which seemed so alien to him. The Shadow had been right in one respect Ė the big disadvantage emotional suppression had over emotional control was that suppression was temporary at best; a huge explosion invariably resulted when the mask slipped. And so, David supposed, he was eventually going to have to pay the piper when she finally went off.

And she would go off. Of all the doubts running through his head at that moment, this was one thing he was sure about. If heíd discovered anything about his beloved in the time since theyíd become a couple, it was that she was passionate about his well-being...and she could vent like a collapsing dam when she was unhappy.

She was certainly unhappy now. With an inward sigh, he stopped speculating and gave his loverís hand a reassuring squeeze. "This facility wasnít laid out with complexity in mind. I figure as long as we stick to the wider corridors and keep going uphill, weíll find the Cathedral eventually. The tram stop I got off at couldnít be far from it."

Silence.

David resisted the urge to look back. She might not be able to see yet, but her eyes would be boring in on him nonetheless. Her eyes...he didnít want to look into them, didnít want to see her inner light so muted. Surely she understood that the loss of the breather couldnít have been helped? Heíd explained the circumstances surrounding that event in excruciating detail and was as sure as he peed standing up that he would have to again once he found his parents...but, given Ardennís sometimes convoluted logic, he couldnít help getting the feeling that she somehow blamed him. Pausing, he leaned against the wall for a moment and tiredly rubbed his face. "Look...Iím sorry, sweetheart. I know youíre upset. I wish there were something I could say...some hope I could hold out...but I donít want to lie to you."

"Try me. I could use a good, convincing lie about now."

Well, curt responses beat listening to the wind whistle inside his skull. "You know I love you..."

"I do know. You are not lying very effectively."

"... And you will get through this."

She didnít respond to that.

David tried again. "Iíll always be with you, you know. Iíd spare you all this if I could..."

"You can do nothing to spare me now," Ardenn snapped, "so do not try to. It is far too late for empty platitudes."

The young Ranger winced at the verbal slap. He wasnít a telepath, but guessing what his lover was thinking was easy enough. She was peering down all the remaining cycles of her life, bitterly picturing them without him beside her. His mother, once she started to accept that his father wouldnít be returning, had gone through the same thing. Realizing that his next words would be a mistake but knowing he had to at least make the offer, David cleared his throat and continued, "Uh, there is something. Hardly anyone knows about us, Ardenn. Even fewer know that we were...um, intimate...and we never officially completed the joining rituals..."

There was a pause as his companion assimilated what he was saying. "Where...exactly...are you going with this, beloved?" the young Minbari finally asked in a low voice, the emphasis on the word Ďbelovedí and the hint of warning in her tone indicating that she knew precisely where he was headed.

"This... incident... doesnít have to define your life..." the young Ranger stumbled on, already seeing that his boot...or, more likely, hers...was about to become firmly embedded in his teeth but unable to avoid it. "You...after all this is over...I mean, there are a lot of nice guys out there, you know...good people. And youíre beautiful and smart and...and...well, like I said, you will get through this. If you should meet someone someday...uh...he wouldnít have to know about me, about us. You donít have to mourn forever...I wouldnít be jealous..."

David didnít get a chance to finish babbling. Reaching out, his suddenly animated companion found his shoulder and forcefully spun him around. "Do not breathe another word," Ardenn angrily scolded as she pushed him back against the wall. "You are more than an Ďincidentí in my life and you know it, so do not try to assuage your conscience by pretending my love for you is transferable to another. It is not, so before another inanity pops out of your mouth consider yourself blessed that I am assuming that the Ďstimsí you used or the poison inside you has degraded the connection between your brain and your voice."

She didnít realize how weak he actually was and he didnít want her to know. Caught off-balance, David struggled to keep his knees from buckling and maintain the illusion. "Donít you get it?" he retorted. "Iím dying! Right here in front of you! A couple of weeks, Ardenn...maybe three and Iíll be looking around wondering why I donít cast a shadow! Iím not afraid of it, but I donít want my last thought in this incarnation to be a guilt trip over what Iíve put you through!"

"What you have put me through? No, David," the young Minbari whispered, "I Ďget ití completely. It is you who does not. The Universe chose us for one another, not you...but I do have a solution to our problem." With a shove that sent the Ranger to the floor, she backed away and hastily began unfastening her breather. "There will be no guilt, no separation. I am not afraid either...not as long as I am with you..."

"Ardenn, donít...NO!" Realizing what she was trying to do, David scrambled to his feet with speed he didnít even know he had and launched himself at her. With a loud Ďwhuff!í he clumsily took her to the floor, trying to grab her hands and pull them away from her mask. "I donít know why youíre wearing that, but thereís got to be a good reason!" he grunted as he wrestled with her. "Youíre not taking it off!"

Her muscles fueled by desperation and anguish, Ardenn contorted beneath him. Finding the proper position, she arched her back and drove her knee directly into his crotch with all the force she could put behind it.

Taken completely by surprise, David saw stars. With a strangled whimper, what little strength he still retained fled like warmth after a Tuzanor sunset and he flopped aside, curled into a little ball of misery and gagged.

Scrambling back to her feet, the young Minbari unfastened the last strap, pulled the breather off and tossed it aside. "Now perhaps...you will understand," she hissed into the darkness. "You say you will never leave me and I believe you, yet I need more than memories and a promise. I need your presence, your voice, your touch...and I choose not to fritter away the rest of this incarnation longing for my next so I can have them again. We are Zhaífel...in our soul if not in words, and in the dark places you must walk I will walk beside you. I wore that mask because, like your mother, I am Ierísa Valen. Like your mother, I love my other half more than I love my own life." Breathing deeply, she waited for the death cloud to take hold.

