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Earth Year 2285
Anla'Shok Na stared impassively at the collection of ships holding in loose formation around the mottled brown planet under her feet. At first glance, the fleet she had assembled looked large and impressive, but to her experienced eye they were far too few. Too few, and not the right type. She'd managed to cobble together a few heavies...she had the EA Warlock destroyer Odyssey, a ship drafted into the cause because its commander owed her a favor, her old friends from the Far Traveler and, surprisingly, the Mars Republic's only Victory-class starship, the Olympus Mons...but most of her ships were small, fast attack White Stars. They were nimble ships that could certainly hold their own against much larger forces when defenses were prepared and the enemy was known, but in a major meeting engagement they could very well be chewed to pieces if they did not have adequate supporting fires from heavier, more robust warcraft. And the Interim Council, in its somewhat-less-than infinite wisdom, had delegated almost all other available capital warships to guarding their homeworlds.
Susan knew that the Rangers serving under her were the best equipped and best trained fighters the Alliance had to offer but repelling an invasion required more than training, equipment and heart. It required a good, flexible base plan with detailed contingency branches in case things went south. It required sequels and transitional options. It required extensive modeling and correlation of forces and means to ensure that the enemy was met with the right mix of capabilities to ensure victory. Most of all, it required combat power and the ability to sustain it.
Looking out over her fleet, she knew she had none of those things. Her plan essentially consisted of waiting for the enemy to strike and hoping that, between the Alliance forces present in-system and native warships, they could be held off long enough for her small task force to reinforce. What happened after that...well, as plans went, it wasn't much of one. If the Dilgar attacked anywhere with sufficient force, Susan knew, any big ships present would be sitting ducks with massive red bull's-eyes painted on them. Even Victory-class starships were vulnerable during close-in engagements...fights in which their main batteries would be nearly useless. With their backs to planets, their captains would have no room to maneuver and would be forced entirely to the defense.
Delenn might not be a warrior in the traditional sense, the Anla'Shok leader ruminated, but she'd been right about one thing: Victories were not achieved by defending. If the Dilgar were as strong as she suspected...strong enough, in her opinion, to believe they had a chance at executing a limited incursion into Alliance space and holding their gains afterwards...she needed more. For one thing, she needed the major powers to allocate ships from their own fleets to bolster the little she had. For another, she needed hard intelligence...enemy basing locations, ship concentrations and numbers, troop strengths...the list went on and on. And getting that intelligence was why she was here. In a sense, she had come to the one place she knew answers might be forthcoming. In a sense, she had come...home.
And, while she was away, someone had left the old homestead a mess. One large, defunct space station might or might not have been a navigational hazard, but millions of unpredictably orbiting chunks of space flotsam certainly were. Outside the viewport, an instantly-recognizable section of debris slid by. <At least the C & C window survived...> she thought as the jagged, slowly-rotating section of clearsteel disappeared from view. Any other time, the sight might have made her nostalgic. Now, all she found herself wishing was that the Earth Alliance had put more money into cleaning the place up.
Sighing, she turned away from the viewport. She missed the old days...everything had seemed so much more clear-cut on Babylon 5...but it was the past and reliving it wasn't on the agenda for today. She'd sat on her hands long enough. Her old acquaintance had undoubtedly noted their presence by now and, since no warning shots had crossed her bow yet, she felt relatively confidant she'd probably survive a visit. Unfortunately, she couldn't just up and leave...not without dealing with a pesky problem first...
"I know what you think of us right now," The Brakiri representative murmured, coming up beside her and gazing at the planet below. "You think we have made a mistake."
"Yeah...you've got that right," Susan responded under her breath. "In more ways than one."
"Your...fondness...for our former President has been often noted by the Advisory Council over the last four years," the councilor continued, as if he hadn't even heard her reply. "It is understandable...the two of you have known each other for a long time and endured much hardship together."
Susan bit back the sarcastic retort forming on her lips at the veiled implication and substituted a more neutral one. "What do you mean?" she tersely asked, hoping the Council's watchdog would catch the warning in her tone before he stupidly intimated anything she'd have to hurt him for.
"Just that you should accept that it was her time to go," her unwelcome guest airily replied with a wave of his hand. "Nothing more. You should not take it personally, nor should she. Delenn's presidency was merely an extension of her husband's and even you must acknowledge it was not without missteps. They were the people we needed for that time, but the Sheridan Era of the Interstellar Alliance is now...over. Now that the unpleasant deed is done, you ought to know that Delenn's ouster was inevitable, even had this crisis not manifested."
"I see," Susan noted, her brow furrowing. "So this Dilgar...incident...was the perfect opportunity for a little coup de etat, eh?"
The Brakiri frowned in mild distaste. "I dislike the word 'coup', Anla'Shok Na. We have moved beyond such primitive measures. Even before he was president, Sheridan enjoyed almost universal support from the League. We believed. Believed! And he never failed us. Yes, we suffered heavy losses during the Shadow War, but our people survived...and we recognized that his leadership was in large measure responsible for that. Afterwards, we followed him willingly...even the Drazi followed. But Delenn..."
"Delenn has poured her whole life into creating the Alliance we have today," Susan interrupted flatly. "You have no idea of the sacrifices she's made to create a better future for everybody."
The delegate shook his head. "So you say," he countered. "From your perspective, I am sure it seems so...but the Delenn you know is not the Delenn we know. The Delenn we know never invited a single League representative to a War Council meeting. The Delenn we know was willing, even eager to sacrifice our combined fleet in a suicidal assault on Z'ha'dum...an act which would have left all our homeworlds completely defenseless even as fully a third of her fleet remained to protect hers. The Delenn we know crafted the structure of this Alliance without consulting any of the League representatives and only told us of her plan once it was complete." With a sigh, he concluded, "John Sheridan is human, and humans we consider equals. Delenn...she may look like you but she is not of you. Behind her eyes...under her human skin she is still a Minbari and they accept none as their equals. She and her people still think us children, she does not trust us and we do not trust her in return."
"And what...exactly...do you plan to follow this so-called 'Sheridan Era' with?"
Turning to face her, the Brakiri executed a small bow. "Why, the League Era, of course," he blithely stated as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "The time has come for a redistribution...yes, a redistribution of influence so our interests are truly represented. For far too long, the smaller powers have watched while your empire, the Minbari, the Centauri and the Narn have managed galactic events..."
"Excuse me?" Susan incredulously interrupted. "You call this managing? Gesturing at the holographic status board displayed on her flagship's bridge, she indicated the haphazard arrangement of indicators. "You guys just don't get it, do you? This isn't managing anything, this is war! And your governing committee has got our ships spread so thinly that we can't defend anywhere with a reasonable chance of success!"
"The Committee believes that if we defend any point strongly enough, the enemy will seek a softer target," the councilor countered. "We do not need overwhelming force, just enough to deter. And I would be careful of distancing yourself from YOUR government, Anla'Shok Na. Some believe that you are also a holdover of the Sheridan Era and should consider...well, it is not something we need to discuss now, of course."
"I live for the One and die for the One," Susan growled warningly. "And neither of those Ones are sitting on your committee right now. If I were you, I'd give that a lot of thought before you try to slip a bureaucratic dagger through my ribs...Councilor."
"No threat was intended," the Brakiri condescendingly soothed. Almost as if speaking to an errant child, he continued, "Although the committee will want a full accounting from you when this crisis has passed. We do not recall authorizing this fleet you assembled, and many of these ships could be protecting Alliance members right now. But that can be dealt with later. For now, you will bring this matter to a successful conclusion so we can move on to more necessary and important reforms."
Unable to tolerate any further conversation, the Ranger leader shook her head in resignation. "Before you and your merry band of henchmen start counting your chickens before they're hatched, advise them not to forget that the enemy gets a vote? They haven't cast their ballot yet, and my gut tells me we're going to feel it when they do. Now, if you don't mind, I've got fleet business to deal with. Try not to...reform...anything while I'm gone."
<Puuut one foot... in front of... the ooother...> David idiotically hummed to himself as he plodded up the mine's central passage. <And soon, you'll be walkin' cross the flo -oo -oor...Puuut one foot in front of the ooother...and soon, you'll be walkin' out that door...>
Valen, he was tired. Tired and delirious and getting worse. His ability to concentrate on anything for very long was totally shot...and the worst thing was that he was aware of it. It was like he would be totally together one minute and the next...he would be standing outside himself, watching helplessly while his body spun off into moron-land with a drunkard at the controls. The song, which for some reason he couldn't get out of his head, was from an ancient holiday vid he'd watched at his grandparent's farmhouse on Earth as a child...primitive little clay characters dancing around in the snow. At least it kept him moving.
<Puuut one foot...in front of...the ooother...> With a barely suppressed groan, he shook his head. No, not again. He couldn't stand having the Winter Warlock tumbling through his gray matter any more...not even to save Christmas for all the good little boys and girls. Best to find something else to fixate on...
Ahead of him, his roving eyes fell on Ardenn as she gingerly stepped around debris in the corridor...doing her best to avoid banging his mother against the wall...and off he went again; his feverish mind now spinning in a direction totally unrelated to children or Christmas. <So graceful...> the interloper wearing David's body idly mused as the fabric of her thermal suit stretched taut across the curve of her backside. <In Valen's Name, Ardenn, the Universe blessed you with a firm, shapely ass...and I'd give almost anything to be peeling us out of these suits right now so I could bend you over and...>
David's Minbari companion bemusedly glanced over her shoulder. "Then you must have more strength remaining than I thought," she casually observed.
Shaken out of his reverie, David dumbly looked at her. "Huh?"
If Ardenn had been human, she would have raised an eyebrow. Cocking her head and looking askance at him, she clarified, "You must have more strength remaining than I thought...if making love to me in the Warrior manner is truly your desire."
Mortified, the young man's eyes went wide and his hands reflexively flew to his mouth. "Oh, shit," he mumbled through his fingers. "Err...I just said that out loud, didn't I?"
"Yes, you did," the young Sister archly answered. "Normally, such personal...proclivities...are not vocalized between partners until the Shan'fal. If you are offering to begin the ritual now, I am afraid I must decline. The timing of your request is rather...inconvenient."
Her words were teasing, but she didn't look or sound particularly amused. "Crap...I just can't do anything right today, can I?" David muttered under his breath.
"I did not say that."
The young Ranger's face reddened. "You know, just because a stray neuron misfires in my head doesn't mean I'm going to...ah, act on the impulse it dredges up. I didn't mean what I said...um...like it probably sounded. You do have a...a nice ass, you understand, but I was thinking...ah, hell, I'm not even sure what I'm thinking from minute to minute any more." Realizing he was just digging himself in deeper, he wisely decided to shut up. "I meant no disrespect." Ardenn stopped and turned to face him, striving to keep her expression serious. If he could still babble, then perhaps there was hope. "I know what you meant, David. Mating in the Warrior position is ritually acceptable, although given our comparative anatomies I believe we should concentrate on face to face encounters...at least until we become more experienced with one another. At this moment, however, we have other concerns. I need you to stop talking and cease that strange buzzing noise in your throat. I cannot listen for trouble ahead when all I hear is you fantasizing about taking me from behind."
