2285/I: MEMORIES AND PORTENTS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

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*****

   Somewhere beyond the Rim

   It was Reunion Day. In the Giant's Playground, the children gathered around excitedly as they sensed their beloved father's return, anticipating the arrival of new playmates. Seeing their father's empty hands, their excitement quickly became sadness and disappointment. "You have returned! But…you have returned without them," the children cried in unison.

   The father sighed. He had known his children, expecting a reunion with companions from the past, would be crestfallen. "Yes. So I did. I can do things like that. Sometimes it is good to be the First of the First Ones."

   From the disappointed crowd of children, two stepped forward. The First recognized them as his two most recent arrivals - one of Light, the other of Darkness…the last of his direct descendants to depart the other realm. The First had not doubted that these two would be the ones most anticipating the new arrivals. They had the most direct experience with those he had departed to fetch. The being of Light spoke first. "Why?" he asked simply.

   "Why am I the First? Or why did I not bring them? 'Why' is such a nebulous question…I would think that here even you would realize that, do you not agree? An easy question to confound the Younger Races, but I can use it to give any answer I choose." Looking at each other, the two children sighed and settled themselves…clearly anticipating another of father's confusing lectures. The First almost laughed at the comedy of the scene. "Very well, I see that you are impatient, so I will spare you. I am the First, my Children, because I came before you. That answer will suffice for the present. As for the two you seek, I did not bring them because they had not yet wearied of the Physical realm."

   "You could have brought them anyway," his Dark child said petulantly.

   The First nodded, amused at the tone of the Dark one. "Yes. Yes, I could have."

   "But you did not." The Dark one continued.

   "No. I did not." Steepling his fingers, the First looked out over his gathered flock and said, "I have watched them…and I have learned as I watched." Smiling at the wave of astonishment that radiated from the group, he chuckled and added, "It surprises you to know that I still learn? That there is knowledge that I do not possess? I am ancient, but I am not omniscient. I find that I wish to observe some more." For a moment, the First looked almost puzzled. Almost to himself, he said, "Perhaps Love is not the Grand Illusion I once thought."

   His child of Light spoke again. "You could have watched the children," the child observed. "Their bond is just now forming…and they are the first chapter of the next Great Story."

   The first laughed at the simplicity of his child's rationalization. "Do you think me so addled that I cannot read two stories at once?" he said indulgently. "I will not interfere with the young ones. They are innocent and full of wonder…and I am loath to dispel that by touching their lives as I did their parents. They will follow the path ordained for them, a path that will have its measure of interference from others in any event, as they are about to discover."

   "The presence of both the parents and the children together unbalances their side of the Rim on the side of Light," the Dark one noted. "It is no longer the parents' time. There must be balance."

   "Balance?" Had the First of the First possessed eyebrows, he would have raised them in surprise. "Perfect balance in the Universe would end existence for us all." Extending a long finger, the First of the First Ones pointed at the being of Light and said, "You do not understand. Tick…and the Universe is tilted towards the Light." Turning to the shimmering black presence and waggling his finger, he continued, " Tock…and Darkness gains the advantage for an instant. Tick-tock, tick-tock…the Universe is a pendulum, you see…marking time between the Darkness and the Light. It must tick and tock to stave off entropy. As long as the pendulum swings…as long as the metronome ticks and tocks, Time and the Universe advance. Without the teetering, without some imperfection in the balance to cause that pendulum to swing, Time would not move forward and the Universe would halt." Seeing that they still did not understand, he added, "That is why you had to come with me. The two of you had become far too heavy for the pendulum to support your weight in the Physical realm."

   "It is…unfair." The black presence simply stated.

   "Unfair?" the First of the First laughed, "Nothing is fair for very long. Even here, my children, you understand so little of the Universe. The Universe is both the Thought and the Song. The Thought is Chaos…what the Younger Races call the Darkness. It is the vastness of the abyss. It is vast beyond the imagining of both you and the Younger Races, so vast that anything any of us can imagine happens somewhere within it. At the same time, the Universe is the Song…what the Younger Races call the Light. The Song imposes order and rhythm on the Thought. Because of the Song, every atom has a specified location in space and time. A delightful paradox, yes? It is a construct of beauty and ugliness, a perpetual motion machine created and sustained by Thought and the Song. On some level far beyond even my understanding, the Universe is aware of itself. It recognizes when imbalances exist and it adjusts to swing the pendulum the other way. Back and forth. Tick-tock."

   "Which came first? The Thought or the Song?"

   "That, my Children…that is the question I have pondered for my whole existence. I suspect that we will not know the answer until the End. Some day, the pendulum will find its center and will cease swinging. That is the end of the Universe. The pendulum's final swing will come either from the Darkness or the Light. It is my belief that the terminal swing will be the opposite of the beginning one. At the very end, as our consciousness fades at the last and we all come together, we will know." Placing his hands on his knees, the First smiled and added, "That event is far, far in the future…even as I reckon time. For now, the cycles continue. On the physical side of the Rim, it begins yet again. The first cycle of the Third Age of Mankind."

   The being of Light spoke. "They thought that by dispelling us, they had ended the cycles. Sheridan did not understand. He has merely renewed them, with the Younger Races now occupying our positions."

   "Yes, I suppose. But they do not recognize that as of yet. They are not yet evolved enough to truly comprehend the cyclic nature of the Universe. I told Sheridan of tick-tock at Zha'dum…he is dimly aware of the pendulum's cycle, enough so that he may detect the change, but he will not recognize it for what it is. He did not understand because none of the Younger Races are yet ready. That is as it should be." The First replied with a satisfied expression.

   "We departed too soon," the being of Darkness whispered, "We could still have guided them…helped them comprehend…"

   "No." the First stated flatly. "You did not comprehend yourself until just now, and it is no longer your time. They will learn." Softening his gaze, he looked kindly at his Children and said, "Equality and Balance are not your true reasons for wanting them here, anyway. Tell the truth."

   "They are our children and we love them," the Being of Light plaintively said.

   "We miss them. We are lonely." The Dark one added.

   "Be at Peace," The First stated with a smile. Extending his fingers in a fan, he continued, "Time is fleeting for them, and I am with you. They will live out their lives, and what seems a long time to them will be but the blink of an eye to you. Then we will have our Reunion Day."

   "We do not wish for the young ones to come to harm."

   "That will be as the Universe wills it. The pendulum swings as it must. There is still Light and Darkness on their side of the Rim, and as the two of you strove against one another, so will they. Even now, I feel the Universe adjusting, and I suspect that Sheridan feels it as well. He and I are still linked, after all. I fear that the Younger races will soon find that the Forces of Darkness have been strengthened against them."

*****

   On a plane of existence far beyond our understanding, the Universe noted that the Forces of Light were too powerful in a small insignificant corner of itself. It made a minute adjustment…and the pendulum reversed course and began the swing towards its opposite side. And, in that small, insignificant corner, 2284 ended and 2285 was born…

   Earth Year 2285

   Space is the Great Unknown.

   Even in the age of Jumpgates, only small pockets have been explored. Deep space, the space between the inhabited systems, remains largely unmapped…an area jokingly called the 'Big Empty' by the Humans, a race with a nagging habit of turning anything that frightens them into subjects of humor. The unknown is not reserved to the Void alone, however. Even explored systems, some colonized, some not, fall from star charts as their usefulness ends or their populations abandon them. These worlds become lost and gradually fade into myth. Some worlds become lost peacefully, over time. Some become lost suddenly, as a result of war.

   Around one of the latter worlds…a small, unremarkable blue-green planet, a silvery ship glided…its telltale angelfish silhouette indicating to anyone in known space its Minbari origins. Weapons protrusions, squat and ugly in counterpoint to the smooth artistry of the ship's hull design, marked the vessel as a warship. No other identifying features were evident. The occupants of the vessel wanted it so…they wanted no one aware of their identity. This vessel was not of the Minbari fleet. Defense of the homeworld was not its mission.

   At least, not in the way most would consider…

*****

   In the command center of the Minbari Warcruiser, a tattooed Warrior Caste officer stepped forward into the circle of light to deliver his report to the Commander. "We have achieved orbit around Khon'dar, War Leader," he intoned. "Initial sensor sweeps indicate no other ships in this quadrant, and no higher forms of life on the planet."

   "Thank you, Belall," the War Leader replied, glancing from the holo displays projected in a giant circle around him, "What is our transit time to the target area?"

   "The target area is on the far side of Khon'dar from our present location. At current speed, we will arrive over the target area in twenty-seven minutes."

   "Very well. Order the missile crews to their stations. I want an anti-matter missile prepared and ready to fire immediately upon reaching the target area. We will remain here no longer than absolutely necessary. Human warships still transit this quadrant occasionally, and I would not want one detecting our presence at a…inopportune…moment. This space is under their jurisdiction, after all."

   "It will be as you order, War Leader." Bowing, the young officer exited the circle to carry out his orders.

   War Leader Vashaer watched his young clan mate leave, not hearing another officer approach. Vashaer turned to find that Alyt Nevann, the actual Commander of the ship he had commandeered, had entered the circle beside him. "War Leader, ordering the missile crews to their stations now pulls them away from manning the ship's defenses. Respectfully, are you sure that is wise? Should the Humans stumble upon us now, it could place us in danger."

   "Ah…Nevann. I am pleased that you have arrived. It is good to have the counsel of a Warrior of the old ways…one who still mistrusts the Humans. These young Warriors…they do not remember how dishonorable Humans can be. Many have become like human sheep, falling under the spell of Delenn and her ilk. Our 'president'," he spat the word, "she would have us all lying down and bedding humans were it not for people like you and I keeping them in check. If you do not believe me, simply look at her son…she has presented him with a Minbari concubine, if the rumors are to be believed." Turning back to the displays, Vashaer waved his arm at the sensor readings. "As you can see, we are alone here. I think it is safe to stand down the defenses to an extent. We would have had to anyway to ready the missiles when we reach the target area. Besides which, the war with the Humans has been over for almost thirty cycles. Were we to encounter a human warship now, the most that would result would be embarrassing questions. If, by some fortuitous chance, a fight did break out, I doubt that even one of their Warlock destroyers would stand much of a chance against us and the few Victory-class ships in Earthforce do not come to this quadrant. The Earthers use them for exploration. Can you imagine? Using your most effective warships to explore? It is another sign that they are not fit to travel the Galaxy."

   "I accede to your wisdom, War Leader," Nevann replied, bowing. "I suppose that the task you have put before us makes me uneasy, that is all. It was my understanding that we left the…evidence…here as an insult to the Humans. Yet we have no information to indicate that the Humans ever returned here after the war. It seems illogical to me that we would destroy what we left without any indication that the Humans found and understood our… uh, message."

   "Destroying the site is a necessity, Nevann," Vashaer replied. Screwing up his face in distaste, he continued, "Politics…simple politics. The leaders of our Clan have finally surrendered to the new state of affairs on Minbar. The Humans are now our 'friends', our Caste is in decline, and we have been shut out of meaningful participation in the government since Clan Leader Shakiri allowed that freakish half-breed to shame him in the Wheel. We are at a point where we either compromise or die out. The test site for the weapons must be destroyed. Were its existence to become public now, it is likely that we Wind Swords would not survive the resulting scandal as an intact clan."