Painfully, David rolled over, able to do little more than retch weakly and watch with dread for the event he was sure would come. Even in the dim emergency lighting of the passageway, he could see the mist hanging over her, just a meter or so above her head.

And as his beloved continued to stand waiting, the cloud didnít move.

"Something should be happening..." Ardenn whispered after a moment. Inhaling once more without any effect other than filling her lungs with cold, stale air, she looked up towards the ceiling and turned in a slow circle. "I should feel it...taste it. Entilízhaís logs described the sensation in detail..."

With a gurgle that was half sob and half laugh, the young Ranger looked up at her and found a weak semblance of his voice. "Child of Valen?" he rasped. "You? Should...should have figured..." Trailing off, he gestured half-heartedly at the undisturbed mist and continued, "Just...not your day, eh? The Universe has a different plan for you, I guess..."

Resolute in her decision a moment before, Ardenn crumpled, going down on her knees and burying her face in her hands. "I am partially human!" she cried. "Why is it not coming for me?"

Caught up in her personal agony, she didnít hear the quiet approach of a third person. It was not until a calming hand fell on her shoulder that Ardenn realized they were no longer alone. "Because...it seems you are not human enough," Delenn softly murmured as she knelt beside her, her voice echoing slightly off the tunnel walls.

"Not human enough..." Ardenn moaned into her hands, barely hearing the words of her companion.

"In spirit, perhaps," the older woman soothed, subtly using the tone of her voice to guide the young Sister back from despair. "But not in form...and praise Valen that this is so. Removing your breather was a very impulsive and dangerous act, and I do not understand why you did. If you became infected, there would be no hope for you."

Sucking in a tremulous breath, the young Sister forced herself to look up in her former mentorís direction. "Hope?" she hissed, shaking her head. "What is hope? I no longer know. Can you not see? David has lost his breather."

Delenn glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes searching the dusky passage for a moment before they fell on her prostrate son. The shock that sprang to her face was, mercifully, obscured from her companion. "So I notice," she slowly managed, calling on cycles of self-discipline to keep the dread out of her voice. Ardennís distress already provided the probable answer, but she asked nonetheless. "David? Were you...human enough?"

"When you see the Wind Swords next, you can tell them they do thorough work," David wheezed, hesitantly massaging his groin and trying to straighten his legs. "I might as well have been born in downtown Geneva for all the resistance my Minbari heritage provided. Where did you come from?"

"I heard your voices and came to investigate." If David knew of the Wind Swordsí involvement, Delenn reflected, he likely knew of hers as well. Not that her culpability mattered now. He was all that mattered. "Can you walk? The main chamber is not far."

The young Ranger rolled over on his back and tried to sit up, only to sink back to the floor with a huff. "Ardenn does thorough work, too," he groaned. "I donít think Iíd manage more than a couple of steps on my own. Iíll probably be sitting on bags of frozen vegetables for the next couple of days...once everything stops spinning, that is..."

"Please, Delenn," Ardenn interrupted, her voice nearly breaking. "There must be something you know...something you can do to help him. Anything..."

Delenn looked back to the source of Davidís most immediate troubles. Heartbroken at Davidís predicament and ashamed of her actions, the young woman was trying with all she could find within herself to keep from coming apart at the seams. The older woman understood how she felt and her sympathy went out to her, but there was no time...and perhaps no way, now...to ease her pain, their shared pain. "I can do nothing," she huskily murmured, her own distress leaking through for an instant. "But that does not mean nothing can be done. John and his former crewmates researched this phenomenon as thoroughly as they could when they came here all those cycles ago, and medical science is one of the few areas where human technical skill exceeds ours. Earthís xenobiology researchers may possess answers that we do not have."

It was not much in the way of comfort, but it was all Ardennís older friend had to offer. As Delenn hoped, her former aide latched onto the slim chance for all it was worth. "The humans...yes! Surely they would not let a weapon so deadly to them exist for so long without developing a counteragent!"

It was a logical conclusion but, knowing her husbandís people better, Delenn thought differently. The humans believed in hiding their vulnerabilities, sometimes even from themselves. It was probable that the people who could have found a solution...people like Stephen Franklin...did not even know the plague existed. To say so, however, would crush what little solace the young woman drew from her speculation and...who knew? It might even be true. "We will not know until we ask them," she pointed out, "and we cannot ask until we leave this place." Helping Ardenn to her feet, Delenn guided her over to her son. "But first things first. As you seem to have located and exploited the human maleís most vulnerable attack point in your effort to follow him across the veil, you get to help me carry him. It is the least you can do, I think."

"I have already done the least I could do," Ardenn abashedly murmured as she knelt. As long as there was some hope, however thin, she would maintain a calm faÁade. It would not last if his condition worsened, she knew, but for now... "David...I acted rashly. Can you forgive me?"

Reaching out, David lifted her chin. "You never need to ask me for forgiveness," he quietly responded. "Itís already yours." With a grunt he tried to sit up once more, this time successfully. "But the boys down there," he continued with a weak grin, "Theyíll take a little longer. Just...donít do that again, okay? We Sheridans are a little sensitive about the family jewels."

Humor again. David could wear the mask as well as she. Smiling faintly, Ardenn turned into his palm and kissed it. "I was referring to taking my mask off," she murmured. "As for the other...it does not hurt to remind you from time to time that your Sala can do more than kiss and caress."