'Ritually acceptable'. Now there was a jones-crushing observation if David had ever heard one. Well, so much for that fantasy. But there were others. David could be quite imaginative where Ardenn was concerned...even when he wasn't delirious. With the added effect of the poison in his system, some of his relatively normal fantasies were weaving themselves into delusions she would no doubt consider bizarre. <C'mon, just hold it together a little longer, Ranger. She doesn't need any more worries. Don't let her see how bad off you really are...>
With effort, he ratcheted down the next feverish suggestion that danced through his head before it found its way to his lips. "I know...I'm not much help. My thoughts...they're just bouncing all over the place and I can't seem to make it stop. I'm trying to keep myself under control, but I've been on the go almost continuously since I was exposed. Not that...err...that's any excuse," he hastily added, "but, yeah, I should keep my imagination to myself."
Ardenn's expression softened and she managed a wan smile for his benefit. "Probably so," she agreed, "at least for now. I know you are unwell and it is difficult, but please try to stay quiet. We will find a place to rest in a moment."
"I'll do my best."
"I know you will. You never do any less."
They started walking again. At the moment, David could have debated that last observation. He certainly didn't feel like he'd done his best. Hell, his own beloved didn't even trust him to get them out in one piece. He had tried to take the lead at first, reasoning that he would at least make a good booby trap tripwire should any stray Dilgar be laying another ambush ahead of them. It hadn't worked out that way. He and Ardenn had comically jockeyed for the lead position for the first few meters in the main passage before she rightly pointed out that she'd hear trouble long before he'd see it. Sighing his acknowledgement, he'd bowed to the inevitable and taken the rear...certain that Ardenn was thinking him weaker than she'd ever envisioned him to be. And blurting out that he wanted to play bupkus with her derriere probably didn't strengthen his case much, either.
What David didn't realize, of course, was that Ardenn had a fairly good understanding of everything he was thinking. It had been obvious to her for some time that the poison he had inhaled was loosening his grip on reality and she was more worried about him, truth be told, than she was about the unconscious woman in her arms. Unfortunately, she could only help one person at a time and David was at least still able to shuffle along under his own power. Besides being deathly ill, his self-confidence had also been seriously shaken and she knew her seeming aloofness was not helping. They just needed to get out. Once he and Delenn were safely in the ship's medical bay, she would be able to concentrate wholly on giving him the support he needed.
"Handle problems...sequentially," she murmured to herself. In her arms, she could feel the steady rise and fall of her former mentor's chest. Although the older woman had not moved appreciably, it seemed to her that her respiration was becoming stronger and more regular. She might even regain consciousness shortly. Stretching her senses to their limit, she determined that the way ahead was quiet, and it was good that it was so...Delenn was not particularly heavy, but the muscles in her arms and shoulders were burning from continuous use and David was mumbling again. This time, it was a scenario that involved coating her pleasure centers with something called 'maple syrup' and then removing said substance with his tongue...which was actually starting to sound rather interesting...
Ardenn rolled her eyes. If her companion could not help fantasizing, the least he could do was provide her with one she would appreciate in this situation, like a good body massage. Perhaps one with candlelight and warmed moisturizing oils...
Yes, they both definitely needed to take that break.
Ascertaining that this was as good a time to rest as any, she motioned her companion over to the wall, knelt and placed her burden on the ground. The two squatted in silence for a moment, gazing down at Delenn, until Ardenn slid a tentative finger along David's jawline. "Are you still with me, beloved?" she softly asked when he looked up at her.
"Yeah...just thinking this time. Sorry about the...uh, the rambling."
"Were you...rambling...as you say?" the young Sister demurred, suppressing a smile. "Strange...I did not seem to hear it." Gently, she brushed a stray strand of hair out of his face. When she was sure she had his attention, she continued, "But I do want you to hear me. Nothing has changed between us. Do not mistake my apprehension regarding this predicament for uncertainty about you. You are still my sun, my moon and my stars."
"Thanks...but to be honest, I'm not feeling much like a heavenly body right now. Lower than whale shit is a better description."
"I do not know what 'whale shit' is, beloved, but I can guess. I am sorry you were forced to...to choose...I can never fill the void your father leaves..."
"No...no...you don't understand," David hastened to explain, putting an arm around her and pulling her closer. "But Dad did, I think. I...sweetheart, I didn't choose between the two of you. That wasn't what it was about. The choice was between you and me...and I would die for you in a heartbeat, but the Shadow didn't want me dead. She took your image and tried to...well..."
David was grateful for the emergency lighting. At least she couldn't see him blush. "Well, she tried to...ah, tempt me," he mumbled. "Given that it was your form she used, you can probably figure out how." Ardenn's brow ridge furrowed and the young man managed a chuckle. "Hey," he chided, "she was imaginative, but give me some credit, huh? Even after what I've been through, I know the difference between the woman I love and a doppelganger. When that didn't work, she threatened to make you choose between us."
The only thing that surprised her about David's revelation was that she was not surprised. "You and your mother..." she muttered, shaking her head. "And so you chose not to allow me to choose. David, I am no more valuable than you or anyone else. I may not have your training, but for people I love I can accept sacrifice as readily as any Anla'Shok. I am perfectly capable of making those kinds of decisions."
"I know you are," the young Ranger agreed, "and I did what I did for that very reason. The Shadow read me like a book, sweetheart...and I think what scared me most about her wasn't that she was horrifying or malicious or knew all my secrets. What really scared me was that she understood what she saw. She understood how you affect me, how my love for you had displaced my instinct for self-preservation onto you. She knew that any threat she made against my life would be futile - I wasn't afraid to die - but she also knew that the prospect of having to live without you at my side terrified me. And she knew I'd cooperate in anything to keep her from giving you the opportunity to make that sacrifice."
"So...you were protecting me...not from the Shadow, but from myself."
"In a way...yeah." Wearily, he released Ardenn's shoulder and slumped back against the wall with a sigh. Almost to himself, he continued, "I'd always wondered how I'd handle myself if I came face to face with the Ancient Enemy. I prayed I'd have the strength of spirit to die heroically just like the Anla'Shok of my father's day did...fighting through my fear until my body finally failed and, at the end, cursing them with my last breath. Well, when that ultimate test actually presented itself I wish it could've been that simple, but nothing ever is. She was malevolent and predatory, but not really the 'evil' creature I expected...and I needed her help. I thought I was clever enough to beat her at her own game. Honey, she outmaneuvered me so thoroughly that I actually found myself wanting to help her even though I knew I was being manipulated the whole time. She may be the Ancient Enemy, but she's also the last of her kind. That's got to be lonely, even for one of the Elder Races."
"I think I know that feeling," Ardenn muttered under her breath. More loudly, she observed, "And is it wrong to feel that way? It is perhaps arrogant to believe that we can help such a fallen creature find redemption, but should that stop us from making the effort? Some among the Religious caste say that even Valen pitied the Ancient Enemy and prayed that one day they would find the Light."
Leaning in close to her, he whispered, "We don't advertise it, but the Anla'Shok teach that he did. I'm not Valen, though...and in this case my arrogance ended up costing my father his life." Resting his head on his knees, he reached down and brushed a wisp of hair out of his mother's face. "Can you hear me, Mother?" he whispered. "I'm so sorry. It should have been me. I wish I could crawl away and die right now."
"So...you believe your death is fair punishment for being manipulated?" Ardenn sadly murmured. "That your mother losing her son as payment for losing her husband will balance the scales in her eyes? Those are two negatives, my One...there is no balance there." Her voice dropping, she concluded, "And then there is me. Am I...is my love for you so easily cast aside that you would rather die here than have it?"
David's head shot up. "Of course not! You're the brightest star in my sky and you always will be! I...my training, my oath, my duty...Ardenn, I didn't know what to do! I should have known! I should have been better! I should have handled this whole mess differently!" With that, he looked away. "And now look at all the damage I've done. I just feel...ashamed. Guilty."
"That word, beloved...that is the one I was waiting to hear," Ardenn whispered. Reaching over, she placed a finger under David's chin and gently turned his head back to her. "Guilt, I have come to realize, is the bane of the Sheridan family...and I am weary of all the unjustified self-recrimination. Your parents are wise and compassionate and I love them, but it is long past time you unlearned a few of the lessons they inadvertently taught you. And the first is this: One mind can indeed change the universe as your mother says, beloved," she observed, sticking a finger in his chest, "but that is only true within the spheres that mind has the power to influence. I have told Delenn this, and I will tell you: Beware of allowing your capacity for...for guilt...to exceed your span of control. Do not automatically assume responsibility for the choices others make...or the results. To do so is to walk a very sad, unrewarding path."
"I can't avoid taking those responsibilities, sweetheart. I'm Anla'Shok."
"And is your father not also? David, he is Entil'zha...do you know what the term truly means? He is first among the Anla'Shok and more! Human or not, to many of our people he is considered Valen's living representative! Yet you blame yourself for the sacrifice that he...a far more experienced and pragmatic warrior than you...chose to make. You may have brought the Shadow to him, but he chose his own actions afterwards." Leaning in close to his ear, she whispered, "Had you been in your prime when you met the creature, beloved...at your full strength and alertness...could you have defeated it unaided?"
David shook his head. "By myself? Not a chance. The only reason I could even see it was because it let me. It could have bent my mind all over the place...or even killed me without letting me know it was there."
"Can Entil'zha defeat it? Does he have a better chance of doing so than you?"
David started to say no outright, but then paused. "I...maybe. Physically she can tear him apart, but if what he told me is true she doesn't have the kind of sensory influence over him that she does over others. She can't mislead him as easily as she did me. And she's already let us go, so she can't threaten him with hostages." Mulling it over, he finally conceded, "Yeah, he's probably got a better shot at it than I did...a damn sight better one."
Ardenn nodded and smiled softly. Her beloved was perking up as he considered the possibility further...which was what she intended. "That is also what I wanted to hear. You do see it, do you not? You took actions that perhaps damaged your pride but they were well-reasoned, even if unconsciously so. You recognized that you were inadequate for a task that would result in needless deaths if unsuccessful, so you stepped aside to allow a more capable individual to carry the effort. And who is more capable in this unique situation than Entil'zha himself? There is no shame in that, my heart...none at all...and I love you no less. I know you are concerned that others may not think you the strongest, bravest, most selfless Anla'Shok over this, but the opinions of others mean nothing to me. To me, you will always be those things because you are mine. Yours is the wing I shelter under and, beyond that, I could never ask any more of you."