   "People still know of this place." Nevann countered, "Delenn herself knows…"

   Vashaer cut Nevann off in mid-sentence. "And she, above all, will remain silent. She is the only one of the Council left alive that participated in allowing what happened here to occur." With a chuckle, he continued, "I saw her face when she surveyed our demonstration those many cycles ago…when she realized that, as a member of the Council, she bore some responsibility for it. She shamefully lost the contents of her stomach. She, the Great Satai, was too weak then to allow full implementation of the program, and she would be too shamed now to reveal its existence since to do so would also reveal her culpability. Think about it…she is joined with a human, she has a human son and most of her close friends are human. What would they think of her if they knew? No." the War Leader concluded, "She will stay silent, even if she finds out about this present mission."

   "I still do not…" Nevann began, then trailed off as a new indicator began flashing on the projection around him. "We appear to have an incoming transmission, War Leader."

   "From where? Our sensors still indicate no other ships in the area."

   Nevann looked curiously at him. "From the surface of Khon'dar." Looking again at the telemetry information attached to the incoming message, he said, "I do not understand…there are no higher life forms on the surface. We just scanned…"

   "Perhaps if we viewed the transmission, Alyt, our understanding would be enhanced." Vashaer replied testily. Speaking more loudly so that the ship's computer could pick up his voice, he said, "Put the transmission on screen."

   In response, an image appeared. Vashaer and Nevann found themselves facing a young Earthforce officer. "Him!" Nevann exclaimed. "This is impossible!"

   "Yes, Starkiller himself…" Vashaer mused. Turning to his shocked companion, he said, "Nevann, close your mouth before you begin drooling on yourself. Look at him. This image is of a man far too young. It is obviously a recorded transmission. It would appear that our 'message' to the Humans was received, after all." Turning back to the image, he said, "Add the audio."

   "…to unidentified ship. This is Commander John Sheridan of the Earthforce destroyer Lexington. You are transiting an Earth Alliance-restricted sector, and Earthforce has been notified. You are ordered to change course or your ship will be targeted by planetary defenses. You have two minutes to comply. I repeat, this is Commander John Sheridan of the Earthforce destroyer Lexington. You are transiting an Earth Alliance-restricted sector, and Earthforce has been notified. You are ordered to change course or your ship will be targeted by planetary defenses. You have one minute, forty-five seconds to comply…"

   Vashaer listened a moment more, and then dismissed the transmission with a wave. "Ridiculous. The Earthforce base that would receive such a transmission certainly no longer exists and planetary defenses…even if still operable after all this time, there is little that Sheridan could have emplaced on the surface that would harm this ship." Pausing, he thought for a moment. "Still," he mused, "he is infamous for his tendency to use atomics. He may have left some automated weapons in orbit. Run another sensor sweep."

   Beams of invisible energy radiated out from the Warcruiser in response. In the command center of the ship, the tactical display updated itself. Alyt Nevann studied several new blips that appeared on the readouts. "We are detecting the presence of human battle satellites of a type commensurate with standard Earth technology of thirty cycles ago, but no atomics." He said after a moment. "The satellites are active, but are war-vintage and are not of sufficient power to seriously threaten the ship at this range. If we move much closer to the target area, their concentrated fire could present a problem, however."

   Vashaer nodded in acknowledgement. "Do not trouble yourself over them. We are almost at sufficient range to accomplish our task already."

   "Should we cloak?" Nevann asked. "The satellites have already detected our presence and are targeting us."

   "Can they do any damage?"

   "A negligible amount. They will be merely a minor annoyance at this distance."

   "Then why bother with the power drain? Do we have a firing solution on the target area?"

   "No, War Leader. Target area will be in range in two minutes…" As he spoke, another flash on the tactical display caught his eye. He looked at it, surprised, and then looked again. "War Leader," he said hesitantly, "We appear to have picked up a cloaked ship. It is at close range, otherwise we would not have detected it at all. It is a small vessel…outbound at high velocity."

   Vashaer was instantly all business. Discovery at this point would shame the Clan. "Human or Alliance? Is it a human ship or Interstellar Alliance? Quickly!"

   Hastily, Nevann shouted orders to the ship's computer, commanding that it search the identification registry. Just as quickly, his query came back negative. "Neither! It is a ship type unknown to us, War Leader!"

   "Or the Humans have a new ship type. That must be it. Nevann, the Humans have tricked us!" Spinning on his heel, Vashaer shouted, "Order the crews to battle stations!" As warning tones began softly sounding throughout the Warcruiser, he continued issuing orders. "Set an intercept course for the fleeing vessel! We cannot let it report back to Earthforce! Since it is evident that they know about what occurred here, they hope to catch us in the act of destroying the evidence! Destroy that ship!"

   Slowly, the Minbari Warcruiser turned away from the planet in pursuit of the unknown ship. Aboard the ship, Warrior Caste Minbari scrambled from the missile bays in an attempt to reach their battle stations. In the command center, the tactical displays shifted from ground bombardment mode to deep space scans, searching for enemy ship targets. Vashaer and Nevann did not have to scan for long.

   "Target vessel is accelerating rapidly!" Nevann said, his voice rising with excitement. "She has uncloaked, probably to divert additional power to her engines. We are receiving more detailed information…" Looking intently at the tactical display, he continued, "The target ship is a small, fast vessel…probably a scout of some sort. Identity is still unknown, but it does not appear to be of human origin. Two life readings…neither is human."

   "Who are they, then?" Vashaer growled to himself. Raising his voice, he said, "Time to intercept?"

   "War Leader, I do not think we can intercept them…they are too fast and our fighter crews are just now reaching their ships." Snorting disappointedly, Nevann turned back to Vashaer. "I recommend that we break off pursuit and leave the system before that scout can bring in reinforcements." Vashaer was not paying attention to him, confusing the Alyt. "War Leader?" he asked, "Did you hear me?"

   "It is too late, Nevann…jump points forming! Close in…they are almost on top of us!" Vashaer shouted. Close to the Warcruiser, three jump points materialized. Almost instantly, three large ships surged through them, disgorging fighters as the points closed behind them.

   "There are too many!" Vashaer groaned, slamming his gloved fist into his palm. "Reverse course, Nevann! Bring the jump engines on line and launch fighters...we need some time to escape! Give me a visual on the warships! Who are they?"

   The ship's tactical responded instantly, displaying a scan of the closest enemy warship. The vessel was roughly as large as the Warcruiser and resembled no type that either Vashaer or Nevann had ever seen before. At first glance, the ships appeared to resemble Narn heavy cruisers. At least, Vashaer noted, the color schemes were similar. Where Narn ships were bilaterally symmetrical, however, these ships were trilateral, almost like wedge-shaped isosceles triangles. Powerful-looking weapons nacelles protruded from the forward points of the triangles…points that even now appeared to be on-line and ready to fire. Upon quick reflection, the closest match the War Leader could come up with resemblance-wise was a Drakh fighter. These were no Drakhs, though. Drakh capital ships were totally dissimilar from their fighters. Even as they watched, the two Minbari commanders felt the ship shudder as the first wave of enemy fighters began to engage them.

   "Are our fighters away? Give me a situation report!" Vashaer ordered.

   Nevann staggered as the ship shuddered again. Above them, the crystal dias of the holographic display rocked, causing the tactical readouts to flicker. "Our fighters are away and engaging the enemy, War Leader," he reported stoically, "Our long-range plasma cannons are manned and ready, but close in defensive weapons are not on-line yet and those ships are too close for the long range guns."

   "Withdraw! Give me some distance from those ships!" In response, the Warcruiser heeled to port, setting a new course back towards the planet. "Are jump engines on-line yet?"

   "Jump engines are now on-line. Our fighters, War Leader…they are outnumbered three to one…we cannot leave them here…"

   "Prepare to jump. Our pilots understand sacrifice. They will die with hon…" As Vashaer was speaking, the ship lurched violently to one side, throwing both warriors to the deck. Outside, the three enemy capital ships had opened up on the fleeing Warcruiser with their heavy guns, hitting the ship in her critical aft engineering sections. Damaged, the fishtail-shaped gravitic stabilizer of the Warcruiser began coming apart. Simultaneously, their smaller ships were slowly peeling away the defensive screen set up by the Minbari fighters.

   "Jump engines…jump engines have gone off-line!" Navenn cried. "The stabilizer is damaged!"

   "Go to maneuvering engines!" Vashaer yelled in response. "Turn us into them, Nevann! Put our aft section to the planet, that will keep them off of it while we effect repairs!"

   The Warcruiser slowly spun again, bringing its main plasma cannons to bear on the closing enemy warships. Around her, swarms of fighters buzzed, the reddish brown ships of the enemy far outnumbering the Naill-class fighters of the Wind Swords. As the Warcruiser turned, the enemy warships cut loose with another barrage of fire, white-hot beams of energy lancing out and cutting into the Warcruiser's dorsal stabilizer. With a fiery blast, the control linkages between the ship's main hull and the upper fin severed and the burning wing-shaped appendage broke free, spinning slowly off into space.

   "We need maneuvering room, Nevann! They are setting up an englobement!" Vashaer shouted. "Give me a firing solution on the lead ship!"

   Even with severe damage, Minbari Warcruisers are the hardiest of ships, built to last for hundreds of years. The Wind Sword ship was not dead…yet. Beams of yellow fire flew from the damaged warship, striking one of the attackers a glancing blow and forcing the wedge-shaped adversary to break off the attack. Still, the two other large enemy ships pressed in, forcing the stricken Minbari vessel back toward the planet. The Minbari fighter screen, now almost totally decimated, no longer held the enemy fighters at bay, and fires started breaking out at weak points in the Minbari ship's hull as the small enemy ships turned their attention from the fighters to attacking the Warcruiser itself. Large metallic plates began to blow free as fire from the attacking fighters breached the outer hull.

   Aboard the dying cruiser, the Minbari fought like demons to hold off the enemy and control the damage, but, as the enemy closed, both Vashaer and Navenn could see that their cause was lost even as their own weapons began scoring more hits against the enemy. It was too little, too late. "Navenn," Vashaer intoned heavily, "Prepare to scuttle the ship. We cannot let them take us."

   Navenn looked at Vashaer for a long second, saying nothing. Tearing his gaze away from his commander, he sadly surveyed what was left of his ship before turning back to him. Bowing, he said, "It will be as you order, War Leader." Those were his last words. As he turned to leave, the deck surged up once again, throwing both Minbari into the air as ship's gravity failed and then slamming them to the deck again as the emergency generators restored it. As both warriors rolled around on the floor, arms and legs broken, Vashaer heard the sickening groan of tearing metal high over his head. He looked up to see the rotating holo projector rip free from its moorings. Almost in slow motion, the massive spinning structure collapsed onto the deck. War Leader Vashaer caught a glimpse of Alyt Nevann staring up in horror an instant before being buried under tons of metal.

   Vashaer only had a moment to be paralyzed by the sight. Devoid of the light from the now-destroyed tactical display, the chamber plunged into darkness. As he painfully tried to crawl to the exit, the ship's computer intoned "Warning. Inner hull breach. Warning. Inner hull breach…"

   Vashaer had only enough time to register the import of this message before the ship again rocked from an explosion. Almost without realizing what was happening, Vashaer felt himself lifted as the command center opened to space. As he spun into the void, he retained barely enough consciousness to realize that he was dead before his body began to bloat.

   Ironically, it was not the attackers that struck the Warcruiser's deathblow. The attacking enemy had forced the Warcruiser closer and closer to Khon'dar, with her damaged aft section facing the planet. 'Ineffective' battle satellites, placed in orbit by a hated human warrior nearly forty years prior, sensed the approach of an unknown ship and, true to their programming, opened fire when the human's now-forgotten warning went unheeded. Their weapons, weapons which a fully-functional Minbari warship could easily have counteracted, tore through the already-damaged aft compartments of the ship, opening her inner hull to space and killing all aboard. As the attacking enemy sailed past the dying Minbari vessel, they flew into the same defenses, losing several of their own fighters to the satellites before breaking off their approach. Having received some damage themselves during the fight, the enemy turned and headed back out into space, leaving the burning but still largely-intact remnants of the Minbari ship drifting listlessly in orbit.