"Is that right?" the now-embarrassed Ranger harrumphed. "Well, my testicles are telling my brain that your reminder hurt plenty this time. If you ever want a shot at having little Davids and Ardenns running around, just...um, try to concentrate on the kissing and caressing."

"Then this will have to suffice for now..." Leaning forward, the Minbari palmed Davidís cheek and gave him a quick kiss. "Valen willing, we will have time to for a more intimate reunion later." Behind her, Delenn made a show of clearing her throat and Ardenn glanced up, taking the hint. "We have much to...ah, discuss."

A momentís effort, and the two had the young Ranger unsteadily on his feet between them. As they started up the corridor once more, he remembered. He had to warn them, get them away. These two most of all. "Look... once we get back you both have to leave. Understand? You both have to get as far away from this place as you can."

"Not without..." Delenn began. Stumbling slightly, she paused and gasped, her free hand going to her brow. Quickly regaining her footing, she repeated, "Not without you, my son," as if nothing had happened. "We are all leaving together."

"Yes! Without me!" Oblivious to his motherís flash of discomfort, Davidís voice rose. "Listen, dammit!" he heatedly continued, "There wonít be any time! None at all! The two of you have to get out or youíll be first! Oh, Valen...I have to talk to Dad...I have to make him understand. I have to...to apologize for what Iíve done..."

"You will see him in a moment," Delenn placated. Lowering her voice, she leaned in. "You must say nothing else. We are no longer alone here." In a whisper, she added, "David...I know. Your father knows."

They werenít going to leave...not fast enough, anyway. The young Rangerís response was filled with despair. "How can you know anything?" he muttered despondently. "How can you have any fragging idea?"

Delenn closed her eyes and swallowed. Had the light been better, perhaps her companions would have noticed the dusky blue triangle...a leftover from her time as Satai and ally of the Vorlons...she knew had materialized on her forehead for a brief instant. David and Ardenn would not know what it meant but they would understand soon enough. They would certainly not understand the crawling nausea festering inside the pit of her stomach that accompanied it. That...terror, there was no other word for it...that was beyond adequate explanation.

No...given what he had probably been through, David might understand. As soon as he saw her, John surely would.

She had to get back to her husband. Against her better judgment she had left him alone and, without her, he would have no warning if the creature bypassed them and chose to strike at him first. Her son was right enough about one thing, at least. They were indeed out of time. Matters were about to become very complicated in their little corner of the Universe.

Trying to hurry her companions without appearing to rush, the older Minbari hissed, "Because, David, it is following us. I felt it for an instant...and it felt me."

******

With an almost audible hiss, the creature drew back, still stinging from her brief contact with the Verílann thrallís meager defenses. Pain, even minor pain, wasnít a sensation she was accustomed to, but the slight annoyance of tolerating it had been worthwhile. If nothing else, the encounter had at least established the Delenn-creatureís effective sensing range...and the fleeting contact had undoubtedly been far more uncomfortable to the primitive hybrid than it had been to her.

< How inefficient. Of what utility is the ability to detect your enemyís presence if you can do nothing about it? > The answer, of course, was simple. Under the old rules, the Verílannís pet hybrid would have been immune from direct attack by mutual agreement, much as Mr. Morden had been. It could be no other way. They both needed the latitude to perform their functions in the game, after all...cajoling, seducing or even forcing their fellow younglings into choosing a side. After the players were sorted, she would have been free to use her ability to aid the Adversariesí champion, just as Morden aided Justin. But those days were past. There were no more Verílann, nor were there rules any longer.

And, as with any gift of the First Ones, it did not come without a corresponding cost to the beneficiary. The Adversariesí programming suffered from the same weakness as all their tinkering involving the younglings; they did not trust their servants to operate independently. The thrallís talent, like most of the questionable enhancements the Adversary imbued, had not been given to her with the expectation that it would be used unsupervised. Without a Verílann watcher nearby, the associate had no real protection if she were singled out.

And that was exactly what she intended to do. When the time came, the thrallís detection talent would prove her undoing: It would be easy to separate the degenerate from her companions and neutralize her. But not yet. For the moment, she needed the rebellious former puppet to see that the message-bearer got the opportunity to repay his debt. There was time enough to determine her final disposition afterwards.

After ensuring no further obstacles would impede the stumbling trioís progress, the elder creature scuttled down a side passage and cast a portion of its essence forth to locate other potential adversaries. The Sheridan Nexus was stationary in the main chamber and would go nowhere without his little brood beside him, but there were others...Dilgar primitives and teams of thralls either lost in the catacombs or searching for the ones she had been following. The primitives concerned her little; the panicked remnants of their force were already leaderless and would probably perish even without her intercession. The others...Davidís AnlaíShok subordinates...were more calm, methodical and organized. What else could one expect from thralls? They were not much of a threat but...if they interfered...she would have no recourse other than slaughtering them.

She did not want that. The suppression of the Delenn-thrall would be destabilizing enough to the Nexus. While she had no reason to leave any other than him alive, wanton death and destruction might make him less cooperative, and she needed him cooperative. To ensure that, she was willing to make a few small concessions. Still, she needed to negate any influence the thralls might exert on unfolding events. And to do that...

Almost as if she were physically with them she followed the various teams, searching for something specific she could use. And, after a moment, she found it.

< Ah! A mind walker...how convenient... >

Her next course of action decided, the Shadow happily spun on her talons and scrambled up the wall towards a nearby air shaft.