Caught up in their own concerns, both the young people had almost forgotten that they were not alone. The voice coming from below them was low, almost a whisper. "Nor...could I..."
The view from the primary span over the bowels of the Great Machine never failed to take her breath away, but even after all the intervening years since her last foray into this mysterious realm Susan barely noticed it. She'd forgotten one regrettable requirement of her visit...an annoying detail, really...but one that never failed to give her headaches nonetheless.
"Come along, come along...this way, yes..."
The Anla'Shok leader rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I know it's been awhile, Zathras, but I still know the way. I'm sure you have...err...more important stuff to do than lead me somewhere I can already find."
Ahead of her, her hunchbacked companion totally ignored her comment. Turning, he squinted and clicked his tongue at her. "Yes, yes...Draal knows you are coming. Surprised he is you took so long to remember your old friend. And Zathras...Zathras only seems to have friends when there are problems..." A shake of the head and more tongue clicking ensued. "And you are Anla'Shok Na...but still not the One. No, we know the One...the Three and then Two and then One. Now two Ones again. Not supposed to happen. No, no...Zathras...happy but very confused...but Draal is pleased you came. Draal likes you."
With effort, Susan tried to ignore the inevitable slow throb she could feel manifesting behind her eyes as she listened to the stooped alien's incessant chatter. She didn't know which of the brothers she was accompanying, but it didn't matter. They all seemed to know what the others knew anyway, and she'd given up trying to figure out their prattle long ago. Best to chalk it up as one of the mysteries of the universe and leave it at that. "Look, I appreciate that you guys have missed me but this isn't exactly a pleasure visit. I've exhausted all my other options. Can Draal tell me what's going on with the Dilgar? Otherwise, I've wasted a trip."
"The Dilgar?" Zathras shook his head, and the unidentifiable ornaments hanging from his vest rattled. "Yes, not friendly. And now another war is upon us. Zathras told his brothers there would be repercussions when the One Who Will Be became the One Who Is, but no one listened. No one ever listen to Zathras...until the listenings no longer matter."
Susan stopped. "Waitaminute. Are you implying...John...had something to do with the Dilgars' return?"
Her gnarled companion's muttering ceased and his face screwed up as he tried to recall his previous words. "Zathras...sometimes say too much," he slowly ventured after a moment. "Zathras should not have said what he said. Forget you heard Zathras."
"Perhaps Anla'Shok Na can pretend she did not hear," a stentorian voice boomed. "But do not expect that from me. You have fumbled away enough of our guest's time." From around the corner, a glowing Minbari hove into view and bowed at the pair. "She has a war to win...and even if it is not a war we foresaw that does not make it any less real. Greetings, Anla'Shok Na."
Susan bowed in return. "Greetings, Draal. I'd say it's good to see you but..."
"...But under the circumstances, it is necessary to see me," the hologram finished. "And I understand why. You face an unexpected adversary...one whose capabilities and intentions you do not know." Gesturing towards the Great Machine's central chamber, he then clasped his hands. "I will allow you see what you wish, of course...but I think you will find that the Machine will be of limited usefulness to you."
"How so?" Susan asked as she began walking again. "I thought it recorded most everything."
Gliding beside her, Draal's hologram looked perturbed. "It looks where I wish it to look...and I anticipated the Dilgar would be what you wanted to see so I attempted to look there. Regrettably however, I had only limited success. What Zathras blurted out is at least partially true. Your present difficulties have been exacerbated by what you might call an...an unexpected unipolar influence. One that should no longer be present."
"You mean John?" Susan intimated, looking over her Minbari companion's shoulder as Zathras scurried on ahead. "Hell, I won't deny that he's a big fish, but on a universal scale..."
"Ah, the Universe..." Draal interrupted. "You are speaking of a far more delicate construct than you realize when the Universe is brought into the equation...at least our little corner of it."
Inwardly, Susan groaned. Any time a Religious caste Minbari started referencing the universe, she had learned from long experience that 'soul' territory couldn't be far behind. Draal had been Delenn's childhood mentor...one of the most renowned philosophers on Minbar, by all accounts...and most of her friend's core beliefs could be traced back to the elderly but hale Minbari standing in front of her. Between leading the Rangers, her years of close contact with his star pupil and her more recent experiences with the Sisters of Valeria, she'd learned more about the nature and categorization of non-localized phenomena than she'd ever wanted to know. "Look, I know what you and Delenn believe, but I don't want to get into the 'Power of One Mind' debate, okay? I'm a little too earthy for that sort of thing. No matter the circumstances surrounding him, John is a man and there are nine billion more just like him floating around out there. We're all just grains of sand on an endless beach when compared with the universe..."
Too late. She realized she'd stepped in it even as the words were leaving her mouth. Draal held up a hand to stop her and in his best lecturing tone said, "Grains of sand, you say? The sentient universe is not a pile of dirt, Anla'Shok Na. It is a self-correcting organism comprised of living beings, not all of whom carry equal weight. You are correct in one respect; most pass through this phase of existence with barely a ripple. But, like dense bodies in space, there are a few among us who are very massive indeed...not because they are especially superior, but because of the unique influence they exert on those around them. Sheridan is one of those...and the universe notices when he is present where he should not be."
Susan's brow furrowed. "The universe...notices," she repeated dubiously.
"And adjusts," her companion brightly continued, playing his instructor role to the hilt. "But he is not the only one. His presence among us in this time indeed makes the side of Light too heavy here, but there are others who contribute to upsetting the balance as well. From our vantage point within the universe we do not see it, but the Great Machine can tell...and this is why it will be of limited use to you. The...adjustment...necessitated by his reentry is still ongoing. You can enter and you may find some of what you seek...but much of it may be only ghosts; afterimages left over from unrealized temporal possibilities. Other information will be the truth as it exists now. Our corner of the Universe is unbalanced, and discerning the real from the potential...that, my young friend, is the challenge."
The two had been talking as they walked, and as the Great Machine's keeper was concluding Susan found that they had arrived at their destination. Somewhat bemusedly, she eyed her companion's physical twin still standing in the recesses of the machine's interface. "Well, I always said I appreciate a good challenge. Uh...unless you want me wedging myself in there with you, you're going to have to...um, reanimate yourself."
"Two within the interface at once?" Draal stroked his chin and eyed her speculatively. "Hmm. I must admit your suggestion is worthy of consideration. It has been some time since I have been this close to a female..."
"Don't even think it, Buster," Susan deadpanned. "What do you suppose your protégé would say if I had to go back and tell her that the teacher who molded her into the person she is today is actually a dirty-minded old lecher?"
With a hearty laugh, the hologram disappeared, shortly followed by movement within the alcove. "Not dirty, Anla'Shok Na," he chuckled as he emerged. Brushing at his shoulders, he continued, "If you must say something, simply inform my dear Delenn that you found her old friend well...but perhaps a little dusty."
Almost instantly, Ardenn and David's conversation tapered to a halt. "Valen be praised..." the young Minbari breathed, "The creature spoke the truth! Its influence is fading!" Leaning in closer to her former mentor, she asked, "Delenn? How...how do you feel?"
The older woman groaned. "My mind...violated...overcome," she slowly rasped. "Not...not the first time that has happened." Reaching up, she found Ardenn's face with her fingertips and traced her jaw line. "I...will survive, I suppose," she continued weakly. "Remember my story?"
Taking Delenn's trembling fingers between her hands, Ardenn nodded. "The angry Vorlon? Yes...yes I remember."
"Knew it was a...a possibility," Delenn continued. With a swallow, she added, "Felt it probing me in the tunnels but could not avoid it when it attacked...too fast and strong." Craning her neck, she looked around. "David? Are you here?"
Her son knelt down, his ear close to her breather. "Right beside you." His voice choking a little, he continued, "Mother...everything that's happened...Dad..."
Delenn's free hand found him. "Do not blame yourself," she admonished as she stroked his hair. "There is no fault. Some actions result in...in pain no matter the outcome. The First Ones...the Shadows...believe that adversity makes us stronger, so they never offer easy paths. Your father and Ardenn were correct...you did as well as any of us would have, given the circumstances. And David, he still lives...I still feel his presence. This is not yet over. Now, I want to return to him..."
Both David and Ardenn spoke almost in unison. "You cannot..."
The fingers in David's hair found their way to his lips, stilling them. "You have not let me finish," the older Minbari interjected. "I want to return, to stand beside him and share his fate...but I have made a painful decision also. I am your mother as well as his wife. I cannot help him now...he can do no more with me than without...but I can help you. If the Universe has determined that your father is to pass beyond here, I will follow in my own time...after you are cared for. He will wait for me."
The young Ranger bowed his head. "I'm not alone. I have Ardenn now." "And you will still have me as well," Delenn noted. "Sometimes the more painful choice is to choose to...to live. I have suffered that choice before. To see you healed, I can do so again. I heard what your father told you...about the Wind Swords...but he was mistaken in one respect. Approaching them is not a task Ardenn should undertake. Not alone."
"If the Wind Swords have a counteragent," Ardenn declared, a little miffed at the seeming lack of confidence Delenn was implying, "I will simply go and obtain it from them. You say that Sisters of Valeria are persons of some importance in our society. If so, they will have a difficult time refusing me."
Delenn managed a watery smile. "You love my son so much, precious one," she wryly observed. "And I know that if I were to vanish from this incarnation today, it would be with an untroubled soul because he has you to accompany him on his life's journey...but you have never interacted with the Warriors." Giving the young Sister's cheek an affectionate caress, she continued, "And the Wind Swords clan is the most reactionary and militant of the caste. The very love that makes you strong where he is concerned would prove your undoing with them. They know who you are. They watch my family, and they almost certainly have learned of your relationship. The fact that you are a Sister would do nothing more than fuel their disdain; many among the Warriors of today perceive that their ancestors were manipulated by the Sisterhood in the time before Valen and they have not forgotten. Even were you to keep knowledge of your elevation from them, it would matter little. What would matter is that you love a human. In their eyes, that makes you defiled. Perhaps even more so than I."
"I do not care if they think me defiled. Have our people not grown enough to leave the past in the past? Do we still hold ourselves so superior that an outworlder's life is considered a lesser life than one of our own?"
"The vast majority of our people are slowly coming to accept humans, at least, as...near equals," Delenn hesitantly acknowledged, "and even some among the Warriors grudgingly concede that humans are not dishonorable...but the Wind Swords suffered more casualties at human hands than any of the other clans. Their anger lingers...what you have seen here is in part a result of that." Lowering her voice slightly, she continued, "Understand also that they do not know what you know, Ardenn. Few do even among the Religious caste. The only Warriors who have been informed about the true relationship between our people and the humans are Satai, and even the two relatively enlightened ones who serve on the Council presently have never completely accepted it."
"Their opinion of humans, or of my relationship with a human should not matter," the young Sister countered. "Our peoples are no longer at war and David has never spoken an ill word about the Warrior caste. If they indeed have a treatment, they should provide it because they have no reason not to. He has never harmed them."