   In another touch of irony, it is interesting to note that the Minbari died never knowing their enemy. Had they been humans instead, they would have recognized those wedge-shaped ships instantly.

   And they would have been terrified.

   And on the planet below, a secret remained a secret. For a time…

*****

   On the balcony of the presidential quarters in Tuzanor, John Sheridan sat and waited patiently in the chill as the morning mist curled through the sleeping city spread out before him. <Two months, > he noted absently. He had been back for two months, and he had discovered much to think about. As he looked out, he pondered his new existence even as he observed the first dim glow of the Minbari sun, hidden behind the mountains to the west.

   <2284…a year of portentous change. A year of renewal. A year of new life risen from the ashes of the old. A year of loves both rekindled and newly discovered. A year of reunions. Optimism abounded among the Younger Races…> With his return, he mused, the forces of Light seemed triumphant once again. A remnant of the darkness had been vanquished, even if not destroyed, and the people of the Interstellar Alliance looked brightly upon a galaxy of opportunities.

   <The 'new and improved' John Sheridan… > he chuckled to himself as he noted the poetic nature of his thoughts. As the people of the Alliance adjusted to his presence once again, they were discovering that he was a man who was not quite the one they remembered. He was larger than life, even more so than he had been before. "He is a man who has died twice…" they whispered. "He has seen things beyond our understanding." John snorted amusedly at his own image. Never mind that he had no memory of what occurred while he was 'dead', and that his return could be explained through relatively easy-to-understand technologies. The people, especially the Minbari, put great stock in their mythologies. And the myths were spreading, despite his best efforts to forestall them.

   As he awaited the sun, he recalled how his understanding of the power of his own myth came about. It had been totally unexpected. One day soon after his return to Minbar, he had voiced one of his many complaints to Delenn about the awe that the Minbari expressed in his presence. As he continued to grouse and grumble, Delenn had listened quietly for a while, then inexplicably, she had started crying and bolted from the room.

   Confused, John followed. As Delenn adjusted to his presence again, crying jags still came to her occasionally, although they usually occurred when she wasn't expecting him and he startled her. He found her lying on their bed with tears still in her eyes. After some gentle coaxing, she had opened up to him. "They need something…someone to believe in, John," she had tearfully said. "I have listened time and again as…as you have tried to turn faith into science. Why do you continuously strive to…to deny us of our sense of wonder?"

   Lying down beside her, he had wrapped his arms around her and held her as understanding finally dawned on him. <Us. She said us. Not 'them' or 'they'…but 'us'. > Delenn, he realized in that moment, was a Believer. She, the woman who had lived the truth behind the stories and myths right beside him…she believed. This realization rocked John. It had never occurred to him that she needed his myth to sustain herself, needed to believe in his larger-than-life image, just as much as her people did…perhaps even more than they did. The fact that he had resisted the stories and myths so vehemently meant that he was essentially attacking her faith as well…unknowingly stinging her with his well-meant pragmatism.

   As if she were reading his mind, Delenn had continued haltingly through her tears, "For a long time, John, I had…lost my faith in miracles. I was lessened by it. Then you came back to me and I…I now believe again. You are my miracle…my gift from a Universe that I thought had forgotten about me. Let me cherish my miracle, John. Please do not take it away."

   <How can a woman who's been looking at my dirty socks hanging on a towel rack for twenty years believe that I'm more than a Human? > John wondered. As he looked into her beautiful eyes, however, he saw the answer. Delenn's eyes were those of a dreamer…a True Seeker. She looked for deeper, more spiritual meanings in everything that occurred around her. He, the realist, had forgotten that aspect of her soul. For her, he would remember from now on.

   At that point, John recalled, he had begun to soften his stance on the myths. Perhaps they had their purposes, he reasoned. To his wife, a woman who had suffered so much loss over the years for so little personal happiness, they certainly seemed to. If the myths comforted her, then he would let her and the others keep them. As an apology, he kissed her softly on the forehead. "Precious One, I would never knowingly take that from you. I'm sorry I spoke as I did." he murmured to her as he began stroking her hair and crest, "I want you to believe in me…you, above all others. You know I'll try to be whoever the people need me to be…whoever you need me to be. It's just…it's hard for me to live up to the image. I suppose that I'm afraid to live in my own myth…afraid that the bar has been set so high for me that someday I'll fall short of it and people will discover that their faith has been misplaced. I could survive their disappointment, I guess…but I could never survive yours."

   "You will never have to face the prospect, John. Were you half the man you are, you would still be my other half. If you and I had nothing but each other, I would still consider myself the most fortunate woman in existence. I want you to be the person you want to be. Who do you want to be?"

   Delenn's question had surprised him. No one else had ever asked him that, assuming he was exactly who he wanted to be. "I just want to be a normal man," John had answered after thinking a moment. "A husband, lover and companion for you, a father and friend to David…someone who can walk down the street unnoticed."

   "That cannot be, love," Delenn had murmured in reply. "You are not a 'normal' man, John…you never have been. The myths…they are true after a fashion, even if they are exaggerated. You must realize that." Sniffling a little, she wiped at her eyes and rolled over to face him. "Listen to me, love," she whispered, "You did not return by chance. Forces beyond our comprehension returned you here for a reason. You are as you are now because you have a special destiny still to fulfill. In my soul, I know this to be true. Your return is my personal miracle and I revel in it, yet you are not the same as you were." Reaching out, she caressed his cheek as she continued. "I do love you as a man, John…not as a myth. I always have and I always will." Smiling sadly, she added, "And I understand that it makes you…uncomfortable…to hear someone as close to you as I am speak about your return as…preordained…but our prophecies, as you know, tell of the return of Valen…"

   John had sighed and rolled over on his back, drawing Delenn up against him in the process and nestling her head into the crook of his shoulder. Whenever Delenn brought up Valen or the prophecies, it was a sure sign that the conversation was about to get heavily philosophical. John's brain wasn't wired right for philosophy - it made his head hurt. To forestall the inevitable headache, he had chuckled and said, "Well Hell, I'm certainly not Valen. That's for sure. Talk about setting the bar high…"

   Delenn had not replied.

   That conversation was a month past. John had not tried to debunk the myths since then…had not even mentioned them. It bothered him a little that his own wife now looked at him with a hint of reverence in her eyes as well as the love that he had come to expect. There was nothing divine about him, yet, as he sat on the bench and considered her words, he saw much in what she said that made a strange kind of sense. Ruminations about reincarnation, Valen and prophecy aside, her observations about his attitude and nature were true. More than anyone, John himself realized that the person he had become was not the John Sheridan that had won the Shadow War. That John Sheridan had been one to act first and ask questions later. He had been a man of passion. He had striven to be a man without fear. He had been the man he needed to be for the billions of people that depended on him…a man alone in a crowd, even as those billions looked upon him almost as a savior. The 'One Good Man' the Vorlon's Inquisitor, Sebastian, had been looking for…the one willing to die alone in the dark, unremarked and lost to history. With his fall at Zha'dum, he had proven that willingness even as a new love with Delenn had provided ample temptation to turn away from it.

   That was then…twenty-five years ago. The present John was still a man of action, but he was a man of action who now thought through his actions…a more patient and introspective person. He was still a man of passion, but his passion had perspective now…he had become slow to anger and quick to forgive. He no longer strove against fear. A little fear was a good thing and he accepted it; it made decision-making more deliberate and was a tool to be used. Over the years, he knew he had grown as a person even if his influence as a leader had shrunk. The billions who truly depended on him had dwindled to a small few, so small that he could count them on the fingers of one hand. Delenn, of course, was the love of his life. She depended on him even as he depended on her. They were each other's reasons for living. His son, David, still depended on him, still unashamedly tapped into the wisdom of his father even as he slowly drew away from his parent's orbit and into the orbit of the shy, beautiful young female who had claimed his heart. David and Ardenn had found within each other people who could love and be loved. In his opinion, David had chosen wisely despite his youth and in the final analysis, a wise choice was all that was required. Amusedly, he noted that this was as it should be…wondering if the young couple would appreciate his mentally reducing their relationship to Lorien-babble.

   Yes, there was still a need for a John Sheridan as Susan had remarked two months prior, but the need was not the same. It had become far more personal. Others led now, among them his beloved wife, and they were the people they needed to be for this time and place…and Delenn believed that he had a higher purpose for being here.

   <Jeff, did you feel like I do now? > Almost in unison with the thought, a strange sensation washed over him, an odd chill as if a dark cloud had momentarily blotted out the sun. For an instant, John felt a sense of foreboding, a feeling that somewhere, something about the universe had changed and dark, long dormant forces were moving. A chill washed through his bones and…

   John startled as he heard something. <Was that a scream? > he thought, shaking off the dark shadow that had fallen across his heart. He thought he had heard someone cry out his name.

   Just as he was mulling over checking on Delenn, whom he had left sleeping peacefully in their bed, she saved him the trouble as she came running through the archway. Her robe was slung loosely about her shoulders and there was fear in her eyes. She looked as if she had just seen a ghost…

*****

   Impassively, she surveyed the group as they filed into the darkened chamber. To her right and left, she could feel the presence of her colleagues…could hear their breathing even through the folds of the hooded gray robes that they wore. She could not see them. It was too dark in the chamber to see clearly, the only light a small circle illuminated on the floor. That was intentional - those who were summoned before the Council were there to be seen, not to see. The group before her gathered in the circle of light, looking uneasy… as they should be, she noted with a sigh. She was not happy…she had not been happy for a long time now, and those gathered before her were about to feel the brunt of her displeasure.

   Raising the staff of Dukhat, the diminutive woman known to outsiders simply as the Voice stepped forward into the circle of light and spoke. Softly, she said, "Why can you not end this?"

   Lined up before her were War Leaders from every one of the Warrior Clans. They stood stiffly and silently, obediently accepting the displeasure of the small hooded figure standing before them. "Why can you not end this?" she repeated, raising her voice. "These humans…they are primitives! And yet, even after two cycles, we are still fighting them! What say you, leaders of the Warrior Caste? Is our 'Holy War' not holy enough for you yet? If this is indeed a Holy War, this Council believes that your faith must truly be weak." None of the Warriors immediately volunteered an answer, eliciting a flash of impatience from her. "Well? The Council is waiting. Have Goks run off with all of your tongues and buried them with their excrement? Branmer, what do you have to say about this?"

   The Chief of the War Leaders, one the Voice normally counted as a friend under less formal circumstances, strode purposefully forward from the gathered warriors and bowed. Straightening, he replied, "Satai…with respect, it is not so easy as you think. Yes, our ships are vastly superior to theirs. With the exception of their Alyt Sher'Ridan and the Drala Fi, we have defeated them in every battle…decisively." Turning to the Voice, he spread his hands and said, "But they have colonies, and as we push deeper into their territory we must clear them. Although it shames us for me to admit it, the war for these colonies does not always end in victory for us. In space, our weapons are more effective, but on the ground, our weapons are essentially equal. We must fight warrior to warrior and the vermin fight with great determination. Clearing the human infestation takes time. Because of this, we divert more resources to planetary blockade and bombardment, and this slows our advance. As we close on their core worlds, their resistance will grow exponentially greater."