******

"Well, this is just absofragginlutely fantastic," John muttered to himself as he limped over to retrieve his captured Dilgar rifle. "First, David winds up in the exact place I tell him to avoid. Then Ardenn takes off without saying anything to anybody. Now, Delenn..."

Picking up his weapon, he performed a quick function check. "Now, Delenn," he continued as he inspected the rifle, "just up and decides to check out some sound only she can hear." Popping the muzzle cap open, he exposed the focusing lens and blew the dust off before snapping it shut with a loud, sharp click. To the empty Cathedral, he announced, "Doesnít anyone I give a damn about understand the first rule of thrillers? DONíT WANDER OFF ALONE!"

Shaking his head in irritation he limped back to the point where he had been waiting with his wife until a few moments previously. Sheíd seemed normal enough...sheíd been wearing him out with her pacing and hand-wringing...but then sheíd cocked her head, muttered that she heard something and bolted off down a dark passage adjacent to the lifts. With no explanation given, naturally.

Well, shit...that bonecrest of hers was sensitive. A lot more sensitive than his ears. She couldíve picked up the sound of a pebble falling...they were in a mine after all. Or it mightíve been a heavy-breathing Dilgar cutthroat...or a razor-sharp talon scraping across the floor. Who knew what she was blindly running into?

"Oh, yeah...Honey?" he announced sarcastically into the air, "I almost forgot. Thereís a second rule, too...in a thriller, the token Minbari always gets whacked first." Lowering his voice to a mutter, he added, "Except, of course, when Ďold wounded guyí gets left behind to become Ďold shambling zombie guyí. Sleepless in Seattle, my ass...I knew I shouldíve gotten her to watch a slasher flick or two in with all those twentieth century romance vids..."

He should have done a lot of things, John supposed. He should have and he didnít. His wife wasnít one to wait around for others if something needed doing and she was certainly able to take care of herself...except there were bad people and possibly even worse things lurking around. And worried husbands, too.

It was quiet. Too quiet. Mentally whistling and trying not to look over his shoulder too often, John took small comfort in the third thriller rule...the one that says the young, innocent lovers usually survive.

Usually. That was the operative term. Unfortunately, John knew, youth and innocence rarely survived contact with the Shadows even if its bearers managed to. If they made it, both David and Ardenn would probably be changed people. That saddened him. He liked who they were now.

And here he was. Everyone else was off doing God knew what, and he was gimping around on a bum leg in a cavern full of dead people. Plenty of opportunity for him to engage in a little self-recrimination. "Hell of a leader you are...used to be commander of the Army of Light, the president of the known galaxy...and you canít even make your own family follow simple damn directions..."

"John!"

Delennís voice, faint but recognizable, interrupted his inner tirade and he turned to listen. Now even he could hear it...the echo of footfalls coming back up the passage. His previous annoyance forgotten, he moved to get a better look. "Yeah, Iím still here!" he called out. "Donít worry about me, okay? Iím not a pod person yet. Did you find anything?"

"Yes!" came his belovedís excited voice once more, now closer. "I have them! Both of them!"

Peering down the passage, John tapped his link and issued a recall to Nashon and his Rangers. Switching his attention between receiving the acknowledgements and watching, he could just about make them out as they began to emerge into the brighter light of the chamber. Three people...Delenn, Ardenn and...was that David? He looked like teetotal shit.

As the two women stumbled towards him, the elder Sheridan could see that they were near the end of their rope. His wife looked exhausted. At nearly 90 kilos, David was no lightweight and even with her Minbari strength Ardenn was having a tough time supporting him. Stepping forward, John grabbed the weakened Ranger around the midriff to take the burden off his companions, an act that elicited a sharp cry from the younger man. "A busted rib, yeah," he muttered under his breath as he adjusted his hold. "I can feel it moving around in there. I know what those are like...you must be hurting like hell...sorry..." As gently as he could, he eased David down against a collapsed roof support.

"He has lost his mask, Entilízha," Ardenn offered plaintively.

"I can see that, sweetheart," John murmured, trying to project more calm than he felt. Actually, it had been almost the first thing heíd noticed as they approached, and he knew it was disastrous. But he couldnít do anything about it at this point and to get upset would do nothing more than cause a chain reaction among his companions. "Just give me a little space so I can have a look at him, all right?"

Without warning, David reached out and grabbed his fatherís collar. "Dad...thereís no more time!" he hissed. "Youíve got to tell Mother and Ardenn to leave! Please!"

Ardenn started to protest, and the older Ranger held up a hand to silence her. His back to his two worried companions, he continued checking out Davidís injuries. "Your mother and Ardenn just wore themselves out lugging your heavy butt uphill from wherever they found you," he quietly murmured as he worked. "They need to rest a minute and we have to wait for your crew anyway. No oneís going anywhere...yet. How long since you were exposed?"

"How long? You know what timeís like down here. Two days, maybe? Long enough for me to feel it."

John merely grunted at that. He had no idea how long theyíd been underground either, and he couldnít risk reactivating the bomb to check its chronometer with Minbari present. Given its programming, it would likely react...explosively. "Dizziness, lack of energy, trouble breathing, a little confusion?"

"Yeah, something like that."

"Skin flaking off? Hair falling out? Loose teeth?"

David thought a moment. "Not that Iíve noticed."

"Good. Coughed up any blood yet?

"A little," the younger man admitted. "Look, thatís not important right now..."

John cut him off. "You bet your ass it is. Youíre in the preliminary stage of contamination, son. It sounds like the weapon hasnít attacked your genetic structure yet, so all you feel is weak and sick. The people you see here now took about a week to start showing more advanced symptoms. Hopefully your motherís contribution to your DNA is confusing it and buying you a little extra time, but itís adaptive and that wonít last. If weíre going to have any chance at all of reversing this, weíve got to get you back to Minbar immediately."