Delenn dropped her hand and eased back to the ground. "But I have," she intoned gravely. "To the Wind Swords, there is nothing more embarrassing than surrender...and I forced them to. As they see it, I stole their victory in the war against the humans...and to them, it matters little that they would have wrongfully ended millions of lives had I not done so. You are correct...none of that is David's fault, but to them your beloved is the product of a forbidden joining between a traitorous prostitute and a despised lower life form. And because both you and David have seen this place now, they would have added incentive to let matters take their course with him...and, perhaps, to engineer a means of permanently ensuring your silence as well. It is better that I go. They detest me, but my status among our people offers me at least some protection...protection that you would not have."
David, quiet up until this point, coughed softly and settled back further against the wall. Breathing was becoming steadily more difficult, and they still had a long way to go. "I'm still here, you know," he grated out as he tried to clear his throat. "Neither of you are going. After what I've seen here, I'd rather take my chances than have either of you owe the Wind Swords any favors. They're a bunch of heartless butchers."
"You do not have chances, my son!" his mother exclaimed. "The effects of the nanospores you have been exposed to begin slowly...but I have seen the end results!" Closing her eyes, she blinked back the tears she could feel forming. "You apologized to me earlier, but I should be the apologetic one. Like the Dilgar and some among the Winds Swords, this monstrosity we created does not know or care that the war is over. If we do nothing, it will eventually kill you."
Listening to the exchange between the two, Ardenn hung her head. She could pretend...up to a point. He was just sick. Everybody suffered through illnesses at one time or another but they recovered and David would be no different. Yes, she could make herself believe that...as long as no one said the words. But Delenn had said them now. If they failed, he was going to die.
The young Ranger both saw and felt the flash of agony radiate from his lover as if it were his own. He wanted to take her in his arms, hold her near and kiss her pain away...but he couldn't. Some problems couldn't be banished with a kiss. His body was failing, and all the love in the universe wouldn't stop it if they didn't make it home. "This isn't the place to be talking about this," he grunted as he staggered back to his feet. "Dad's down there buying us time and we're lounging around getting ready to conduct a tea ceremony." Moving up behind the still-kneeling Ardenn, he leaned over her and gave her shoulders a quick, reassuring squeeze. "Nie'sa Zha fel, Ardenn'sala...nie'sa Zha id!" he whispered in her ear. "I will never leave you, my One. Everything will be all right." Suppressing a cough, he straightened. "Now, we need to get moving. I may not be much of an Anla'Shok, but as long as I'm wearing the brooch the least I can do is follow my Entil'zha's last command."
From the shadows surrounding the trio, a familiar, infinitely welcome voice echoed, "You've got to be kidding me. Since when have you followed any of my commands?"
Linking in to the Great Machine was a sensation that defied adequate description. The last time Susan had been in this position, she'd been aware of a loss of physical sensation...as if her body no longer consisted of arms or legs or torso...but had instead become the stuff of space itself. She had the power to direct herself anywhere she had inclination to visit, see almost anything within the past or present she wished to see and...to a limited extent...to see even into the near future.
It was the last she was really hoping for, but such grand ability did not come without a corresponding danger. Because the machine, in essence, became her and vice versa, all concept of time's passage was lost. It would be easy to enter the device and subsequently emerge...only to find that several years or even decades had passed. Additionally, the scope of the device was so vast that one could easily become lost within it if the preset paths were not followed.
For one such as Draal, the Machine's permanent keeper, such concerns were trivial: He had decades, even centuries to explore the paths at his leisure. Susan didn't have that kind of time, so it was also good that she remained aware of him standing outside and acting as a guide even as she began searching for information that could aid the Alliance.
He experience this time, she could tell from the beginning, was going to be far different from the last. As before, there was indeed a path...but it was chaotic. Vortexes of energy flowed haphazardly, and where there had been a lighted tunnel before there was now a jagged fissure. "Follow the clear path as closely as you are able," she heard Draal exhorting from outside. His voice sounded hollow and far away.
"I'm trying...it's like being trapped in a gravity well in here. I'm being pulled in just about every direction I can imagine."
"Those are the probability ripples I warned you of. Some will cross your path...but do not tarry within them. Should you fall into one that you know to be false or unrelated to what you seek, use the Machine to help you push through."
Susan nodded, aware that the gesture could not be seen but doing so out of force of habit. Even as she acknowledged the old Minbari's instruction, a blue filmy wisp filled her field of vision and she found herself...back on Minbar.
But it wasn't the Minbar she remembered.
"...since when have you followed any of my commands, Ranger?" John Sheridan rumbled in mock-seriousness as he limped up on his shocked-speechless companions.
"D...dad?" David managed to stammer after a moment.
"Son, in your whole life you've never done anything I told you without putting your own unique spin on it...and I can see by the fact that you're all here flat on your asses gabbing rather than doing what I told you to do that you're still having trouble making the transition from 'interpretation' to 'execution'."
"Entil'zha?" Ardenn whispered, her eyes wide as saucers. "We thought the...the creature was going to...to kill you..."
"And so you decided to stop and wait for it to finish me off so it wouldn't be too out of breath when it caught up? Hell, knowing that a bloodthirsty monster was behind them...you know, that would make most normal folks expedite their asses away from the danger area." John shook his head...knowing that the young Minbari probably didn't understand his sarcasm, but unable to resist delivering it. "But we're not exactly a normal family, are we? Ah, hell...never mind. I thought I was cashing in my chips at first, too. Then it occurred to me that she could've killed any of us at any time. The First Ones usually don't mess around when it comes to eliminating problems, so why all the theatrics? Sure enough, she wanted something..." Pausing a moment, he reflected on something far away before concluding, "And she got it."
"To parley with the Ancient Enemy is to become one of their agents," Delenn murmured, propping herself up on her elbows so she could see. "No matter how innocent their requests seem they always corrupt those who bargain with them in the end." Seeing the pained expression that flashed across David's face, she hastily added, "Not you, my son. You, Valen be blessed...your soul seems to be whole, but," her voice hardening, she looked at her husband. "Your father knows what they are capable of. You were wrong to deal with that...that thing, John,"
"Well, I didn't have a lot of choice now, did I?" John shot back, momentarily irritated. While he had been fairly sure the Shadow had told the truth about Delenn recovering, he'd expected at least some happiness from her at seeing him alive. "My dying son had been forced into taking a devil's bargain, his Rangers were off on their smoke break somewhere and my handy-dandy Vorlon-supercharged Minbari Shadow detector was busy having her brain pan used as a sauté dish. Under the circumstances, my negotiating position was a little...how should I put it? Weak? No...I think 'non-existent' probably fits the bill."
"Better we should all perish than succumb to the Shadows," Delenn muttered. Using her husband's word with distaste, she continued, "Negotiations, you say? I do not think I can bear the exquisite suspense of not knowing what our terms are. Do we at least get the privilege of choosing the ships we will be plugged into? I would prefer one of the sportier models, I think."
Even though he was irritated, John couldn't help but smile. The Shadow might have zonked her, but his other half was bouncing back in her usual style. While her ire could be blistering when directed against him, it never lasted long...and her 'making up' rituals could be extremely creative. "It was nothing like that, precious one," he soothed. Making his way over to his wife he knelt beside her, grimacing from the pain that shot up his hip. "It...she knew you would be hostile," he quietly explained as he caressed her hair and crest affectionately. "That's why she needed you out of the way. She couldn't influence me in the way Shadows normally use...and had she left you animate, there's no way she could've made me listen to her over your objections."
Delenn frowned, not missing the application of a gender to the Shadow...and not liking it. "I believe 'objections' is a tamer word than the one I would choose."
"I don't doubt it. Anyway, so she stifled the debate...rather heavy-handedly, if you ask me...but you'll notice that none of us are dead yet, so I guess it was effective."
"You...guess?" Delenn looked askance at him and John sighed. He'd almost had her calmed down. "We are confronted with a creature thousands of human years old, one that could potentially destabilize everything we have fought to accomplish...a being that you, as Entil'zha, bear responsibility for protecting us against and you...guess...that your negotiations were effective? John? What In Valen's Name did it want? What could it possibly get from you that would convince it to set us free?"
"Does it really matter?" John defensively retorted. "Nothing that I can't afford to give. Nothing that affects any of us. All that's important is had she wanted us dead, we'd be dead...and had she wanted our son as a minion, he'd be one right now."
"So we should be grateful to...her," Delenn morosely reasoned. "If...she...is so benevolent, why did she not cure our son when she had the opportunity?"
"Because she couldn't," David tiredly chimed in. "She said she could hold the effects at bay as long as I was under her influence, but that they'd return as soon as she let me go." As he concluded, he covered his mouth as he was struck by a series of chest-wracking coughs.
"Are you all right?" John asked, concern in his voice.
Examining the greenish phlegm on his hand as the bout subsided, David knew he'd see more blood. "I'm about as 'all right' as can be expected," he shakily equivocated. They'd stayed still too long. He was starting to realize that he was closer to being a basket case than he was willing to admit. "Dad, don't get me wrong...I'm happy to see you...but if we don't get moving now, I'm not sure I'll be able to make it."
Both John and Delenn glanced at each other, their dispute instantly forgotten. Each knew the other was making the same assessment. John had walked from the Cathedral on his own, but the strain was showing - he would go the rest of the way slowly, at best. Delenn was returning to herself rapidly, but she was not even sure she could stand yet. David, for his part, was gamely trying to hide the effects of the Dilgar death cloud but both could tell his control was now visibly faltering. That left only one uninjured person.
"Ardenn, I want you to assist David," Delenn directed. "Go on ahead with him. We will follow."
The young Minbari's eyes flicked from Delenn to her beloved. It was clear she wanted to do as her former mentor asked, but was unwilling to leave her two older companions behind. "Are you certain you want to separate?" she uncertainly asked. "Your husband is barely supporting himself...he cannot carry you."
Slowly, Delenn sat up and, with Ardenn's assistance, climbed to her feet. Tottering precariously, she steadied herself against the wall and swallowed the wave of nausea that washed over her. "We will manage," she murmured after a moment. "My strength is returning...but the two of you will move more quickly without us." Smiling wanly through her breather, she continued, "And you should be with him, just as I should be with my sometimes-errant husband. We will be along shortly."
Pulling David aside while Delenn gave her one-time protégé last minute instructions, John whispered, "Your mother and I aren't going to be moving quickly. I don't want you to wait for us for too long. Every minute you stay on this rock is a minute you don't have."
"Don't even suggest what I think you're about to suggest!" his son heatedly whispered back. "I'm not leaving my parents alone here...even if I were sucking in my last breath I wouldn't do it and you know my Rangers would never agree to it!"