   The Voice moved closer. Placing a gentle hand on the breast of her friend, she quietly said, "You are missing my point. I do not seek more destruction… I am advocating peace. The Humans have been taught their lesson, Branmer. They have paid for the death of Dukhat many times over. I have spoken of this before, and in your heart I know that you agree with me. This…Holy war…is beginning to put a strain on our resources. We have proven our superiority, we have monitored their offers of surrender and I want this finished. Perhaps it is time to present them with conditions for ending these hostilities."

   A Satai of the Warrior caste stepped into the pool of light, causing the Voice and Branmer to look up. Angrily, he interjected himself into their conversation. "What do you mean 'end these hostilities'?" he barked. "You cannot! Dukhat is not paid for! His blood is still fresh on their hands! Our people still seethe for payment! This war has not cost only the blood of Dukhat…the blood of thousands of our finest Warriors has also been spilt! And for what? A slap on the bottom?" Turning to face both his fellow council members and the assembled Warriors, he gestured disdainfully at the Voice and Branmer and continued, "The humans are bowed but they are not broken…to end this now would place an angry, dissatisfied homeworld on one side of us and a hostile, vengeful power on the other. Pointing accusingly at the Voice, he said, "Is this what you want, Satai? You want mercy for them? You should have thought of that two cycles ago when you had the opportunity to grant it! Were we to grant it now they would certainly surrender…for the moment. But they would not forget us. An enemy that is left standing will return to trouble us in the future."

   Moving close to her fellow Satai, the Voice faced him with equal strength although she was a full head shorter. "I want this ended!" she cried, "We are accomplishing nothing other than weakening ourselves, and a greater enemy awaits us!"

   "You may speak for us, but your voice is only that of an equal, chosen of Dukhat or not!" The Warrior Caste Satai retorted angrily. "Do not forget yourself! Your vote, Satai, was the one that put us on this course, and now you sound as if your knees have grown weak! Do you not have the stomach to face the consequences of your decisions? If not, then you should not be here!"

   "I am not afraid to fight…" the Voice replied, striving to calm herself, "and I live with the consequences of my choice every day, as you well know, colleague. The fact remains that we are fighting the wrong enemy. Were you not still blinded by your rage, as I once was, you would realize that I speak the truth. The prophecies tell us that the humans are not supposed to be our enemy. You know this, yet in your desire to prove the usefulness of your caste, you turn away from that knowledge. You turn away from Valen." Turning back to the Warriors, she gestured at them with her staff. "The Ancient Enemy will come…soon," she pronounced gravely, "They will come and they will find one of two things. Either they will find us weakened and alone, or they will find us strong, with allies behind us. If we continue on this course and destroy the Humans, who among the other races will ally themselves with the 'feared' Minbari when our real war begins? The other races will look at the Enemy, look at us, and they will see little difference…a choice between two destroyers, with no hope for the future. Do you understand now why the war with the Humans must be ended? You War Leaders have proven your usefulness. No one doubts your ability to fight. Now, show me that you know how to stop fighting. Tell me how to end this."

   From among the group of War Leaders, a soft voice spoke up. "We of the Wind Swords can end this, Satai, and we can end it quickly."

   "Step into the light…Vashaer, is it not? Step forward, so all may hear you." The Voice indicated, moving aside to make room.

   A Warrior came forward. Unlike the others, he was tattooed along his arms and on his face, in the fashion of the most militant of warriors. It was a trait of many in his clan. "We have…resources, Satai," he answered smoothly as a slight smile played across his features. "Resources that have been withheld until now. Others before us have fought the Humans…and what your fellow Satai says is true, just as what you say is true. The war with the humans must end, as you say, but were we to allow them to merely surrender they would eventually return to fight us again…perhaps at the most inopportune of times. We have the tools, however, to end this to everyone's satisfaction in a manner that will ensure Humanity no longer troubles us. We can then prepare for the coming of the greater enemy you speak of."

   "And how do you propose to accomplish this, Wind Sword?"

   "A simple demonstration. A demonstration of our new capabilities to the humans that will force them to submit unconditionally, and will ensure they remain submissive for the foreseeable future. The effort will cost us little, and the results will be instantly apparent, both to us and to the animals. All we ask is that you allow us to proceed without interference…and that you ask no questions."

   The assembled Council members and War Leaders murmured among themselves. To Vashaer, most of the murmurs seemed approving, or at least accepting. The posture of the Voice, however, indicated uncertainty. Looking at the completely hooded female, he thought to himself, <You are weak, little priestess. Words. All you have are words. We of the Wind Swords have more than words and we will use them. The Chosen of Dukhat...Bah. Chosen for your skills in the sleeping chamber, not your ability, no doubt… > Out loud, he pressed on with his argument. "You say that you want the war ended, Satai, that it drains our resources. We of the Wind Swords want what you want. We want the war ended quickly, with no further loss of life to our warriors…and we are presenting you with the means of accomplishing this. Your alternative is to fight the primitives from world to world for perhaps many more cycles." Stepping forward into the center of the light circle, he waved his hand at the Council members standing around him. "This council must decide…but it must decide quickly! The humans are learning, and the longer we fight the harder the war will become. What say you? May we of the Wind Swords give the Humans a demonstration?" Turning back to the Voice, who stood beside him, he quietly said, "You must call a vote, Speaker."

   Silently, the Voice raised her staff…Dukhat's staff… and pointed it in turn at each of the assembled Satai. When she had completed her task, five of the eight had nodded in affirmation of the War Leader's request. At the last, the Voice herself shook her head negatively.

   "The vote has carried," Vashaer noted with satisfaction, "but I see that you disagree. Surprising, given your eloquence on the subject a moment ago. You will abide by the decision of the majority?"

   The Voice hesitated a moment before speaking. "Your…conditions," she finally said, "They trouble me." Sighing, she added, "The Council has spoken, however, and I will abide by the decision of my peers. You may proceed. I will ask no questions."

   <No questions. I asked no questions. > A blinding light flashed. Abruptly, the Voice found herself alone in the Circle, still in her gray robes, Dukhat's staff hanging loosely in her hands.

   Alone in the circle, she noted with trepidation, but not alone in the room. Pricking up her ears, she heard footsteps sounding behind her, steadily growing closer in the surrounding darkness. Turning, she dropped the staff in shock as a young Earthforce Commander, one she recognized as the most hated of humans, strode into the circle of light. Grasping her roughly, he jerked her hood back and glared at her with both terror and anger. "Why didn't you ask, Delenn?" he yelled. "You should have asked!"

   Delenn tried to recoil from him, but her foot caught in her Satai's robe, sending her tumbling to the floor. Raising herself up on her hands, she looked up in shame and misery at her only love and her people's most feared enemy. "I did not know…please, John. I beg of you, please believe me…I did not know what they had done. We did not know what the weapons were or where they originated. None of us knew. Yes, I should have asked, I know…please forgive me, beloved. I should have asked. But it is too late."

   John seemed to tower over her. His expression, hard and cold at first, gradually softened into one of sad understanding. "They talk to you, don't they? Can you hear them, Delenn? The voice of your past mistakes…your errors in judgment? All of the good you have done over so many years, and yet they are still there, waiting to haunt you when your guard is down…as it is now. I cannot hear them, but I see their effect on you. Often, I lie beside you and wonder how you sleep at night with those voices constantly whispering to you."

   Curling herself into a fetal position on the floor, Delenn began to sob. "I sleep only because you hold me and chase the memories away. Please, John, have mercy on me...touch me. Send this nightmare away, love. Awaken me, John. Please, this is a dream. Make me wake up."

   John looked up, staring off at an unseen point in the distance. "I can't chase them away, beloved." he murmured. Looking back down at her, he continued, "I can only hold them at bay…just far enough away from you so you can rest a little. Only you have the power to truly dispel them."

   Delenn struggled to sit up as John knelt beside her."How, John? I do not know how."

   "Yes you do," John admonished, "You know the voices. You know who they are, and where to find them. They are waiting for us to come visit them."

   "Us?"

   John smiled. "Of course, 'Us'. You don't think I'd leave you to face them alone, do you? I love you." With that, he reached out and offered her his hand.

   "Thank you, John," Delenn sighed as she reached for him. "I love you, also."

   As she was about to take his hand, several ghostly, spectral shapes materialized out of the darkness. In the blink of an eye, they seized John and snatched him away, quickly dragging him off into the void outside of the small pool of light surrounding her.

   "John? JOHN!" Delenn screamed. Desperately, she attempted to scramble after her husband and the beings that had taken him, only to stumble as she became hung up in her Satai's robe again. Tumbling back onto the floor, she started to rise when she felt a cold, malevolent presence surround her, pinning her to the floor. Try as she might, she could not seem to command her muscles to respond. She lay helpless, tears of loss and frustration streaming down her cheeks as cold air swirled around her. After a moment, she heard a voice - one that she instantly recognized.

   "Yes… do go face them, Delenn." Delenn's own voice whispered softly in her ear. "Your victims welcome the opportunity to talk to you in person. They will not make it so easy for you to dispel them." Delenn trembled as a cool, unseen finger stroked her cheek in a parody of John's caress. "It is unfortunate that John has returned and restored your hope," the voice continued softly, "but it is no matter. Perhaps when he learns the full extent of the evil you condoned he will finally realize how unworthy of him you are and leave you. We functioned so much better when we wallowed in self-pity together…when you had almost accepted that it was your fate in life to be alone because of your own poor judgment. You were even becoming secretly proud of your own ability to nobly bear the weight of your loneliness. Do you not remember?"

   "Who…what are you?" Delenn croaked.

   "You have forgotten me so soon?" the voice laughed. "Why, I am your first and last victim, of course. I am the one that demanded 'No Mercy' when the Humans killed Dukhat. I am the one that held your tongue when the Wind Swords approached the Grey Council with their offer and I am the one that withheld the truth from the man you love so he could fulfill his part of the plan at Zha'dum. I am you, the part of you that has tasted Darkness…and liked it. Perhaps you can dispel the others, but I will always be with you."

   "JOHN!" Delenn screamed.

*****

   Abruptly, Delenn's eyes snapped open as she returned to the waking world…the echoes of her own cry still ringing off the walls of her room. Breathing heavily, she sat up, turning frantically to search her immediate surroundings. It was dark and she was alone. Alone…in her own bed in Tuzanor and trembling from the dream…the memory…she had experienced. Absently, she wiped at her cheeks and felt wetness there, noting ruefully that she had been crying in her sleep again. "John? Where are you?" she called out softly, reaching out only to find an empty place in the bed where he should be. Until she had started sharing her bed with John, nightmares had been the bane of her existence. For twenty years, she had slept relatively peacefully, only to have the dreams return with a vengeance after John passed. Since his return, they had become less frequent, but they still returned to haunt her from time to time. As she ruminated on this, she noted that John was in her nightmare. He was almost never in her bad dreams. "John?" she repeated, "I…I need you." <This is most ridiculous… > Delenn thought, awake enough now to realize that her anxiety was unreasonable, <…I am trembling like a frightened child. But where is he? > Finally, she could stand it no longer. Rising hastily from the bed, she threw on her robe and began searching through the quarters, hastily checking rooms while trying to reassure herself that she was not behaving irrationally.

   She found him, of course, sitting on the balcony, wearing his Ranger One uniform and watching the glow of the rising sun as it grew on the horizon, his face troubled. As she scrambled to a halt in the archway, simultaneously trying to slow her heart, catch her breath and erase the fear from her face, he looked over at her and said, "Uh…I just wanted to watch the sun come up. It's been so long since I've seen it. I didn't want to disturb you." John's gaze became concerned as he took in the fearful set of her normally sparkling green eyes, her expression and her trembling hands. "You had another one, didn't you? Was that your cry I heard?" At her hesitant nod, he stood and opened his arms. "Come here."