The younger man perked up. "You said thereís a chance?"

"Thereís always hope," John replied loudly. Leaning in close to his sonís ear, John lowered his voice to a whisper. "And yeah, thereís a chance, but I said that for Ardennís benefit, not yours. Sheís over there in a low hover trying to act like sheís not eavesdropping, but you and I both know she is. Sheís waiting for me to tell you not to worry because I know a solution."

"But you donít," David finished, glum again.

John chewed his lip, eyes downcast. "Not one Iíd bet the homeworld on," he finally rejoined. "Look, there may be an option on Minbar, but to call it personally and politically distasteful would be the understatement of the century...and Iím not sure itís even a real option anyway. Itís more of a hunch. If that doesnít pan out..."

"Then Iím history."

John mulled over his next words for a moment. "Maybe not," he hesitantly rejoined, "But if Iím right, you might find yourself wishing you were..."

"Entilízha?" Ardenn queried from behind them, an uncertain tremor in her voice.

Interrupted, John groaned and rubbed his temples. "One thing at a time, Ardenn. I havenít forgotten about you and I know youíre worried. Iíll tell you what I found as soon as Iím done with him." Focusing his attention back on his son, he cleared his throat and picked up where heíd left off. "As I was saying..."

"Entilízha!" the young Minbari cried out again, more urgently this time.

John paused again. Biting back on the epithet making its way to his lips, he started to turn. With exasperation in his voice, he barked, "Honey, canít it wait a second? One lousy second?"

"Forgive me, but it cannot! I need help! Something is wrong with Delenn!"

One quick look was all it took to get him moving. "Goddammit!" he snarled as he snatched up his rifle and stumbled towards his sonís distraught fiancťe, "Damn me... I should have known something like this would happen! I should have hustled the two of you out of here the minute she told me there might be a Shadow! She should never have come down here knowing what she might be facing!" Slapping his link, he shouted, "Nashon! I need you! Where the hell are you?"

******

"Nashon! I need you! Where the hell are you?"

"Just a few more seconds, Entilízha! We are almost there!"

His comrades trailing behind him, the Minbari Shai was pounding up the darkened passageway as quickly as he could manage. Entilízha sounded as if he were in extreme distress, and that distress had him concerned. Nashon had already seen that the human could ably handle Dilgar stragglers if the need arose, so something else must have befallen him and his family.

The young Ranger knew they were together...Entilízha would not have recalled them otherwise. Now they were in some sort of trouble that they could not handle without him. With dread, he considered the possibility that the Blessed Delennís suspicions might have been correct...and cursed himself for being a fool.

And there was the buzzing in his head. It happened occasionally, when telepaths became stressed. There was no helping it now...he would need to contact a healer when, or if, they returned.

Entilízha, the Blessed Delenn, a Sister of Valeria and his Alyt were all in extreme danger...and he was not in a position to immediately assist. If anything happened to a single one of them while under his care...the shame on the AnlaíShok and his family would be unimaginable. With added desperation, he increased his pace to almost a sprint.

"Are you certain this is the correct path, Shai?" one of his subordinates huffed behind him as they came up on an intersection in the corridor and paused. "I believe we have passed this place before." A course of low murmurs from behind lent weight to the observation.

The murmurs of his companions could not match those in his head. He was certain beyond doubt that this was the way. Their objective stood out in his mind like a shining beacon. Nashon raised his hand, indicating a turn, and plunged ahead for a few seconds...only to find himself pulling up short at yet another wall. "It should not be much farther," he grunted. "The tracking instruments indicate the central chamber should be just ahead."

"That is what the instruments have said for some time now," a second Ranger noted as he checked their coordinates and strove to gain his bearings in the dim lighting. "But I do not recall so many bends and turns. Could our equipment be in error?"

A doubter. This had to be dealt with now...before the fighting began. "I am relying on more than just the equipment!" the telepathic AnlaíShok barked. "I can feel their presence! I know this is the way!"

"But you should sense nothing. You must be able to see them."

The buzzing was in his ears again. Rubbing his temple and shaking his head, he recognized the symptoms...common among his kind when dealing with too many chattering minds. And those of his companions were chattering now. "I do not have an explanation," Nashon retorted, "nor do I owe one...but I do feel them!" The plight of those he was failing to protect was affecting his temper, he knew, but it could not be helped. The situation was grim. "Now...I lead, you follow! Is that too difficult to understand?"

As if he had been punched, the subordinate backpedaled. "No, Shai...it will be as you command."

"Very well, then." Motioning for his people to follow, he chose the uphill path. "Ready your weapons! We will have to protect Entilízha and his family immediately upon entering the chamber!"

Softly and almost without sound, PPGs and denníboks were drawn. Nashon knew they were close. He could feel air wafting softly against his cheek as he scanned ahead, mentally scenting for any hidden dangers. If there was a Shadow, the Blessed Delenn had indicated that it would come for him first. Well, so be it. He would be ready and if they were too late...at least he would have the honor of trying to avenge them.

Almost without warning, the passage widened and darkened, becoming a chamber. They were there. Automatically, the crew fanned out, weapons prepared for use. "It is as dark as night in here," the Ranger exec whispered. "The emergency lighting in this area appears to have been disabled completely. Ascertain Entilízhaís location and that of his family as well as you are able. If the situation warrants, protect them with your lives."