"I know," John quietly replied, "And if you mother regains her equilibrium in time I'll try to send her ahead...but you know she won't agree. You may have to order your crew to leave. They're good Rangers. They won't like it but they'll listen to their Shok'na. And there's one other thing..." Placing his hands on the younger man's shoulders, he lowered his voice and continued, "Son...I lied to your mother. The promise I made to the Shadow does affect us...it's going to affect a lot of things for a very, very long time. If we don't get back soon after you, I need you to go to Ranger One and have her place this system under the most permanent, restrictive quarantine level she can devise. I'm not talking about a blockade...I'm talking total lockdown. After you depart, no one comes in and anyone foolish enough to try can never be allowed to leave. Its part of the bargain I made...and a Sheridan always keeps his word."
"Even if it means leaving you two here?" David asked incredulously. "What, exactly, did you agree to?"
"I can't reveal it," the elder Sheridan sighed. "It's something I can't ever tell anyone, but I will tell you this: That Shadow won't be bothering anyone any more. She's dead."
"She's dead, David..." Susan murmured as she held the heartbroken young Ranger. "I'm sorry."
"It's...it's all right." The young man sniffled. Pulling his head up from her shoulder, he looked out over the skyline of Tuzanor. "In a way...I guess she's where she wanted to be. With Dad. She didn't have to grow old without him." Looking over at Ranger One, David could see sorrow etched into her features...an echo of his own. Even in his grief, he realized that his mother had meant almost as much to the older woman as she had meant to him. "You're going to miss her, too."
Susan managed a sad smile. "Of course I am. I already do. Your mother has been my battle buddy and more since before you were born...but I still have you...and Ardenn is almost completely recovered. That's not so bad, hmm?"
From the bench, a third voice piped up. "I am feeling much better," Ardenn agreed. Casting her gaze down at the polished crystal of the floor, she added, "I tried to get in front of her, David. Had I been a little faster, I might have stopped the projectile instead of merely being grazed..."
"Don't blame yourself...Mother wouldn't have wanted you to be hurt even at the cost of her own life." Standing, David made his way over to the balcony's edge and peered across. Down in the Outer Gardens, it seemed that thousands had come. Humans, Minbari, others...they filled every available space for almost as far as he could see. Spying him above, they rose silently almost as one. "Paying their respects, I suppose," the Anla'Shok observed as he watched the crowd watching him. "I guess that even my mother's people can't spare me the time to work through this privately."
Moving up beside him, Susan shook her head and motioned for Ardenn to join them. "That's not it...not exactly," she murmured. "David...you don't realize it yet, but your mother's passing is the end of an era to these people. We came through the wars and, through the efforts of your parents, instituted a new period of stability with the formation of the Alliance. The folks down there are here to pay their respects, sure...but they also want to know that what your parents started will continue. And they want to hear it from a Sheridan."
"From me." It was a statement, not a question.
"Not just from you," Susan observed. "Ardenn, what did the Sisterhood tell you?"
"I thought I would be recalled, but instead I have been released from my apprenticeship. The Mistress' caveat was that I was never to leave David's side." Slipping her hand into David's, she added, "Not that I would have in any event."
Indicating the couple's clasped hands, the Anla'Shok leader nodded. "That's what they need to see. The people have become used to a certain kind of non-traditional relationship from this family, and they need to know that...even with the passing of your mother...some things haven't changed."
"I'm not the leader they're looking for," David whispered.
"Not yet," the Ranger leader amended. "But you will be some day. I have a little experience in the leadership area, and I'm pretty good at spotting potential early."
"But what do I say to them now? What can I say?"
"You and Ardenn...thank them," Susan directed. "You go down there, stand on the steps where they can see you together and you tell them that you're mourning, but that we as a people will all survive this and move ahead. You tell them we've suffered a blow, but we're about more than your parents. You tell them to have faith." With a snort, she added, "And if you think you're leading diddly squat anytime soon without your Aunt Susan looking over your shoulder, you can dispense yourself of that notion right now..."
"A false afterimage, Anla'Shok Na." the voice of Draal echoed through her consciousness. "One in which my dear pupil did not survive her late ordeal. You need to move on."
"Already moving," Susan grated out.
"Please keep moving, beloved," Ardenn exhorted, tightening her hold on David's arm and wedging it more securely across her shoulders. "It is just a little farther...I can feel the breeze. We are almost there..."
Almost there, but still too far, she thought in despair. She was nearly exhausted, David's legs had finally given out, and they still had to make their way from the entrance to the ship. "Please do not give up, my One," she urged when he stumbled once more.
"Leave me here..." he rasped, his throat gurgling with the effort of speaking through the fluid building in his lungs. "My crew...find them...send them back for me..."
Ardenn was not about to do as he asked. Every step she had taken she had prayed that David's Anla'Shok would be waiting just ahead...just around the next bend or outcropping. Now she was beginning to wonder if they were even alive. If what she understood about the Shadow was true, they could easily have been misled into becoming lost in the passageways...perhaps even led into a chasm or a nest of desperate Dilgar. If that were the case, she would have to run all the way to David's ship, assemble the human crewmembers and somehow lead them back. Anything could happen to her beloved while she was gone. She would not leave David alone for that length of time. Not in his condition. If it was his destiny to pass here, it would at least be in the embrace of the one who loved him. If that came to pass, her lungs would be the ones to hold his last breath...contaminated or not.
The young Minbari came down on a stone at the wrong angle and lost her footing, losing her hold on David as she tumbled to the ground. Before she could scramble to her feet, she was grabbed from behind by an unseen presence and hoisted into the air. She started to struggle but the being holding her was far too strong, pinning her arms to her sides with ease. "Let me go!" she hissed, trying to spear her assailant with the point of her bonecrest. Failing that, she twisted and lashed at his ankles with her heels. If she could just free her arms, she knew, she might have a chance of reversing his strength in her favor...
"Stop struggling!" the person holding her hissed in Adronato, taking her to the ground and pinning her beneath him. "We are trying to help you!"
Ardenn's attempts to escape ceased almost immediately. "Anla'Shok Nashon?"
"Yes!" he breathed in her ear. "Thank Valen you are safe! We were coming back for you! Now, I need you to gather your thoughts and tell us where Entil'zha and the Blessed Delenn are! Now!"
Now that she was immobile, Ardenn could discern others around them...other Anla'Shok gathering to hear what she had to say. They had moved around her so silently that even her keen auditory sense had not detected them. "They are behind us...somewhere behind us...coming up the passage." Swallowing, she could not help the plainitive touch of despair in her voice. "They told us to leave them! I...I do not know how far behind they are...I have lost track of the distance! Nashon, David has been exposed and he is fading! Please help him..."
"We will," the Ranger exec soothed, softening his tone once he discerned how shaky the woman's emotional state was. "Do not panic; we will get you both back." In one smooth motion, he rose off of the young woman and lifted her, handing her to another Anla'Shok. "Take the Revered Sister and Shok'na Sheridan back to the ship. Do not let either leave under any circumstances." Indicating Ardenn, he added, "This one especially."
Another Minbari Ranger had recovered David and was holding him in his arms like a newborn. "Level...three..." the Ranger captain painfully gasped.
Nashon nodded, understanding what his leader meant. "Level three decontamination procedures for Ranger Sheridan," he clarified. "Level two for the Revered Sister and all others returning."
"It will be as you say, Shai."
"Level three?" Ardenn worriedly asked. "What does that signify?"
"It means Ranger Sheridan is a danger to the rest of the crew and is going to have to undergo a very unpleasant but necessary procedure...and that you need to be quiet and allow our people to do their duty. We thank you for returning him, but you are done here. We will retrieve the others...and you will stay safe and out of the way while we do so."
It did not take the young Minbari long to ascertain what lengths the Shai was willing to go to in seeing that his edict was followed. Over her protests, she was literally carried back to the Light Wanderer over the shoulder of the burliest Anla'Shok in David's crew. She tried to tell the Ranger that she was perfectly capable of reaching their destination under her own power, but he was following Nashon's instructions literally...and likely bruising her ribs in the process. Hopefully, she ruminated as she bounced along, they were handling her injured mate a little more gently.
Reaching the ramp to the ship, she was unceremoniously dumped off her unwelcome transportation's shoulder and frog-marched to a small hatch just outside the main airlock. The Ranger guiding her keyed a sequence into the pad next to the door and it slid aside. Indicating the interior, her companion motioned for her to enter. "The contaminant does not affect us as it does humans," he explained, "but it has saturated your clothing and coated any exposed skin. You will need to discard your thermal suit and cleanse yourself before you can enter the ship. Please hurry...we need to get this chamber ready for Ranger Sheridan."
"He is in more need than I. Take him first...I can wait."
The Anla'Shok shook his head. "The contaminant has taken hold in his system and he requires more thorough preparation. Even at that, we will have to clear the passages between here and the medical bay to get him to quarantine and vent them to space once we leave to cleanse them. It is better that you precede him."
Behind the Ranger, Ardenn heard her beloved scream and started. Looking around her companion, her eyes widened in shock. Four Rangers had David pinned to the ground, while a fifth was using a knife to cut him out of his thermal suit. The sudden exposure of his bare chest to the rush of frigid air was what had caused him to shout, and even now he was involuntarily struggling against his companions. "What...what in Valen's Name are you doing to him!" she shouted, simultaneously trying to dart around the man blocking her way. "He will freeze to death out here!"
"Not if you do as I say and make haste!" the Ranger replied, grabbing her by the arm and thrusting her forcibly into the chamber. "Human skin is more porous and malleable than our skin! Their epidermis is not easily stripped away! We have to begin leaching the contaminant out of him now or the chemicals we normally use will be ineffective. Please discard your clothing in the disposal chute and cleanse! When you finish, there are robes...take one and go! Every minute you waste babbling is one in which he has to suffer out here!" With that, he keyed the door closed between them, leaving the young Minbari alone in the small, sterile room.
"D...did you g...g...get h...her in?" David managed, his teeth chattering and clenching from the cold. "D...does s...she understand w...w...what to do?"
"Yes, Shok'na," the Anla'Shok replied, moving back over to his companions. "She is safely aboard, and she cannot come back out. The Revered Sister was correct, you understand...you should have gone before her."
The young Ranger managed to jerk his head back and forth in a negative. "N...no...can...s...stand cold...for few minutes...didn't...didn't want her to s...see...love her..."
The Ranger medic nodded, motioning the new arrival into position as she cut the last vestiges of David's thermal suit away. "You did not want her to watch us de-ventilate you. We understand. She would gain nothing from seeing this." Removing a mask-like device from her aid bag, she fit it over her shivering captain's face. "I know you have seen these demonstrated in training before, Shok'na," she continued. "This is a portable vacuum chamber. We are going to remove as much of the pollutant from you as we can. At the setting we must use to accomplish this, it is going to collapse your lungs and put great strain on your cardiopulmonary system in the process. You will be without oxygen until we can get your skin decontaminated and get you to the isolation room. I am sorry...the procedure is not pleasant and you will likely lose consciousness. We will resuscitate you once we are in, and you should then be able to breathe more freely...at least for a time."