   The invitation was all that Delenn had been waiting for. Running across the short distance between the archway and her husband, she pressed herself into his embrace and almost immediately began calming as his arms enfolded her. "I'm sorry, love," he murmured into her slightly graying hair as he rocked her gently, "I'm sorry. It's been almost two weeks since this happened to you…I thought that you were finally shaking these nightmares. They've been growing more and more infrequent…" Loosening his grip slightly, he motioned her towards the bench.

   "John," Delenn said, finally gaining some control over her features as they sat, "It will…take me some time to become used to your presence again. Until I do, I…I think that it is important that you be holding me when I awaken…at least for a while longer. I am adjusting…truly I am, but the nightmares…they still come."

   John favored her with one of his heart-melting grins. "I understand," he said, wrapping an arm around her shoulders and pulling her gently across the short space between them on the bench. Settling her comfortably against him, he wrapped a fold of his cloak around her to ward off the morning chill and continued, "I'll be sure and nudge you if I'm going to get up before you do from now on."

   "I would appreciate it." Delenn replied, gazing out across the city below as the leading edge of Minbar's primary broke over the mountains, bathing the two of them with its first slivers of direct sunlight. Nestling her head against her husband's shoulder, Delenn swallowed nervously and hesitantly began, "John…I apologize for seeming so…so needy right now. I am…embarrassed at myself for demanding so much of you. I am being selfish. I am jealous and I am clinging, and…please, I know that this is hard for you…"

   "Have I said or done anything to make you think that I'm unhappy with you, sweetheart?" John interrupted gently. Sighing at her downcast expression, he ran a tentative finger softly along her jawline and coaxed her to look up at him. "Your life has changed drastically," he began, "You're adjusting to my presence again, and these nightmares are just your subconscious way of shaking off the cobwebs. I know that you're trying to meditate them away and I hope that you succeed, but I don't want you to worry too much about them." With that, John bent and kissed her lightly. As he pulled away, he added, "If I thought that you weren't adjusting normally, I'd try to get you to see somebody. But, like I said, the dreams are growing more infrequent."

   "My nightmare this time had nothing to do with your passing. It was…from another time."

   "From the war?" John asked gently. At Delenn's hesitant nod, he sighed and turned to face her on the bench, taking her hands in his and caressing her fingers lightly. "Delenn, you've experienced and perhaps even done some things in your life that you aren't proud of. I know this. I've never asked you about that time in your life, and I won't. I accept as much or as little as you're willing to share with me. I think, however, that it's important for you to know that we all have bad memories, and they manifest themselves in our dreams sometimes. My advice is to acknowledge your bad memories, but also remember the good things in your life," he said with conviction. "I want you to also remember that you have always bent, but you have never broken…and perhaps you became stronger in the bending. Don't apologize for being who you are, or who you were. I'm your husband, I love you, and you can be as needy, as jealous and as selfish as you want to be around me. As for everything else, it will sort itself out."

   Delenn closed her eyes, curling up on the bench and covering her bare feet with the tail of his cloak. Tucking her head up under his chin, she murmured, "And you say that the stories and beliefs about you are untrue. If so, where did all of this wisdom come from, my love? I do not recall you being so…emotionally and spiritually attuned before."

   John chuckled and kissed her forehead affectionately before answering, "I honestly don't know. I guess I've had so many First Ones knocking around in my skull that something had to rub off sooner or later. Or maybe I'm hearing a part of myself speaking that I couldn't hear before. It seems like I'm seeing old things through new eyes every now and then." Breaking into a laugh, he added, "Now, I haven't stopped belching at the table and scratching occasionally. I do have a reputation to uphold, you know…new wisdom or not."

   Delenn sighed into his chest. "I suppose that I will adjust to that eventually, as well. That and the hosiery ritual."

   "Yeah, the socks." John said, trying to suppress his laughter and not completely succeeding. "You have many, many years of looking at socks ahead of you now, beloved. You will simply have to find a way to accept it, I'm afraid."

   Delenn pulled her head out from under his chin and looked at him, her delicate eye ridges drawn together critically. "I can live with the socks, John. I understand the meaning behind that ritual of yours, as annoying as I find it at times. What I do not understand is why you say that you are ready to return to work, yet you will not accept the duties I have offered you." As he began to protest, Delenn raised a finger to his lips to quiet him. "John," she continued, "the Vice President's position is necessary, meaningful and available. You could make an immediate contribution, and I am certain that I could convince the Advisory Council to approve the appointment. Why will you not consider it?"

   "Because it's nepotism, Delenn. You know that's not the type of work I'm referring to." John said resignedly. This was not the first time this subject had come up…Delenn took every opportunity she got to attempt to wear down his resistance to the idea. He knew why she offered him that particular position. It would keep him near her…and she was still a little afraid of losing him again. He wanted to allay her fears, but at the same time he couldn't see himself becoming mired in bureaucracy and administration once again now that he was free of it. Even as President, John knew in his heart that he had been the wrong man for the job. As Delenn had once said about herself when she was chosen as Ranger One…he had been the 'logical' choice, but not necessarily the 'best' choice. Had Delenn taken the presidency from the start, perhaps much bloodshed would have been avoided. Certainly, he reflected, some poor decision-making on his part would've been. Softening his tone, he continued, "I was never really good at ruling, Delenn...and if you were to look at me objectively, you would agree. It wasn't my calling. I'm man enough to admit it, and it doesn't lessen me to acknowledge it. I'm a military commander and I work best when I stick to that." Looking out over the horizon, he thought a moment and then continued, "You, on the other hand, are a diplomat…and you have trained your whole life to fulfill that function. You are now doing what you were meant to do. I think that, in the beginning, you and I somehow ended up...well, flip-flopped is, I guess, the best term for it."

   "Flip-flopped?" Delenn murmured, managing a smile as the vestiges of her nightmare began to fade in the face of normal conversation. "I do not understand what bathing footwear has to do with command and diplomacy."

   John laughed and looked at his wife fondly. "Oh…I do love these little conversations with you, sweetheart. Even after nearly thirty years among humans, you still have such interesting gaps in your vocabulary."

   "You should hear your Adronato through native ears, my love." Delenn teasingly retorted. Her expression grew more serious as she brushed off John's attempt to change the direction of the conversation. Returning to her subject, she said, "Your argument…it is logical, and yet I know that is not truly what is in your heart. Your desires are simpler. You wish to…to go back. To be a captain again and voyage among the stars and have adventures." Almost sadly, she added, "I cannot go there with you, John, although I wish to be wherever you are. Stars and adventures are no longer open to me. My place is here, now…"

   "And my place is wherever you are, Delenn." John soothingly interrupted, "I will never go far from you or for very long. You are right about me wanting to get out among the stars again, but not as a captain." John squeezed her a little more tightly and said, "Susan has offered me a position as a kind of 'Ambassador-without-Portfolio'. Basically, that means she wants me to be her personal troubleshooter. It sounds like interesting work. I can be where the hot spots are without being gone from you for long."

   Delenn smiled and nuzzled his chest affectionately. "I cannot say that I like the sound of this 'shooting of trouble' that you refer to. Those two words, when connected with you, generally serve as a warning to me that I will be experiencing some sleepless nights in the future. Should you not leave this…how do you say…'trouble-shooting' to someone younger, such as our son?" Her eyes gleamed with mirth as she playfully added, "You do realize, of course, that the anniversary of your seventieth year of life is not that far off. I would think you more suited for…what is that silly game with the bag of sticks and the little white ball? Oh, yes…bowling."

   "Bowling, my dear, is a rough sport," John said with mock seriousness. "Don't go making fun of it. An old geezer like me could break his arm hitting a bowling ball with one of those 'sticks', as you call them." Stealing a quick kiss, he added, "Funny that you should mention David, though. I imagine that he's got a lot more on his mind now than troubleshooting. A new ship…a new girl…"

   "David is not the only one," Delenn murmured amusedly. "I believe his companion is also burdened with much to think about." Shaking her head in amused exasperation, she added, "I admire Ardenn's enthusiasm and her desire to earn my approval, but I simply wish that she would not try so hard. She is making me dizzy, John. She has taken to following me around even when I have no need of her services and jotting notes in her little book. When I walk out of our bedroom in the morning, she is there. When I go to bed, she is there. She watches when I choose my clothes for the day. She writes down the titles of books that I read and then sits up all night reading them herself. John, I simply want to understand what she is doing, but when I ask 'why?' she becomes embarrassed and slinks back to her room as if I had rebuked her."

   "She loves David, Delenn." John chuckled, "And how do young Minbari females learn to be good mates? I'll bet they watch their mothers and try to emulate them. She follows you around because you're the only other significant female in our son's life…the only person she has to use as an example."

   Delenn cocked her head quizzically. "Then why does she not simply ask, John?" she sighed. "It is not as if I will refuse to answer her questions. I am more than willing to tell her everything I know about domestic life."

   "Does she know that, sweetheart?" John mused, looking down at his beloved wife. "Does she understand that asking is OK? If I understand this 'petitioning' correctly, she has to prove her worthiness as a potential mate to you through Susan. Might she believe that revealing the gaps in her knowledge to you before you've officially accepted her would lead you to think that she is less capable of making David happy?"

   Delenn mulled John's observation over for a moment. "You are correct, I think," she finally conceded. "I had not considered Ardenn's behavior from that perspective, but it is logical that she would be reluctant to approach me directly regarding matters that she believes might influence my decision later."

   "I've been watching her," John observed. "Hell, sometimes I think that she loves you almost as much as she loves David." John paused, allowing Delenn to absorb his words. After a moment, he continued. "Ardenn serves you as an aide…a position with a fairly strict code of conduct she must adhere to around you. Now, the nature of the relationship between the two of you is about to change and she's trying to prepare for it. I know nothing about the educational system the Sisters of Valeria use, but I'm willing to bet that 'married life' wasn't on the syllabus. Don't hold it against her."

   Delenn sighed. "I will approach her and tell her that I understand that she has questions and that she need not be embarrassed to ask them. She need not worry that my opinion of her will be lessened."

   John nodded, pleased. "That's good. I like her, and I think she and David will make a fine couple. I know that your opinion is the one that really counts, though. This is a Minbari request she's making and you're the Minbari she has to impress."

   Delenn almost snickered. Her husband was worried that she, of all people, would seek to disappoint her son and his intended mate? It was almost laughable. "John, I think you know me well enough to realize that I have already made my decision about her, even without the formalities. I am only requiring the petition from her so that others who might object to this joining will have less basis to do so." Reaching up, she gently caressed his cheek, turning his face to look at hers. "I think you also know me well enough to understand that your opinion is just as important to me as my own. Should Ardenn complete the joining rituals with David, she will literally become our daughter, both yours and mine...the Daughter of our Heart, as we say among my people. She will be as much a member of our family as David is."

   "So she won't be casteless?" John asked.

   A hint of disappointment crossed Delenn's features. "No, she will not become Religious Caste, unfortunately…the Sisters of Valeria are a service order, not strictly a religious one, and she has not had the proper training." More harshly, she added, "Also, she probably will not become a Mir, as much as I would wish it for her. My sponsorship before the clan would do her more harm than good in Callenn's estimation, I fear. Still, after she and David are joined, I may try to have her adopted if she is willing to face the possibility of rejection." Perking up a little, Delenn concluded, "But…she will share our son's name and the benefits of membership in our little family, as well as the influence that comes from being fostered to Anla Shok Na. In terms of social position, she will be impressively connected even without caste or clan. I think that will be enough for her."