A few moments combing the area was all that was necessary for realization to dawn...at least for most. After a time, the AnlaíShok closest to Nashon softly touched his sleeve to gain his attention. "Shai," she began, "I do not think we are in the correct chamber. In truth, I do not think we are in a chamber at all."

"What do you mean?"

Leading the Minbari over to a large section of curved metal, she hung her head. "That is part of a plasteel barrier...one of those that originally sealed the mine. We are..."

"Where?"

The female held up the edge of her cloak and watched as the cloth fluttered. "Shai, do you feel the breeze?" she sadly whispered. "It is as dark as night here...because it is night here. I fear we are outside."

******

Deceiving the mind walker had required a great deal of subtlety on her part, but the manipulation had proven successful. Her primary focus had been him, but misleading all of them had been necessary. It was no easy task to craft a convincing enough illusion for such a large group...one at least convincing enough to keep the telepathís companions uncertain. Even thrall minds were not all alike. In the end, it had been just enough; some had expressed misgivings, but none had seen with sufficient clarity to override their leader. At least not until the point was moot.

If the Nexus was depending on assistance from his underlings, he would have a long wait. They were now running towards a destination three kilometers away...in the wrong direction. It was far enough for her purposes.

Perhaps they would thank her when the impact of their mistake wore off. After all, their alternative fate would have been far more unpleasant than merely being made into fools.

The AnlaíShok having been dealt with, she turned her attention to another small matter. From her perch above the Nexus in the main chamber, she lowered herself toward her prey, pausing just outside its sensing range...watching for it to let its guard down. She and the other thrall were trying to stay out of the way of the Nexus, but their attention...her attention...was focused on him. That was good.

It was time.

Without sound, she dropped onto a boulder above the Verílann associate. She sensed rather than heard a faint gasp from her target as it felt her proximity and alerted, but it was already too late to warn the others. Lashing out through the connection with as much negative energy as she felt the thrall hybrid could tolerate, she crushed the younglingís pitiable mental barriers nearly instantly and penetrated into its core mind. < It was a mistake for you to come, > she told the creature as she disconnected it from its body, < But you are here nonetheless and we play the games we were meant to play. > Rifling through the thoughts, hopes and dreams of its prey, she was impressed. For a youngling, she had lived an extraordinary life. < It would be interesting to poke around in here for a while, > the Shadow continued, < But other tasks call and I do not have the time, unfortunately. I will allow you to observe, but you cannot interfere. >

Physically divorced from the physical world, the thrall associate...Delenn, as her kind called her...tried to struggle anyway, but her efforts resulted in nothing more than amusement from the Shadowís perspective. < You are indeed spirited. Perhaps the human form you wear does suit you more than that of your own kind, after all. I want you to remember this experience, thrall. If ever you face one of us again, bear in mind how easily you were overcome...and remember that I did not kill you. >

******

Ardenn was near panic. "I...I thought she was right next to me! I only looked away for a second! And...and when I looked back, she was down on the ground as you see!"

At her feet, Delenn lay unconscious, only the steady rise and fall of her chest indicating she was alive at all. Her eyes, half-open, were colored jet black.

"She said Ďgoí...that one word was all she could utter before...before...this!" Ardenn continued. Gesturing helplessly, she whispered, "What has it done to her, Entilízha? What does that symbol mean?"

John was dumbfounded himself, but he knew he shouldnít be. The urge to fly into a rage was strong...the thing had reached out and slapped his wife down without even showing itself...but he couldnít afford to let go. It would panic his other two companions and, if there were two things no one could afford around a Shadow, they were rage and panic. Kneeling, he reached out and gently brushed a lock of hair out of his prostrate wifeís face, exposing the bright blue triangle now blazing on her forehead. As steadily as he could, he replied, "Itís the sigil of the Grey Council, sweetheart...and it means we have unwelcome company. When it comes...stay out of the way. Maybe if it thinks youíre harmless itíll leave you alone. And whatever you do," he added, "Donít look at it. Understand?"

The young Minbari nodded uncertainly. "I...I could take her," she ventured. "She is not heavy. I am not too tired to carry her back to the ship..."

From behind them, a new voice...filled with anguish and regret...chimed in. "You canít leave, Ardenn," David weakly intoned. "Not...not yet, anyway. Not before weíre finished here."

"We?" John incredulously queried, spinning on his son. What he saw almost stopped his heart. David unsteadily stood a few meters away. Beside him, watching their interplay with seeming curiosity was a creature that should have been resigned to history. In the fraction of a second that it took for the Shadowís presence to register, the elder Sheridanís rifle was drawing a bead on it. "DAVID, ITíS BESIDE YOU!" he shouted. "GET OUT OF THE FRAGGINí WAY!"

"I...I CANíT" the younger man almost cried. To his fatherís amazement, he stepped fully in front of the creature, placing himself directly in Johnís sights. "Lower your weapon, Dad!"

John made no move to comply. His gaze locked on the Shadow, he snarled, "HAVE YOU GONE CRAZY? If I do that, weíre all dead! Or worse! What the hell has gotten into you, Ranger! Is that thing inside your head?"

David winced as if slapped at the AnlaíShok reference, and his gaze flicked to Ardenn for a moment. As his father had instructed, she was keeping her eyes averted. What must she be thinking about him now? What would she think afterwards? He was betraying everything heíd ever believed in...almost everything... and it was going to get worse. "Iím not being influenced," he softly replied. "It has to be this way."