"G...good enough." With effort, David glanced over at the decontamination chamber door. The light on the panel above turned from red to green, indicating the room was clear. "No m...more t...talk. J...just get...over w...with."
"You command, we obey. Entil'zha Veni!"
The first thing he felt was a rapid decompression around his face...one that pulled at his eyeballs so hard he thought they would burst from their sockets. Above him, the Anla'Shok medic keyed a toggle and a tube forced its way between his lips. He could not help gagging and spasming as it slid past his tongue and down his throat. The other Rangers shifted, pinning his arms and legs more firmly and the Anla'Shok captain suddenly felt as if every internal organ were being twisted inside out and jerked up his throat. The pain was indescribable, and he thrashed and clenched as his muscles seized up to fight the process. Behind his eyes were stars...blinding in their intensity. The bones of his rib cage creaked in protest as his lungs evacuated, with the one he knew was broken puckering his skin at an odd, grotesque angle.
He didn't care about that, though...he tried to stay with them as long as he could, but by the time he realized his diaphragm was paralyzed, what remained of his vision was already graying out.
She was trying to follow the fissure, but the probability filaments kept getting in the way. It was almost as if they were purposely blocking her...trying to impede her progress by bogging her down in minutia. She'd already seen the aftermath of Delenn's death on Fulmer's Colony...a 'ghost' recording she knew to be false...and several others so outlandish she knew they couldn't be true.
The vision she was in the midst of now...she couldn't tell yet...
"David," Delenn's voice over the Stellarcom worriedly intoned, "You need to come home. Immediately."
"Mother, I'm in the middle of a mission right now. I've got teams down on the surface and the whole planet is crawling with Dilgar troops. I can't just up and..." the young man sat back in the command seat of his White Star, absorbing his mother's expression. "In Valen's Name...she did it, didn't she?"
In the holo, Delenn nodded.
"I told her that if she had to do it, I wanted to be there!" David sputtered. "But that's Ardenn for you! She told me she was just going north for some training while I was gone!" Calming somewhat, his outburst dissolved into a grumble. "Well, did everything come out all right?" he fumed. "Do I still have a wife? When I get home, she's going to hear..."
"Son," Delenn interrupted softly, "I have heard from High Sister Wyndan, Ardenn's teacher. There is a problem...one we need to discuss without your crew present."
The Anla'Shok's face went pale. Without any command from their leader, his subordinates quietly filed off the bridge. "Okay...give it to me straight. She...she didn't make it, did she?"
"She has not yet emerged...but she is alive," his mother gently replied. "The Sisters had a telepath scanning her periodically to ensure she was progressing without mishap." Leaning in, Delenn drew a breath and continued, "Everything seemed to be for her much as it was for me until the telepath...David, Wyndan tells me the telepath has sensed more than one consciousness within the cocoon. The only way that could be is if Ardenn entered the Chrysalis...while with child."
"She's pregnant? That's impossible!"
Delenn shook her head. "I am afraid it is very possible," she countered. "Son, this is outside any experience I have ever had with the Chrysalis Device. Even the Sisters of Knowledge do not know how the process will affect Ardenn and the child together...none of their models or simulations have ever taken such an occurrence into account. No one can foretell what is to happen but her emergence time is drawing close. You need to be here. She would want you present when she emerges...for better or worse..."
Almost as quickly as it had appeared, the filament slipped away. Concerned for the two young people, Susan tried to hold on, but an admonition from Draal stopped her. "This is not what you came to see," he intoned. "Remember...not everything on the path is true for this reality, although some may appear to be so."
As soon as David and Ardenn had moved on, Delenn slumped against the wall, the effort of standing for even the few minutes it took to convince the young people to go sapping her strength. As well as he was able, John helped ease her back to the ground. "That was a good act," he commented as he settled himself beside her. "Hell, you almost had me fooled."
Delenn looked up at the roof of the passage and drew in a deep breath to clear her head. "David is getting worse. They needed to move on, so it seemed logical to exaggerate my recovery to convince them to leave."
The two sat in silence for a moment, each lost in their own thoughts, until John couldn't resist a chuckle.
"There is something amusing about this? I have not forgotten what you did, husband. We will be discussing upon whom your diplomatic skills are best exercised in more depth once we get the opportunity."
She still sounded miffed. John's chuckle turned into a grin. "The suspense is just killing me, but it wasn't that. This isn't exactly what I had in mind for quiet time with my significant other, but I was just thinking...you know, this is the first time I've had you alone in a long while. Even if I don't please you all the time, I guess I should count my blessings."
Delenn's stony expression broke under her husband's good humor and a bemused smile flicked across her features despite her effort to stifle it. "Yes we should...it would seem that it takes both of us being idle and unemployed to make us appreciate what we truly have." Surrendering to the moment she slipped her arm through his, rested her head on his shoulder and sighed. "Now that I am no longer President, I suppose we will have to find another place to live when we return to Minbar. After David is cured, of course."
John twined his fingers in hers. "Of course," he echoed, choosing to go along with the moment of peace that came from assuming his son's recovery was a certainty rather than a hope. "After David recovers and we get his sorry butt married off, we'll retire. There's this little place I know on Nocalo...up in the mountains...that's totally Minbari but it's so quaint it reminds me of the town I grew up in on Earth. It's got a good climate, a bazaar, a little temple for you...and no intrigue, hustle or bustle. We can move up there, get a little cottage, sit back and wait for the grandkids to start popping." Chuckling again, he amended, "Well, given our son's taste in wives, we probably shouldn't be holding our breath for that."
"Do not be so..." Delenn began, and then she paused, the kind of second's hesitation John had come to associate with her mentally reviewing and censoring her words...lest she reveal too much. "Perhaps...perhaps they will surprise us," she finally sighed, nestling closer. "It would be nice to have little ones underfoot again. Valen once said that to play among the young is to be young in your heart...and I can think of no two who would be better parents than David and Ardenn. She still has the spirit of a child...and she wants children of her own."
"All Minbari want children, sweetheart. It didn't take me long to figure that one out once we set up housekeeping on your world."
"Humans love their children also. You love children." Her husband's head nodded slightly in agreement and Delenn hesitated once more, aware that she was starting to tread uncomfortably close to dangerous ground. "And I am no different," she continued after a moment. "I always wanted to...to give you more than one."
John's grin faded as old memories surfaced. "I know you did," he softly observed, giving her fingers a squeeze. "You know we tried, precious heart. It just wasn't in the cards for us."
"John," she quietly ventured, "We could have made the attempt...at least one more time."
"Our odds were one in a hundred to begin with, sweetheart...and you were more and more at risk each time. I couldn't put you through that again. Given our genetics, even the one out of three we batted was practically Hall of Fame material."
"That is what you said the last time...when I lost our daughter. When the doctors told us my body was no longer good enough."
John quietly sighed. "Look...we've been through all this," he finally groaned, "and that isn't what they said! They said your body wasn't strong enough after David! But we tried anyway, didn't we? We tried and tried until the doctors said one more failure would take you along for the ride! Don't you remember what Stephen told us? He said you could have been as human as Susan and the same thing would've happened, because I was the problem! Not you! If anyone blew it, it was me!" He shook his head and fell silent, angry at himself for losing his temper. It never failed on the rare occasions this painful subject came up. Delenn knew the reasons they only had one child as well as he did...yet the part of her that was Minbari felt obligated to shoulder the blame anyway. It was her way of keeping him from blaming himself. That she would still try to maintain that illusion for his benefit even years after the point was moot was perhaps the most succinct example of the depth of her love that John could imagine, but it hadn't worked then and it still didn't. "Your body was plenty good enough to bear healthy, normal kids then, precious one...and if I'd been a healthy, normal frickin' human being instead of a juiced-up zombie when we conceived David, it still would be today."
"You were not undead," Delenn admonished. "You loved me enough to remain alive for me after Z'ha'dum. You loved me enough to create within me one child more than I ever expected to have. You loved me enough to try to give me others even though I knew you had reservations. You loved me enough to be my strength to get through the failures...even though they broke your heart." Turning her head, she lifted his hand and rubbed it against her cheek. "Now you are that normal man you speak of...and you love me still."
Calmer now, John chuckled again but there was little mirth in it. "Yeah, a normal seventy year-old man. I can see it now...you trying to shape another confused, half-Minbari teenager into something worthwhile while I'm busy tottering around on my cane looking for the glass I left my teeth in. But none of this is getting anything done." Climbing slowly to his feet, he held out a hand. "Well, we've had some time to rest and recuperate, I suppose. Do you feel up to trying again?"
The radiant smile he could see through her breather as she slipped her hand into his was priceless. "Yes."
"Uh, Honey? I meant...walking?"
She was closer now. The fissure, seeming so far away at first, was widening visibly and the filaments were thinning out. The few still impeding her were starting to look more and more relevant. Where before she was able to discern their applicability to the 'real' universe relatively rapidly, now she had to check small details before pushing them aside...
"The strike forces are ready and our ships are positioned as the Cabal directed, War Marshal."
"The Interstellar Alliance?"
"In upheaval...just as you predicted. Their Advisory Council ousted President Delenn almost immediately after the diversionary attacks and overrode their military commander's recommendations regarding deployment of their fleet."
"The priestess did not last long, eh? I imagine she will find watching the subjugation and dismemberment of her so-called 'alliance' disheartening, particularly as she is powerless to stop it. What of Sheridan and our battalion on Khon'dar?
"We fear Strike Leader Bha'laa's mission on that world has...failed. At least partially. The ships we left there reported a high-yield nuclear detonation in the vicinity of the human colony; one that likely either destroyed the weapons cache or rendered it unusable. There have been no reports from our surface forces since then."
"Was the device one of ours?"
"We left no atomics with our troops."
"Sheridan is certainly responsible, then...and is certainly dead now as well. He could not have done such damage without sacrificing himself in the process. I told Bha'laa not to underestimate the humans! She lived as a sycophant and died a fool...but at least we are rid of one potential threat in the process."
"Our ships also reported an engagement with a small Alliance warship...probably a rescue mission to recover the human. One of our Penetrators suffered minor damage, but they quickly completed repairs and are now fully operational. The Alliance ship was also damaged but was able to affect a landing on the surface."
"Can they do anything?"
"As the ship arrived too late to recover Sheridan, we believe not. Essentially, the Alliance has wasted one of their precious ships on a fool's errand. The detachment commander indicates that residual radiation in the atmosphere is hampering his efforts to locate the vessel. It will take some time for his sensors to clear enough to target it."
"Waste no more time on it. One wounded Ranger ship outside the main battle area will make no difference one way or the other, but we will need every one of ours to make our operation a success. Recall the watchers and have them report to their strike positions. We are done with Khon'dar."