   "Ardenn Ivanova Sheridan of Valeria…" John laughed bemusedly, "It is a mouthful, isn't it? I hadn't thought of it that way. I wonder if Ardenn sits in front of the mirror and practices saying it. Her signature alone might take half a day to write."

   "No, John," Delenn laughed in response as she nestled herself a little more closely to her husband. "I highly doubt that she will follow your somewhat clumsy human naming conventions." Smiling, Delenn stole a quick kiss. Continuing, she said, "She will be a Sheridan of course, just as I am, love, but she will probably use her Minbari name and title as a matter of convenience, just as I do."

   "I know. I was just kidding. Ardenn of Valeria it is, then." John's expression became a little troubled as he added, "Still, that 'of Valeria' part bothers me. What has her Order said about this?"

   Delenn's laughter died on her lips. Her expression became troubled. "I…have not spoken of this to them yet." She ventured after a momentary pause. "I plan on contacting Irilenn once the petition is presented to see if some accommodation can be reached. The vows of service taken by an Apprentice are far less binding than those of a full member of the Sisterhood, and they can conceivably leave the Order if they find that their calling lies elsewhere. I suspect that Ardenn intends to do just that once it is safe for her to do so."

   "To be perfectly honest, I don't understand why she hasn't already. She knows that she has a place with us."

   Delenn sighed. Explaining the intricacies of Minbari society to an offworlder, even one who had lived among them, was difficult. "She has not left them because she cannot, John," she began. "Ardenn is a special case. Although apprentices can leave the Order, our society demands that each Minbari have a position…a family, a clan, a caste…relative to everyone else in the society. Ardenn is an orphan. She has none of these, no way to define herself outside of the Order. Were she to leave prematurely, she would literally have no place to go and would lose what little status she has in our society. In essence, she would become what your society once called an 'Untouchable'…a non-entity."

   "She would have us." John said. "You just said that she would be well-connected…"

   "Yes, but that does not occur immediately. It may sound heartless, but the rituals have to be completed first." At John's curious stare, Delenn tried to collect her thoughts so she could explain. "In Minbari society, I am…we are at the top of the pyramid." Groping for a parallel that her husband could conceptualize, she continued, "As those of ancient India on your homeworld would say, we are 'Brahmans'." Relieved, she saw him nod. He understood the term. "As such, were I to observe the traditions of my people in the strictest sense, Ardenn would not even be able to look us in the face…she could not even speak to us. Having nothing, she could never approach us about joining with David." Looking away from John and out towards the mountains, where the glow of the sun was brightening, she murmured, "I think that she would not have in any event, had she not slipped and revealed her heart before you returned."

   Seeking to lighten the mood of what had become a somber conversation, John chuckled and said, "So that's how it happened. I'm kind of surprised that a full Minbari female would be that bold. I figured that David was the one who approached her."

   Delenn looked back at John and laid her head on his shoulder with a smile. "No." she murmured, "Ardenn made the first declaration…and Ardenn is not the first Minbari female to give our son more than a passing glance." Conspiratorially, Delenn leaned in, put her mouth to her husband's ear and whispered, "John, I will tell you a secret. Historical differences notwithstanding, my people do find the more 'fit' of yours physically…acceptable, for the most part. I am not the only Minbari who ever looked twice at a human. You really should have been paying more attention to the young females when our son was growing up and making public appearances." Pulling away, she almost laughed at John's expression as she watched it. After a moment, she said, "As for Ardenn, she is not the first to look. She is, however, the first I have permitted to move beyond that."

   "Sweetheart," John admonished amusedly, "Tell me you haven't been screening the women our son comes into contact with."

   "Screening?" Delenn knit her brow ridge in puzzlement, tapping her chin as she considered the term. "Oh, yes…Let me just say that I have purposely been a somewhat 'malevolent and intimidating' presence in the background on the occasions when curious females came 'sniffing around' our son. I suspected that Ardenn was also eyeing David long before she admitted to doing so and I briefly considered discouraging her as well…but she and David had befriended each other by then and I decided not to interfere. David was lonely after your…departure, her companionship seemed to lift his spirits and I liked her."

   "You saw David and Ardenn falling in love," John laughed.

   "Not…exactly. I saw Ardenn falling in love," Delenn observed, shaking her head amusedly. "David…he is slightly younger than Ardenn, but he is far more experienced at covering his emotions. He has had some Religious Caste training in that area that Ardenn has not. In fact, David kept his own counsel so well that I began to fear for Ardenn. She was becoming quite obvious, and I was afraid that she would open her heart eventually only to find his closed to her love." Sighing, she added, "I believed that she might have already performed some of the preparatory rituals, in hopes that he would eventually realize that she was available and interested in being more than just his friend. It was very fortunate for her that David admitted to loving her as well. She would no doubt have been extremely hurt and ashamed at her own presumption if he had not. Rejection by a male is a significant emotional blow for a young Minbari female. Had that happened, I doubt that Ardenn could have remained in my service any longer."

   John grinned and said, "Let's see…who else do I know that secretly performed some of those preparatory rituals without informing the object of her desire. Hmm…one name comes to mind. What would you have done had I not returned your affection?"

   "The possibility never crossed my mind. I knew you loved me." Delenn murmured as she smiled. "Even if I did have to beat the object of my desire over the head with one of those human baseball sticks to get my intentions across. It amazes me that Human heads can be so…" she tapped her chin and furrowed her brows in puzzlement, "so hard…so thick even without a crest. Is there some special training you receive on Earth that makes the male of your species so…so obtuse when it comes to mating?"

   John snorted, stifling a laugh. <Touché, sweetheart, > he thought. "Ahem…we were discussing Ardenn and the Sisters of Valeria, love. At least, the obtuse brain in my thick human skull seems to recall that."

   "You may dodge if you wish, John. Your avoidance of the subject does nothing to reduce the relative density of the male cranium." Smiling, Delenn mentally chalked up another victory in her verbal jousting match with her husband and returned to the subject at hand. "I have not talked at length to either David or Ardenn about the possible complications, because even I know little of the inner workings of the Sisterhood. Ardenn is of little help in this area. She knows even less than I do…the Sisters tell their Apprentices only what they need to know to perform their duties and no more. I am not sure whether they will be accommodating or scandalized when they learn of this relationship."

   "I would contact them sooner rather than later, sweetheart." John observed seriously. "If there are going to be complications, it would be better to know about them now…far enough in advance to do something about them."

   "I shall." Delenn paused for a second, and John could see that something else had crossed her mind. After a moment, she spoke again. "There is one other matter regarding Ardenn, John," Delenn said hesitantly. "It is rather…delicate, from a Minbari point of view."

   "What is it?"

   "Since opening her heart to David, she has changed. Ardenn has only recently come into adulthood, but she is a fully mature Minbari female."

   "I had noticed, if you don't mind me saying so. Figuratively, she looks…uh, quite mature."

   "Ardenn no doubt would be very pleased to hear you say so. She tries very hard to make herself attractive for David." Delenn said, with a mirthful glint in her eye. "And yes," she added, "I understood your seemingly clever wordplay. Keep your eyes on me, where they belong."

   "You're jealous!" John laughingly exclaimed.

   "And you are a dirty old man." Delenn retorted teasingly. "Now, let me finish. Adult Minbari females do not get mating urges until they fall in love, but they are very powerful and difficult to control once they do manifest themselves." Delenn smiled and added, "As I am sure you have noticed on the occasions when your instincts are not conspiring to make you eye the physical attributes of young Minbari women."

   She had made her point. "There's only one Minbari woman for me, sweetheart, and you know who she is," John chuckled, planting a mollifying kiss on his wife's forehead. "Ok, so I assume Ardenn has these urges. Fine. She can meditate, or whatever and throw some of that steely Minbari resolve at them. I still don't see the problem."

   Delenn's expression grew serious. "I am sure that she has been suppressing what to her must seem powerful and unusual instincts for some time now, John," she observed. "But she is only twenty-three human years old, meditation has never been the strongest of her skills and she has no private place to go to perform other control techniques. When David was out on patrol, it was no doubt easier for her, but he is back and around her regularly now. She is trying very hard to hold to the traditions of our people, but I fear that her resolve may be weakening. I hope she petitions us soon, because I understand what she is feeling right now and I do not wish for her to…to suffer unnecessarily."

   "Sweetheart…all kidding aside," John began, "I understand how important tradition and ritual are to the Minbari, but perhaps it would be better if the two of them simply went somewhere alone and…well, got things out of their systems." Delenn's expression was unreadable, John noted, and that was not necessarily a good sign, but he pressed on anyway. "They're adults, after all. Discretion isn't a problem. No one would have to know…not even us. I wouldn't think less of them if they made love. Would you?"

   Delenn considered her husband's observation for a moment, then sighed. "No…I personally would not think less of either of them, but you are thinking like a Human. Ardenn is a Minbari. Others would not have to know. She would know, and she would think less of herself…and our son would feel guilty for putting her in that position. It is for the best that they go through the rituals in the proper order. After we accept her, she and David can undertake the Shan'fal. Should that ceremony be concluded satisfactorily between them, they can proceed to the more intimate rituals." Delenn smiled and added, "The texts that Ardenn has been consulting to prepare for those rituals have titles that are…educational, to say the least. She is going to use Worker caste rituals…very sneaky of her. I imagine that there are a few things she will teach our son, despite her inexperience."

   "So, nosy, you've been going through her book titles too," John laughed. "Did you read any of them?"

   "I might have…glanced at a page or two." Delenn replied with a guilty smile. "Perhaps the two of us should review them in more detail…later. It would be better for her to master the basics before moving to advanced techniques."

   With that, both fell silent. Delenn curled herself more tightly against John and rested her head on his collarbone as he tightened his arm around her shoulders. Together they sat, lost in thought and each other as the sun rose above the mountains. Presently, Delenn stifled a yawn. "The sun is up, John."

   "It's still early," John noted as he watched the sunlight glinting off the snow on the distant peaks. "The Alliance itself may never sleep, but most of its workers won't be up for a couple of hours yet. You have time to grab another hour or so in bed if you want."

   Delenn absently fingered the seam of John's shirt. "Yes, it is still early," she seductively echoed. "I will consider returning to bed…if you will return with me."

   John chuckled deep in his chest. In a low voice, he said, "Is that an order or a proposition, Madame President?"

   Delenn's roving hand found an opening in the seam. Sighing softly, she slid her fingers in and absently began caressing his chest. Adopting the low tone of voice she knew he considered her most alluring, she said, "You may interpret it as you wish. Your President is requesting your services for a mission…one that she believes you are uniquely qualified to undertake. As with every other mission, you do have the opportunity to decline, if you feel that you are incapable of …ah, fulfilling the requirements. "

   Laughing, John rose, scooping Delenn up in his arms in one smooth motion and turning for the archway. "Oh, a 'challenging' assignment? I assume, then, that the stakes are high, hmm? Well, I can't allow the President of the Alliance to be disappointed by a simple Ranger under those circumstances now, can I?"

   Delenn giggled as she wrapped her arms around his neck and shifted so she was pressed snugly against him. "You are hardly a 'simple Ranger' as you say. Susan may be Anla'Shok Na, but you are still Entil'zha. In my estimation, that makes you are rather a complex one."