John swallowed. This wasnít a case of external control...his son was aiding the creature of his own free will. His rifle didnít waver but he was starting to understand. "What...what did it offer you?" he disappointedly growled. "You see your mother lying over there? What in the hell could a Shadow offer you that would make you tolerate that? Whatever it was, it was a LIE!"

"It saved my life, okay?" David shouted back. "It saved my life and it took care of the Dilgar trying to get at the weapons! Theyíre safe now!

John wanted to cry. It was a lie, after all. "Son," he almost wailed, "Your life hasnít been saved! Unless we do something for you RIGHT NOW, youíre just as dead as you would have been anyway! And the weapons...you felt the tremor? That was me nuking the colonyís spaceport! Iíd already taken care of that! The Dilgar canít bring any more transports in here...at least not before we have the chance to destroy the cloud ourselves!"

"I...I didnít know," David hesitantly stammered. His voice strengthening, he accusingly shouted, "I couldnít have known! You didnít tell me what you were going to do!"

"There wasnít time!" John hissed, moving the weaponís barrel a few millimeters and indicating Davidís companion. "But...ask it if it knew. Go ahead...ask it."

"Did you?" David whispered.

< Nothing happens on this world that I do not sense, AnlaíShok, > the creature responded. < But this does not alter the terms of our agreement, nor the consequences of failure. I still performed the service you requested, even though it was an unnecessary one. And I still delayed your death. Convince the Nexus to lower his weapon and submit. >

"If youíre so damned powerful, why donít you use your mental voodoo to convince him yourself? Why do you even need me?"

< Because this is your end of our agreement, not mine. >

Watching the two through his gun sights, John could understand Davidís side of the conversation. All he heard from the other was a high-pitched warble. But he could guess easily enough. "It does need you," he interrupted. "David, it needs you to influence me because it canít! It has no power over me, and it knows it! It canít touch me unless I let it, so it has to work through others! Donít you get it?"

The young Ranger was confused now. Looking from one to the other, he shouted, "No! I donít!"

The Shadowís eyes were glowing dangerously, his son was starting to panic and Johnís tone wasnít helping any, he realized. As well as he could under the circumstances, he lowered his voice and continued, "Son, Lorien told me long ago that I had to be the leader I could be when I was unafraid. In order to end the conflict, I had to be free enough to resist choosing a side. I had to be strong enough to tell the Vorlons and Shadows to leave...and threatening enough to make them obey me. I had to be able to see the First Ones as they really were; not as superior beings but just as...beings." Jerking his head to indicate behind him, he said, "If I were to let Ardenn look at your new friend, sheíd be so terrified sheíd probably wet her pants. Thatís how normal people see the Shadows...and how I saw them the first time. On Zíhaídum, I controlled my fear just long enough to fire a couple of times and then I ran like hell. I wasnít just trying to escape; I literally couldnít help it. After I fell...after Iíd had the first of the First Ones in my head...any tinkering the other First Ones might have done in the past was undone. Iím deprogrammed, and your Shadow knows this! Ardenn, your mother, your Rangers...or anyone else...they would see something horrible. All I see, David, is a big, black bug...one that badly needs to be squashed. And youíre the only thing keeping me from doing it! Now GET OUT OF THE WAY!"

It was true, David realized. While his father was close to being enraged, he didnít seem particularly afraid...certainly not like heíd been down in the Pit. Even now, after repeated exposure to the creature beside him, his skin still crawled because of its proximity.

The Shadow warbled again. Her other efforts thwarted, she played her trump card. < His observations are immaterial. I can still move far faster than he can engage me. Convince the Nexus to comply. There is still your female to consider...and his. >

"No! Tell me what you did to my mother first!"

< The Adversaries made her and the other thrall rulers sensitive to my kind, but that sensitivity works both ways. When activated, her talent provides me a conduit into her mind. Without the defenses of her former masters to contend with, I can hold that conduit open and exploit it. This weakness is not of our doing, it is that of the Verílann...and she knew that to face even one of my kind without them nearby to protect her would possibly result in this. >

"Youíve mind-wiped her!"

< No, David...such was my original intent but, fortunately for her, I reconsidered. She has some small value as a bargaining commodity, so consider her my good faith offering to the Nexus. Even at that, the programming of her former masters is strong within her. I cannot allow her to influence him unwisely, so I have assumed control. She is aware, but rendered harmless. Should matters be concluded to our mutual satisfaction, she will be allowed to recover. >

"Dad, it says mother is conscious of whatís happening but powerless to interfere. Sheíll be okay...if you cooperate. It says itís being merciful."

"Donít mistake manipulation for mercy," the elder Sheridan warned. "Sheís a hostage, not an observer. And youíre assuming itís telling the truth." And in his heart, he was also. The alternative...her being catatonic for life...was unthinkable. Setting his worries about Delenn aside for the moment, he continued, "Why are you doing this, son? This isnít about saving your life. I know you. That wouldnít be enough to make you help it."

"No...if it had just been my life, I wouldnít be standing here now."

"And you didnít have anything else to offer, did you? I thought it wouldnít have anything you wanted, but itís just the opposite, isnít it? You donít have anything it wants, so you canít fulfill your end of the deal...not alone, anyway." In consternation, John chewed his lip for a moment. "If itís not your life it wants, what would it do if I just told it to screw off?" he finally asked.

< Unfortunately for your female, she is not as sensitized to me. I will have to be far more...invasive...to offer her the choice we spoke of than I was with your parent. As you seem to be failing with your payment, do you prefer to observe or will you wait elsewhere for me to posthumously announce her decision? >

Feeling totally helpless, David gazed over at his fiancée. "Dad...please...lower your rifle...I canít let it have her..."