"It will be done, sir."
"One other matter. It seems that I no longer have a recreational partner. Bha'laa may have been incompetent as a commander, but she knew her way around my bedchamber. It is fortunate, I suppose, that another suitable candidate has unexpectedly become available."
"Your partner. Inform Subcommander The'dal that she has just been promoted. Her training in her new duties begins at the next shift change...in my chambers."
So the Dilgar were almost ready to attack, and they thought John was dead.
She was lucky, she supposed, that the Great Machine didn't consider language a barrier. She certainly didn't speak Dilgar, but her mind was instantly able to translate the speaker's words into her native Russian...and this filament seemed plausible enough to be current reality.
Except...John couldn't be dead. Susan had tracked Delenn's ship as well as she was able after her departure and knew it had at least arrived at it's destination in one piece. Given what Draal had told her about her former captain's supposed influence, he would surely have known and told her beforehand. And, she'd have felt it.
It had always struck her as both strange and a little troubling that, insignificant as her latent telepathic abilities were, she had such a strong connection with him. The Minbari, believing that souls traveled together, would undoubtedly theorize that her bond with John had solidified over many shared lifetimes...and that perhaps there were even previous incarnations where she, not Delenn, had been his primary soul mate.
Could a soul have more than one mate? If she remembered after all this, she'd have to ask Delenn.
Well...in this instance, Delenn might not be the best person to ask. The explanation she was sure her friend would want regarding such a question was a can of worms Susan had no desire to stumble through.
Still...it was something to ponder. They had, after all, almost started something on Io all those years ago. It wouldn't have taken much for either of them to get that extra inch closer...not much at all...
As if from a distance, Draal's voice echoed through. "You fantasize after another woman's male...and yet say I am a dirty old lecher?" he amusedly scolded, "Anla'Shok Na...try to stay on the proper path, hmm?"
Ardenn felt isolated and ignored, sitting forlornly in the Light Wanderer's medical bay. She watched as Rangers...all human...moved around in a small, sealable compartment off to the side of the main bay, no doubt getting it ready for David when they brought him in. In her opinion, it was taking too long...certainly they should have decontaminated him by now. She had only needed a few seconds' scrubbing under that horrid-smelling chemical shower for the ship's computer to deem her 'clean' enough, but each second now seemed to her like an hour. Perhaps the worst of it was that no one would tell her anything. She had been escorted in, told to sit, and then promptly forgotten about.
The human Anla'Shok waiting for her when she emerged inside the ship had directed that she needed a quick medical check before returning to her quarters, so she was still clad in nothing more than the flimsy, too-small robe she had found on a rack in the decontamination chamber. It was so thin as to be almost translucent, did not even reach to her knees and were the circumstances not so serious she would never have shown herself to anyone other than her beloved wearing it. Now, she did not really care.
Not that she had any place specific to be other than the medical area anyway, but with all the activity swirling around her she was starting to wonder if the word 'quick' carried the same meaning to humans as it did to her. But she could wait...and she would until the stars themselves froze over if necessary. Until her beloved was aboard she would not leave...not even to dress. She would neither rest nor allow anyone around her to until she saw him alive and under proper care.
She heard a commotion in the corridor. Almost as one, the human Rangers preparing what she assumed to be the 'quarantine room' she had been told about vacated the bay and hastily disappeared. Puzzled, she stood...only to be shoved aside as a group of Minbari Anla'Shok clad in decontamination robes similar to hers surged through the entrance. Not taking the time to be polite, one of them spun on her, grabbed her by the shoulder and pushed her back into her chair. "If you love our Shok'na as much as we believe you do," he hissed at her, "either go or pretend to be somewhere else for a few minutes! He would not want you to see him like this!"
"What do you mean? I...oh, Valen..." the last came as a sob. "What have you done to him?" The remaining Minbari hustled in, carrying a raw, naked mass barely recognizable as a human...her human. David was quivering as if in death throes and his torso...what she could recognize of it through the scoured skin...was contorted at an odd angle. She could not see his face...one of the Minbari was holding a deadly-looking machine over it...but she could see the bluish tinge around the seal that in a human indicated prolonged oxygen deprivation. And, as they moved him into the quarantine room, she noticed something else. "He is not breathing!" she cried. "You are suffocating him!"
"Time!" the Minbari female holding the mask called out, totally ignoring Ardenn's presence.
"Six minutes, Hela'mer!"
"Ra'sh ta'al Quith! Too slow! Brain functions?"
The Ranger doctor tossed the mask aside, roughly shoved a tube down David's throat and keyed a toggle. Ardenn could feel a wail fighting to get out. The center of her universe was looking right at her, but his normally sparkling green eyes held nothing of the love for her she had come to expect...they were sightless and glassy. In the distance, she could hear something strangely thumping...and her hands were starting to throb.
Glancing up in irritation from the readings she was monitoring, the doctor barked, "Increase the oxygen flow...and would someone please restrain the Revered Sister before she punches through the bulkhead and hurts herself? I definitely do not need another patient on my hands right now!"
One of the Anla'Shok...the same one who had carried her back from the mine entrance, although she did not realize it...exited the room. Taking her gently by the elbow, he led her away from the observation window. Ardenn had not even felt herself move...did not even realize she had left her chair, crossed the main medical bay and had been pounding on the glass. "Shok'na is alive," the Ranger began once he had her seated again. "The physical damage you see is not nearly as serious as I know it must appear. I told you that human skin is more porous than ours...we can strip our epidermis away with solvents and remove the contaminant with little discomfort, but humans must be scoured to accomplish the same. It is painful and it leaves their skin burned and sensitive, but it is not harmful in and of itself."
Calmer now that someone was actually talking to her, Ardenn breathed a sigh of relief. "But the contaminant is inside him as well..."
"...And we cannot get all of it out," the Anla'Shok explained. "We collapsed his lungs to clear them and stopped his breathing so he would not contaminate the ship or infect other humans while we brought him here. The Hela'mer is now resuscitating him and re-inflating his lungs so he can breathe again. This is standard level-three procedure, and he ordered it. He will look and feel much better than he does now with a few hours' rest."
"That is good to hear," a third voice interjected, causing the young Minbari to look up. Somewhat gingerly, a scantily-robed and very burned-looking Delenn slid into the seat beside her.
"Nashon found you!" Ardenn exclaimed, feeling better almost immediately. If Delenn was calm, then the situation must not be as bad as it seemed to her. She started to give her former mentor a hug, but was mindful of her raw skin and pulled back at the last moment. "I am glad to see you, Va'saia," she supplied instead, realizing that it was a massive understatement but knowing that under the circumstances the other woman appreciated a toned-down greeting.
"And I, you," Delenn replied, sparing her heart-daughter an understanding smile before turning back to their companion. "Your thoroughness is admirable but how long, do you think, before the contaminant regenerates?"
"We are running some tests to determine that for certain," the Ranger physician answered, stripping off her gloves as she walked over from the isolation room. "But it appears the contaminant has penetrated his cellular structure. If Entil'zha's records are any indication, it gains strength with each purging attempt, so in two to three days he will fade to the same condition he was in before...or worse. Without a counteragent that can actually neutralize the spores we can only treat the symptoms as they manifest, not cure him."
Delenn merely nodded and sighed, already suspecting that would be the case.
"But the fortunate news is that Shok'na Sheridan suffered no ill effects from the decontamination process other than those you have already seen," the Healer continued. "He is breathing again. I am going to keep him unconscious for a few hours...it will give me the opportunity to reset his broken rib, bring his fever down and provide him with some much-needed rest. I do not believe he has slept in several days."
"Can we visit him?" Ardenn asked. "I mean...once he awakens."
"You can," the doctor acceded. "Once we set up a portable airlock on the quarantine room hatch and teach you the procedure for using it, you can even sit with him before he awakens if you wish." Turning to Delenn, she continued, "Unfortunately, you and Entil'zha cannot. He still exhales trace amounts of the spore when he breathes and while it does not affect Minbari, if you or another human inhaled it you would become infected as well. Among humans, that seems to be how it was designed to spread. The observation glass is as close as you should get."
"We probably should get some rest as well," Delenn observed. "David's situation is not one we can appreciably affect at the moment, and it has been some time since we have slept or eaten."
"Yes," the Healer agreed. "And this brings me to the two of you. It would not do for me to keep you sitting here half-undressed, would it?" Moving in front of the older Minbari, she reached down and gingerly lifted the hair away from her neck. "Turn your head for me, please...did you remember to scrub behind your ears? How does your skin feel?"
"Like I am standing in the middle of a bonfire. Even wearing this silly little robe is agonizing."
"Human epidermal layers, unfortunately, are not as easily cleansed as ours," the doctor tsked. "But I believe I can help you." Reaching into a cabinet, she withdrew several tubes. Handing two to Delenn, she continued, "This is a topical salve that should return your skin to normal fairly rapidly. Apply it liberally."
Delenn eyed the tubes dubiously. "And the areas I cannot reach?"
The doctor spared her a knowing look. "I provided you two tubes. You have a mate. The two of you should be able to handle matters from there." Moving to Ardenn, she checked the crevices of her crest and pushed her robe off of her shoulders to view the top of her spinal ridge. "And how about you? Any bumps or bruises I should know about? Any ill effects from the cleansing chemicals?"
Ardenn slipped her robe back up, barely paying attention. Her gaze was locked on the now-darkened observation window. "I seem to be whole...for the moment," she absently murmured.
Stepping away from the young woman, the healer gazed down at her speculatively, tapping another of the salve tubes against her chin. "You have no need for this," she mused, "But Shok'na will require a complete application once he awakens. As his elders are not permitted into quarantine, I suppose I could ask for a volunteer from among the Minbari in the crew..."
That regained her attention. Looking back at the healer, Ardenn held out her hand. In her most proper tone, she said, "That will not be necessary."
Handing her the tube, the Anla'Shok woman smoothed the front of her own decontamination robe. "I did not think it would be," she quietly acknowledged as the young woman unscrewed the cap, sniffed the contents and squeezed a small amount out.
Something in the healer's tone puzzled Ardenn, but she decided to ignore it. "It feels...frictionless," she observed, rubbing the ointment between her thumb and forefinger.
"Yes," the Ranger supplied. "Besides soothing abraded skin, it has a multitude of uses, some of which are not strictly...medicinal."
Ardenn looked at the woman curiously. "I...I do not understand what you mean."
The healer smiled. "You seem imaginative enough...you will come up with something." With that, her smile faded. Leaning closer, she lowered her voice to a whisper and added, "Revered Sister, we Anla'Shok do not surrender our own to outsiders easily...and never to those who do not merit our respect, no matter what their position among others may be. Appreciate what you have earned, for you are not the only female to ever cast a willing glance at our Shok'na and there are a few among us who would give much to be 'in your shoes', as the humans say."