   As John carried Delenn down the corridor and around the corner towards their bedroom, they almost bumped into Ardenn as she emerged from her room. The young Minbari was buckling the clasp of her outer robe as she walked and seeing John standing in front of her holding Delenn momentarily startled her. Recovering quickly, she hastily smoothed the front of her robe and bowed respectfully. "Good morning to you both," she said as she straightened, "I was unaware that you had already risen. I would have readied a light breakfast had I known. If you can wait a few moments, I will prepare something."

   "Good morning, Ardenn," John replied with a smile, "We got up a little early to watch the sun rise. You don't need to prepare anything right away. We're going to rest our eyes for another hour or so."

   Ardenn looked at John, smiling slightly. "I see. Your eyes do appear to be a little tired still. I will have something ready in an hour, then." Glancing at Delenn, who smiled back demurely, she added, "The President must be tired indeed, to require that you carry her back to bed."

   John grinned at the young woman. She might be innocent, but she wasn't stupid. "Yeah, she's totally tuckered out. I thought it best that I assist her."

   Ardenn's smile widened. "Very well, then. Should your attention become occupied on activities other than resting, please do not forget that the President has a meeting with the Drazi representative in about three hours. You will need to allow her sufficient time to make herself presentable. I am also meeting with Ranger One later today to discuss various personal matters, so I will not be available."

   "Personal matters, eh?" John eyed her with mock-seriousness for a moment before mirthfully winking at her. "Well, OK…just don't use her up. Leave enough so there's some of her remaining to make your petition." From what he had heard, tough-as-nails Susan Ivanova had reached the point where she was hiding in the bushes whenever she saw Ardenn coming.

   Ardenn smiled and bowed again, hoping that Entil'zha and Delenn could not see the embarrassed blush rising in her cheeks.

   After Ardenn passed, Delenn glanced over John's shoulder at her aide, then looked up at John and said, "She is thinking about David again. I can always tell. In her mind's eye, she is picturing her and David going off to do what we're about to do." Smiling into John's shirt, she added, "I think that suddenly living in a 'sexually active' household after being alone with me for so long has been a learning experience for her, as well as a change." Pausing a moment, she then added, "You do realize that Minbari ears are very keen, do you not? She almost certainly has heard us as we engage in rituals that are denied her and David for the present."

   "Well," John ventured as he began walking again, "her room is right next to ours, and we haven't exactly been…uh, subdued. Still…I haven't heard any complaints or hard objects banging against the wall when we get boisterous, so it may not bother her."

   Delenn laughed and reached up to caress John's cheek. "Boy-stere-ous? Boisterous…to be loudly enthusiastic, yes? Boisterous…it is such a cheerful-sounding word. I like it."

   John grinned as they entered the bedroom and he kicked the door closed, saying, "Yeah, our language is full of really cheerful words. I'm glad you approve." With that, he loosened his grip on Delenn so she could stand, stepping back to admire her as she smiled mischievously at him.

   "You do remember how pleasurable some of those later rituals were, do you not, John?" Stretching seductively, Delenn let her robe fall open slightly, revealing a pale, shapely leg and the gentle curve of a breast. "I certainly do." Making a show of untying her robe, Delenn continued. "This talk of…mating urges and rituals has awakened within me a desire to reacquaint myself with some of the more…um, 'esoteric' ones. Will you come over here and assist me in refreshing my memory?"

   John walked over to her and gently parted the folds of her bathrobe, letting the garment fall away from her body. Bending, he kissed her deeply and ran a hand down the curve of her bared thigh. Pulling away slightly after a moment, he broke the kiss and murmured, "And which…rituals…are you feeling particularly forgetful about, my love?"

   Pulling his head down to her mouth, Delenn hesitated a moment and then demurely whispered,"Fal oth'la'cha…" softly in his ear.

   John smiled. "I thought you said you wanted 'esoteric', sweetheart," he said amusedly. "Hell, David and Ardenn are probably already doing this one even without a petition…but, if this is all you want…" Reaching out for her, he placed a hand on her thigh, sliding her short nightgown up over her hips. With his other hand, he started slowly tracing his fingers in a circle on her now-bared abdomen.

   Reaching out, Delenn caught his hand before he could progress any lower. Raising it to her lips, she kissed it and placed it over her heart. "Nee, John," she whispered huskily. Extending a finger, she gently traced the curve of his lips. Beginning again, she repeated,"Fal oth'la'cha…" and then shyly asked, "Nai fie a' aiva'cha?"

   "Oh, my…" John arched his eyebrows in surprise, "You're certainly not afraid to ask for what you want, are you?"

   Delenn ceased tracing his lips and caressed his cheek. In a small but hopeful voice, she repeated, "John, Fal aiva'cha a'Delenn nai oth'la'cha …nahan?" With a timid smile, she added, "You did indicate that I was permitted to be as…selfish…around you as I wanted to be."

   "Yeah, I did say that." John chuckled amusedly as he guided Delenn over to the bed. Quickly disrobing, he left his own clothes piled on the floor and slid in beside her, saying, "I suppose it's been a while since you experienced that particular variation, hasn't it? I guess it's a good thing Ardenn isn't in her room, after all. This isn't exactly one of the quiet ones."

   "I do not wish to be quiet. I want you to make me…boisterous."

   "Then boisterous you will be, love."

   "Do you - Ahh! Yesss…you do remember, beloved…there, right there…'Oh! Valen…hie John nahan! Nath'hak fal aiva a' lenore!'…Please…continue…I will inform you, when I have…remembered sufficiently…"

*****

   "De Susenn Ivanova ra Earth bosque adan'a le fariqe a' Ardenn ra Valir ra Ivanova mi fel a' David ra Mir ra Sheridan me'lira…damn it, damn it, damn it…" Susan Ivanova tossed the script in her hand down on the kitchen table of her quarters in Tuzanor and replaced it with her head. Sighing in exasperation, she looked up and glared at the perfectly postured young Minbari sitting in the opposite chair and moaned, "This is all your doing, you know. You wrapped David around your little finger, coerced him into making puppy-dog eyes at me and suckered me into your little scheme."

   Ardenn of Valeria smiled brightly in acknowledgement, realizing that the ire of her 'mother' was merely her way of venting her frustration and implied no actual anger at her. "Well…yes. This is true. I did choose you, and David concurred. We both have total faith and confidence in you. And, with David and Entil'zha John currently occupied, we now have the perfect opportunity to 'straighten our signals' as you say."

   "Straighten our signals, eh?" Susan looked up as if imploring the heavens for patience and muttered, "…and now she says, 'Fik'. What was I thinking? I know, I know…I had a weak moment…" Susan made a play of thumping her head against the table, groaning, "Why do I need to do this in Fik? Wouldn't Adronato do just as well? Delenn is Religious Caste, after all."

   "But you are doing so well…" Reaching across the table, Ardenn patted Susan on the arm in sympathy. "I have explained this before, Mother of my Choice…I am sending an important message to Delenn by using the Worker Caste tongue. If you were to make my formal petition in Adronato, then you would be indicating that I intend to follow the practices of the Religious Caste in consummating my joining with David. By presenting me to the family Sheridan in Fik, she will know that I am not using Religious Caste rituals. She needs to understand this now because I do not want her questioning our, um…'activities' later."

   Susan looked critically at the young woman. "And Religious Caste rituals are bad…why, exactly?"

   "Oh, they are not 'bad', as you say…" Ardenn replied bemusedly, "but they are long, repetitive…and not particularly interesting until the very end." Ardenn's face took on a thoughtful expression for a moment before she said, almost to herself, "And there are so many. Given the disproportionate nature of David's social position in relation to mine, we would have to perform all of them. It could take one of your years or more before we could legitimately be intimate with each other. I do not wish for my David to have to inflict cold showers upon himself for that length of time."

   Susan smiled and added, "Or the old 'oth'la'-stimulating ritual for you, eh?"

   Ardenn turned her palms up in the Minbari equivalent of a shrug and said, "Fal oth'la'cha? It does get rather tiresome after a while. Imagination only carries one so far."

   Susan rested her chin in her hand and eyed the young woman for a moment. The solution to her problem seemed obvious. Was she really as innocent as she acted? "Have you ever considered inviting David to uh…participate in your little ritual? I somehow think that both of you would find that at least marginally less tiresome."

   "Undoubtedly." Ardenn readily agreed, smiling at the mental image of her and David that Susan's observation generated. "There are many more variants of that ritual available when there are two participants. I think the most basic variant is referred to as 'petting' in your society, yes?" At Susan's affirmative nod, Ardenn pondered the term, idly stroking her chin as she murmured, "Petting…petted…to pet…pets." After a moment, she chuckled and observed, "It is an interesting euphemism, although I am unclear about how stimulation of the pleasure centers in human society relates to small domestic animals kept as companions. This is one area in which I do not believe I want to be enlightened."

   Susan groaned. "I hope you're not serious, Ardenn. I'm assuming a little knowledge of human mating practices on your part, you know. Please don't make me start at ground zero with you, because I don't think I'm quite ready to go through 'human sexual physiology 101' with another Minbari. Coaching your mentor was hard enough."

   "It was a play on words. I am trying to understand humor from a 'human' perspective." Ardenn's smile faded as she considered the option further. "Unfortunately," she said after a moment, "the Shan'Fal is the first ritual that permits either David or I to touch each other in the intimate manner you suggest, and the petition must be presented prior to undertaking the Shan'Fal. After all, what good is it to request that David stimulate my pleasure centers when we have not yet explored them? Not only that…the temptation to 'go too far' might be more than either of us could resist in such an arrangement. After the Shan'Fal, there is no such thing as 'too far' under Worker Caste rituals."

   Susan silently observed, not for the first time, that the Minbari seemed to have taken suffering to the level of an art form. "Uh, yeah…well it was just an option. Anyway, you had to choose my weakest Minbari language for this petition of yours. Don't blame me if I go in and say something to Delenn that'll have you waiting ten years instead of one." Susan sighed again and looked over at Ardenn. "So…what did I say this time?"

   "Um…you basically said that I have a great desire to rape David Sheridan and as my mother, you think this is a good thing." Ardenn chuckled a little and said, "While not necessarily a total falsehood, it is not exactly the message I want to convey to the person I am asking to accept me as the Daughter of her Heart." Ardenn picked the petitioning script up off the table and handed it back to Susan, saying, "Now, you used the verb 'me'lira', to take by force, in the same sentence with 'fel', to love. In Fik, that is 'to love after taking by force' or in other words, to rape. If you change 'me'lira' to 'me'lir' you will be saying 'to love and hold'. This roughly translates as 'to cherish' in English."

   Susan looked at the page. It all looked pretty much like 'babble' to her. She felt like she was back at the Academy, sitting in a class with her eyes glazing over.

   Ardenn noticed Susan's expression and decided to show some mercy. She said, "Perhaps we should set the ceremonial litany aside for now…"

   Susan perked up immediately, sensing an opportunity to escape the well-intentioned clutches of her love-struck Minbari 'daughter'. "Whew!" She said. "Don't worry, Ardenn. I'll study this until I have it memorized. I won't let you two kids down."

   "…And move on to the other rituals you will be required to perform." Ardenn concluded.

   Susan slumped again. The front door, so invitingly close a few seconds ago, was now fading into the distance. Looking at Ardenn through her brows, she said, "Other…rituals?"

   "Of course. There are always other rituals. It is our way." Ardenn said cheerfully. "Although we are presenting my petition in Fik, it would be very disrespectful towards Delenn if my mother did not accommodate her by performing some of the Religious Caste meeting and acceptance rituals in deference to her rank and status. As I am the petitioner and am approaching her from a far subordinate position, it is only fitting that you, as my mother, honor Delenn's great wisdom in formally considering me as a potential mate for her son."