Looking from his sonís eyes and the subject of his gaze, John finally understood what it was about...what it was all about. His rifle barrel wavered slightly. "Thatís how it got to you, isnít it? It wants you to live, so it made you choose...between me and Ardenn. And you chose her."

"David?" Ardenn breathed. "No! You cannot do this!"

"Yes, honey, he can...and he should," John corrected. "Iíve had my moment in the sun. You deserve yours." With a resigned snort, he threw his weapon aside and turned, facing the crumpled figure that was his wife. "Itís probably a good thing sheís incapable of moving right now," he muttered at David. "You and Ardenn had better be safely in another galaxy when your mother recovers. Sheís going to rip you a new asshole if you arenít."

< There is a reason he is the Nexus, > the Shadow chattered happily. < He is quite perceptive, do you not think? You have done well. I release you from your obligation. >

That was all David had been waiting for. His hands almost a blur, he sprang his denníbok and lashed out at the creature with all the force he could put behind the blow. But as fast as he was, the Shadow was faster. Shrugging off the attack as if it were nothing, it countered with a flick of its forelimb and caught the Ranger fully in the chest. With a loud Ďwhuff!í David slammed into an outcropping and went down on his knees.

"STOP!" John shouted before things could disintegrate further. To the Shadow, he growled, "I know you can understand me. You have what you wanted. Let them leave."

The creature chattered back at him, but it appeared to get the message. "Are you all right, son?"

The younger man coughed and groaned. Dragging himself back to his feet, he wiped blood from his nose with his sleeve. "Yeah...no worse off than I was, I guess. Dad...please believe me...Iím sorry about all this."

Limping over to the younger man, John took him by the shoulders and pulled him in close. "Donít be sorry," he murmured. "Loving someone means never having to say youíre sorry, and I love you." Pressing his forehead against his sonís, he lowered his voice and hissed, "Now, I need you to get your mother and Ardenn back to the ship. Can you make it that far?"

"I think so..."

"There is no think! You have to do this, understand? Once Iím alone with it, there wonít be much time! Get back, chirp me on my link to let me know youíre there...and then blast out of here as fast as your ship will carry you!" Tilting his head in the general direction of the chamberís center, he whispered, "This isnít over yet. If things go south, I still have a friend in here...Iíll still have options. You get my drift?"

And David understood. Tears began streaming down his face.

"Donít break on me!" John continued, giving the younger man a gentle shake. "And donít feel guilty! You made the right choice, David! Choosing the future over the past is always the right choice!"

"Mother isnít going to think so. Sheíll hate me."

"Your mother will hate the position you were put in...she wonít hate you!" John exhorted. "Itíll be hard for her but sheíll agree...trust me! Listen to me! She...will...need...you!"

"And Iíll be there, Dad. Iíll be there for her."

"I know. I know you will. Youíre a good son...and a fine man." Leaning in close, he whispered, "And I want you to stay that way. When you get back to the ship, youíll have to go into isolation or else youíll infect the humans in your crew. In the worst case, you have about four or five days before too much damage is done for you to recover. For you to have a chance at all, someone...your mother, Ardenn, whoever...is going to have to go to the Wind Swords and make a deal with them. The Wind Swords, understand?"

"You think they have an antidote?"

"I donít have any proof, but theyíre not stupid. No one makes a doomsday weapon without a failsafe. Minbari physiology is too close to human for them to risk us reverse engineering their goop and throwing it back at them."

When his son nodded, John released him and guided him over to their two waiting companions. Leaning over Delenn, John desperately wished he could kiss her. "Well, sweetheart...if our new friend isnít lying to me, youíve seen everything. Go easy on our son, okay? He made the best decision he could under the circumstances. He made the one Iíd have made in his place. Hopefully, Iíll see you soon. If not..." he paused and swallowed. "Well, if not, then thereís still that place where no shadows fall waiting for us. You donít need to rush...Iíll be there, and Iím patient." Reaching out, he gave her crest a quick caress and traced the contour of her cheekbone before turning to a teary Ardenn. "You can take her now. Hopefully, sheíll start to come out of it as soon as you leave."

Kneeling to scoop her former mentor up, the young Sister murmured, "I do not deserve this."

"It wasnít your decision to make. Case closed. Now...go."

******

Everything that could have been said was said. John took a moment to watch them leave, stalling his companion to ensure that whatever was about to happen didnít have an audience. If these were to be his final moments in this incarnation, he didnít want the last memory of him to be his dismemberment under a monsterís claws.

With a last look back, David and Ardenn passed through the Cathedralís entrance. Snorting defiantly, John turned to face the patiently waiting Shadow. "Well, here we are. Seeing as you havenít tried to crawl through my coverall yet, I assume we need to talk."

The Shadowís eyes brightened. Rising up on its hind legs, it chattered at him.

"Youíre going to have to do better than that. Iím not afraid of you, but that doesnít mean I understand your language. Hell...your raceís name alone is ten thousand letters long," Reaching up, he loosened his collar. "I suppose that means youíre going to have to link with me. Well, címon!" he cajoled as the creature drew near. "Donít be afraid...Iíll be gentle."

As the first slender tendrils started snaking through his hair, he murmured, "It wonít be too hard on you...you might even like it. Trust me." To his surprise, it was Delennís voice that answered.

< You are the Nexus. You are perhaps the only creature left on this side of the Rim I do trust. >

"So...since you went to all this trouble...what do you want?"

< A second chance... >

To Be Continued...

******

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