"I...think I understand now," Ardenn slowly replied. With great deliberateness, she resealed the ointment. "Coveting the...shoes...of another female is an unhealthy practice," she observed warningly as she replaced the cap. "And I am very...possessive...of mine. No matter how appealing they look, they fit only me and admirers would be wise to seek elsewhere for an available pair...as I am sure those females understand."
The healer bowed respectfully. "They do, Revered Sister." Motioning to the door, she continued, "Ah...you will have to excuse me. I believe I hear my next patient coming down the corridor...and I pray he will not be a problem one."
"Did you hear that?" Ardenn incredulously fumed once the healer was out of earshot. "In my shoes indeed! Could she have been any more blatant? Does she think me too obtuse to understand a metaphor?" Turning to her companion, who was studiously examining a loose thread in her robe, she added, "And from a fellow Minbari, no less! How could you listen to the...the foodbeast offal she was spouting...and not say anything?"
"I was supposed to speak?" Delenn innocently rejoined. "You are, after all, the one who has read all the articles about keeping other women off your man. While my experience in that area is rather limited, I am certain that none of the techniques involved dragging the mother into the fray." With a snicker, she leaned in and added, "Ier'saia, I hardly qualify as an objective observer, but when I look at David through the eyes of a Minbari female rather than a human parent I recognize that he is desirable...just as you do. Is it so difficult to imagine that others might also see what you and I see? His love for you has likely been the subject of many late-night crew quarters conversations, especially among the females, and being told that you have left a few envious of you in your wake should be no surprise. Anla'Shok are nothing if not direct."
"As if they have any say about us," Ardenn grumbled.
"But they do, Ier'saia," the older woman corrected, "These are David's friends and they have much to say. Ever since he first introduced you to them, they have been watching you and judging for themselves whether you are of sufficient quality to make him a good wife. Because their way of life is hard and perilous, Anla'Shok rarely join with any other than Anla'Shok...in many ways, they are a clan unto themselves. You are not of them, so to earn their acceptance you had to prove you at least possessed the spirit of the brooch even if you will never actually wear one." Tapping the tube in Ardenn's hand, she concluded, "They may think you somewhat foolhardy but you put yourself at great risk out of love for their captain, and I think the healer was speaking for her fellow females to let you know that whatever their personal feelings may be, they recognized it...and that they have deemed you worthy."
"Worthy to be his mate?"
"Worthy enough for any who might still have reservations about you to air them somewhere else," Delenn clarified. With a chuckle, she glanced at the door. "Speaking of somewhere else, I think this is a good time for you to be there. I hear John coming," meaningfully, she indicated their robes, "and as his injury is in a somewhat sensitive area, I would prefer some privacy while the healer treats him. While you and I are close, I suffer from the same discomfort when other females admire my...ah, shoes...as you do."
With barely a whisper, Susan entered the fissure. She didn't know what she expected to see...hundreds of Dilgar ships, a Dilgar world humming with activity, thousands of marching troops...something military.
She found herself standing in a darkened chamber, surrounded by grey-robed figures.
She had never stood before the Grey Council. In her time as Anla'Shok Na, there had never been the need...but, as she looked around the circle, it appeared much as she imagined it would. Except...the numbers were wrong.
The Grey Council had nine members...plus the Chosen One. This circle had thirteen.
And when one spoke, she knew she was not facing Satai.
"The Advance Guard Commander reports all is in readiness, Cabal brothers. The Alliance is destabilized and ripe for our reintroduction."
"Then it is time. Order them to attack. Sweep the slave warriors aside and prepare the target world for subjugation. Once the planet's orbit is cleared from space, the Main Body will commence landing."
"I need more than this!" Susan hissed, suddenly afraid. "I've got to see what we're up against!"
She was afraid for a very good reason. Wars throughout history were generally fought for three reasons: To gain territory, to exercise power or as religious cleansing. War on an interstellar scale was different. Because of the massive logistical challenges involved, planetary invasions were literally out of the question, removing territorial gains from the list. It was simply too difficult to transport the millions of troops necessary to effect true subjugation of an entire world. Even the Minbari, Susan knew, could never have hoped to successfully invade Earth no matter what technological advantages they had...the entire Warrior caste would not have been able to sustain ground combat against billions of angry humans.
If war had to be carried to the surface of a heavily-populated world, prevailing tactics called for using mass drivers or atomics to beat the surface dwellers into submission. Once those remaining alive surrendered, occupation troops were brought in. Yet this Dilgar...cabal...was calling for landings immediately after clearing space-bound defenders.
In response to her directive, the Great Machine pulled at her. Without preamble, she moved through the ceiling of the chamber and outward, almost as if an ancient chemical drive was accelerating her away. And she saw...
Hyperspace. Moving through it were five massive disks, ships so large that the old Babylon Five station would have barely stood out beside even one of them. Each could have sheltered half the Alliance fleet underneath.
Troop ships...but troop ships built on a scale she could never have imagined. Perhaps a Vorlon planet-killer would rival one in size, but such ships no longer existed.
"They have been consigned to the darkness between the stars for a long time," Draal quietly observed. "Over fifty human years. Quite enough time to construct such devices without interference. I would imagine the population of just one of those city-ships numbers in the multiple millions."
"Yeah," Susan replied, her tone hushed as she continued to absorb the images before her. "And they have a target. I need to know where it is."
Pivoting, she felt herself moving away from the Dilgar behemoths. The swirling ochre of hyperspace parted and she was staring down at a world. As with most Earth-type planets when seen from space, it looked much like any other at first...but the ships defending it gave it away. She first thought they were White Stars, but closer examination revealed them for what they were.
"Drazi Sunhawks," she breathed. "The Drazi Homeworld. So their Ambassador was right, after all..."
"A skilled worker population, heavy industry...and a world they have a history with," Draal mused. "It seems to meet all the right criteria for a good place to establish themselves."
"And I need to be there...now." ***
"...and I want this ship off the ground and on the way to Minbar as soon as everyone's back on board..." a beet-red John Sheridan directed as Nashon and another Ranger carried him into the medical bay and set him down on the main examination table. "And show me what this baby can do. Don't spare the horses."
"It will be as you command, Entil'zha," Nashon acknowledged. "But please lie back...the physician will need to treat your wound."
"...And I want a fleet situation report downloaded. I need to know what's going on out there...get me Ranger One, if you can..."
"...And a line to Tuzanor. I've got to find out what those boneheads who fired my wife are up to...uh, no offense, you understand..."
"None taken, Entil'zha."
"...And some pants. Can anyone around here find me some pants? My business is flopping all over the place in this doggone loincloth..."
"John?" Delenn called from her seat. "It might be best if you let Nashon go. He cannot actually do what you are asking of him if you keep giving him more instructions."
John managed a chagrined expression. "Yeah...uh, right. Go on ahead, Nashon. I'll be up to the bridge as soon as I...hey! I usually get dinner and flowers before people start playing with that!"
The healer, already busily probing John's perforated thigh, pushed her latest patient back down on the table. "If you would stay on your back, Entil'zha, it would not keep falling into my way. You will be up, as you say, when I finish cleaning and sealing this...and not one minute sooner."
"The ship will not move any faster with you on the bridge," Delenn pointed out. "And that is not your assigned place of duty anyway."
"This is a White Star. I'm Entil'zha. Where else do you think should I be?"
"Your assigned place is on that table under the direction of the healer until she deems you fit to leave. As our son is presently incapacitated, I am still in command of this vessel...unless Entil'zha has some reason to doubt my competence and chooses to relieve me. Is Entil'zha contemplating such a bold move, do you suppose?"
Her tone indicated that relief would be an extremely unwise move on Entil'zha's part, so John let it go. "Uh...no. Entil'zha is certain that Captain Bligh...ahem, Anla'Shok Delenn is more than fit to remain at her post," he grumbled. "As long as she doesn't plan on making this a habit."
With a wry smile Delenn stood, formed a triangle with her fingers and bowed. "In Your Name, then...I still lead." Turning to the healer, she continued, "Now that Entil'zha has reaffirmed the chain of command aboard this ship, I am going to my quarters. You may release my husband...with medical orders to get some rest...when he is sufficiently treated. Entil'zha will obey those orders, yes?"
John threw up his hands in surrender and settled back on the table. "Yes, dear..." he muttered, "Of course, dear...whatever you say, dear."
Sparing her husband a bemused glance, she softened her tone. "John, I do want you to relax a little...let Nashon and the crew worry about the journey. There will be much for you to do when we arrive back home and you will not defeat the Dilgar between now and then, so please join me when you are done here." Tapping a tube of ointment against her chin, she winked at him. "I believe I will require some assistance applying this, so do not keep your Alyt waiting too long."
John closed his eyes tiredly and sighed. "I'll be along in a few minutes."
"Good." With a nod, Delenn started to leave but then turned back. Almost as an afterthought, she addressed the healer. "Ah! There is one other matter. Now that Entil'zha has been recovered, the Revered Sister will no doubt feel...awkward...about continuing our previous quartering arrangement. I have no doubt she will be back here as soon as she has changed clothes to try to wheedle herself a place beside David. Should she make the attempt..."
The healer stepped over and meaningfully pulled a curtain across the observation window. "Should she make the attempt," she finished, "we will endeavor to make her as comfortable as possible. We cannot promise them much privacy, but her keeping Shok'na company will do no additional harm."
"We understand each other, then," Delenn indicated with a slight smile. With a final bow, she was gone.
"You married well," the healer observed as she finished applying a regen pack to John's thigh and began sealing the wound. "Your sala knows when to intercede and when to stand aside."
"Yeah," the elder Sheridan agreed with a chuckle, "She has her moments, but I'm glad she and Ardenn didn't hang around." His smile fading, he reached over and stopped the healer's hands. "Uh...you're monitoring David, right?"
Surprised, the healer nodded. "Most of the monitoring is performed remotely," she supplied. "If you are concerned about him and the Revered Sister being observed while they are together...we are a close-knit crew serving aboard a small ship. Shok'na has always known when to look the other way and so do we."
"No, it's not that," John clarified. "This is purely medical." Even though the room was empty, he lowered his voice. "There are a couple of additional...indicators...I want you to keep an eye on; things you wouldn't normally look for in a human or Minbari."
The healer nodded uncertainly and retrieved the data pad tracking David's readouts. "What am I to look for?"
Glancing at the diagnostics, John pointed out a couple of readings that currently indicated zero. "If you should see any unusual energy patterns there, I want to know about them immediately. Don't tell Delenn. Don't tell Ardenn. Just me...got it?"
"You command, I obey, Entil'zha."
Lying back, John signaled the healer to finish up with him. Beneath and around the two of them, the ship flexed slightly as its gravitic lifters spun up and engaged. Khon'dar was now behind them...but a whole new set of problems waited just ahead...
To Be Continued...
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