   Susan still looked dubious. "Uh, yeah…right. And if Delenn chooses not to consider you?"

   "That will not happen." Ardenn stated flatly, with such a look of determination on her face that Susan had to smile. "First, both David and I wish to be together, a fact which Delenn recognizes and accepts. To deny me would, in essence, be denying David as well. Second, David's father has already stated that he approves of me, an opinion that Delenn is not going to discount lightly. Third, Delenn has indicated to me personally that my petition will probably be favorably received." Ardenn smiled, somewhat smugly, and then added, "And…I am now fostered to one of her oldest and dearest friends. I cannot sense her inner thoughts on this, of course, but I think I have 'concealed my foundations' fairly well, as your people might say."

   "Uh, that's 'covered your bases', Ardenn." Susan corrected with a chuckle. She eyed the young woman for a second and sighed. "All right," she finally said, "how many of these rituals are we talking about here?" <Please, just say one or two… > Susan thought with forlorn hope. There was no such thing as a 'short' ritual to the Minbari.

   Susan's hope was short-lived.

   "I have a list." Ardenn said brightly, reaching into her robe and pulling out a piece of paper. Susan groaned. The page was covered in Ardenn's neat, small script from top to bottom and margin to margin. "Oh, my," Ardenn said as she felt around in her robe, "I appear to have misplaced the other three pages…"

   <Four pages! Holy Shit…> Mentally, Susan beat herself. What had initially looked like a fairly simple presentation was fast becoming a complex one. Visions of holding an extended conversation with one of the Zathras brothers danced through her head. "Err…well, that's OK, Ardenn. I guess we'll have to continue some other…"

   Smiling, Ardenn gently cut her off. "…But it is of little concern. I have them all memorized." Cocking her head to one side and looking fondly at Susan, she said, "Can I just say again how much it means to David and I that you are willing to do this for us? How honored we are? How humbly grateful I am that one as revered as you agreed to foster me?" She looked up at Susan's face, her large gray eyes wide and innocent. In a small voice, she concluded, "I do not know who I would turn to if it were not for you."

   <Is she? Yep, she is. Damn, she's using the 'eye' trick on me. She's definitely stolen some pages from Delenn's arm-twisting manual… > Susan thought. In her mind's eye, Susan pictured herself in the grubby little fist of a five-year-old child. The child had just removed the wax paper from her tootsie-pop head and was licking it to see how many it would take to get to the chocolate center. She said, "I'm…uh…honored as well, Ardenn. I am, err…gratified at your confidence in me."

   Ardenn blinked and nodded. "Good. It pleases me that you are fully 'OK' with this, as your people say. Now, Mother," she said primly, "The first ritual is the 'Tal'Ris', the Serving of the Tea. It is one of Delenn's favorites, and will certainly reflect well on my petition if executed correctly. Are you listening carefully? Perhaps you should take notes, because this is important…"

   As her 'daughter' sat across from her and happily began demonstrating the various ways to hold one's hand when pouring tea, including commentary about the cultural significance of each method, Susan's imaginary five-year-old got to 'three' and bit down. Resignedly, she put her elbow up on the table and rested her chin in her palm, every now and then feigning interest when Ardenn looked over at her. <Poor David, > she thought with reluctant amusement as his mate-to-be perkily shifted, without missing a beat, to discussing the intricacies of handling the teacup, <He has no idea of what he's in for… >

*****

   The crystal-lined corridor that wound through the ancient edifice echoed with the sound of soft footfalls and hushed whispers. Red-robed figures, bent on performing tasks important to the mission of the Sisters of Valeria, scurried to and fro, barely noticing the visitor moving among them. Sisters visiting from the outlying Chapters were nothing new, and this particular guest would have merited little notice in any event. She was a tall, slender, sharp-featured woman of about thirty cycles…brown-eyed and serious of demeanor. Her bonecrest was elaborately carved, as were those of all Sisters and Apprentices, and she wore the scarlet outer robe of a full Sister.

   No one in the corridor gave her a second glance. She, being from the small Tuzanor chapter, a chapter with far fewer Sisters, was not used to this and it made her uneasy. She found that many things were making her uneasy about this visit.

   Sister Vadenn of Valeria was nervous. Deep in the heart of the Main Temple in Yedor, she had been summoned…summoned to a place she had seen only once before in her life, the Shrine of the Mistress. She had committed some indiscretion, she was sure…although the nature of her transgression escaped her. In the Sisterhood, one did not have to know. Merely to have the Mistress or the Enlightened One displeased was enough to merit a summons. Vadenn had not been summoned to this place in three cycles. Not since her Elevation, the ceremony that marked her attainment of full membership in the Order.

   As she silently followed the cloaked Sisters leading her to meet with the Mistress, she unconsciously tugged at the scarlet outer robe she wore…the visible symbol of her status as a full Sister. None this deep in the Temple wore the white robes of Attendants or the crimson-lettered robes of Apprentices. There were secrets here…arcane knowledge not for the eyes of the uninitiated. Vadenn had been forced to leave her own Attendant, a timid young girl barely twelve cycles old, in the first antechamber.

   The fact that she was forced to appear before her fellow Sisters with an Attendant when they had Apprentices still rankled her. It had for three cycles. Her Apprentice, Ardenn, had been usurped from her even as Vadenn attained Sisterhood. Not that losing Ardenn was in and of itself a devastating loss…Vadenn had never cared much for the child even as she raised and taught her. Vadenn had figured out early on that having a younger sibling was more of a burden than a blessing…more 'responsibility' than 'honor'. The young Ardenn had been no help to her, no help at all. When she returned to her chapter in Tuzanor following the Civil War, Vadenn found that she had to perform all of the same duties she had before…and then she had to care for Ardenn, as well. When her fellow Attendants and Apprentices received personal time, Vadenn had not been allowed to participate…she had the squealing, puking Ardenn, and the Sisters who supervised her were very strict regarding the child's care.

   As Vadenn walked, she ruminated on her old Apprentice. As a young adult, Ardenn had not improved…manifesting only the worst qualities, despite Vadenn's best efforts. She was small. She was not physically strong. She cared little for discipline and piety. Her meditation skills were weak. Worst of all, she was a daydreamer.

   And every time Ardenn earned the displeasure of the Sisters, which was often, Vadenn was punished right alongside her. How many Temple steps had she scrubbed because Ardenn was caught gazing out a window, or reading an unapproved book, or speaking when silence was required? It could only be a vendetta, Vadenn reasoned. She had done everything…everything she could think of to force Ardenn to conform. Every small luxury Ardenn managed to acquire for herself, Vadenn would find and remove. Every spare moment Ardenn could find, Vadenn would fill with work. Vadenn revoked Ardenn's few privileges. It reached the point where Vadenn had stripped Ardenn's tiny sleeping chamber of everything except a pallet. Vadenn had even taken her small bed…forcing the young malcontent to sleep in the horizontal. As she walked, Vadenn sighed and shook her head. Nothing had worked.

   And the Sisters watched Ardenn so closely…never interfering. Vadenn sensed, however, that even as the Sisters looked with disapproval on the young Ardenn they cared about her on some level. Cared about Ardenn more than they did her, she suspected.

   The day that the 'Great Sheridan' had passed beyond, Vadenn and her fellow members of the Sisterhood were allowed the rare opportunity to watch the memorial service staged by the Anla Shok. Ardenn stood meekly beside her elder sibling and watched as well…an undeserved privilege, in Vadenn's opinion. When the holo formed in the sky, the Blessed Delenn was there, along with her son. Vadenn, newly elevated to the Sisterhood, had looked over at one point and noticed her younger sibling gazing openmouthed at the young David Sheridan. She looked exactly like the idiot she was.

   "Yes, look at him, Ardenn. The Humans are…strange looking creatures, are they not? Like us, but not like us. And that one…why do you look at him so? You are daydreaming yet again, I see."

   "He has kind eyes…but they are sad," Vadenn's doltish Apprentice had murmured. She softly added, "He is beautiful."

   "Perhaps so…but one such as he would not even glance twice with his 'kind eyes' at one so unworthy as you. Were you to meet him, his shoes would be as high as your eyes would rise, and rightfully so. It is nothing to trouble your simple intellect over, however. You will never see the outside of this place."

   "I can only hope."

   Sister Vadenn stared in shock as Ardenn hung her head, realizing she had spoken aloud. "You are unhappy here, Ardenn? After the Sisterhood has provided you with everything…a place, a life, a purpose? After I…I have spent most of my adult life catering to you? And now you are unhappy here? You are an ungrateful ver'kaff! I hope you do get your wish, Ardenn! I hope you do get to leave us! If I had my way, you would find yourself wandering the streets of the city homeless…friendless. It would not take you long to come crawling back here. And if I had my way, the door would remain closed!"

   Vadenn had grabbed the cowering girl's arm then…a rare breach of etiquette even for her…and jerked her away as Ardenn began crying, all under the disapproving eyes of the other Sisters. "Come with me, ver'kaff! You have seen enough of your betters!" She found a particularly unsightly set of steps and set her teary loose-tongued Apprentice to work, not allowing her to return to her bare quarters until far into the night.

   The next day, word went out. The Blessed Delenn herself would be visiting the Tuzanor Temple. What was more, she was seeking an aide…someone to work with her daily. The individual selected would receive special dispensation from the Mistress herself to live outside…outside in the presidential compound itself. Five Sisters had been chosen for presentation, and Vadenn had gleefully dragged a weary Ardenn from her pallet and waved the invitation she had received under her nose. "Do you see this, little ver'kaff? I have an audience with Delenn herself. She is seeking an aide…and she wants a Sister. If I am selected, I will get to live in the presidential compound. I will get to travel. I will meet people with names that are legends!" As Vadenn laughed, she noticed that Ardenn's expression remained studiously neutral. With a small smile, she added, "And perhaps the young Sheridan will be lonely after his father's passing and, as you noted yourself, he is not displeasing to the eye. I can be a friend to him, Ardenn, and we of the Sisterhood are not specifically forbidden the touch of a male…" Vadenn's eyes lit up as she saw Ardenn's face fall. "You are not happy for me, younger sibling?"

   Ardenn hesitated a moment, furiously studying the tiles in the floor, and then replied, "I…I wish you the best, Revered Sister."

   "Yes, I am certain that you do. It is a shame that this is your day of rest…you could have attended me and perhaps seen the Blessed Delenn yourself. It is no matter. Another Apprentice, one who reflects more favorably on our Order would probably be more…more," Indicating Ardenn's stained robes, she concluded, "…suitable."

   And the rest, Vadenn reflected as her attention returned to the present, was history. She had gloated too soon. She had gone to meet Delenn. Somehow - Vadenn still was unsure of how it happened - Ardenn had wrangled her way into the meeting, standing in the back with the other Apprentices. Shameful…the pathetic girl's cleanest robe still had stains on the knees from the dirty water she had used on the steps the night before, and Vadenn had bitten her tongue in her effort to keep from rebuking the Apprentice on the spot. Delenn had inspected her and the other four selections and then, inexplicably, she had eyed the Apprentices as well. They were not supposed to be considered, and Vadenn had been hard pressed to wipe the shock from her face when the Blessed Delenn turned and pointed at Ardenn. Vadenn was sure she had misspoken, and even the Enlightened One tried to dissuade her. Delenn had been adamant. The fact that the young girl in question was terrified almost to the point of losing her composure was cold comfort.

   Vadenn reasoned it was the poor woman's grief that caused such an unwise selection. Surely the Blessed Delenn would quickly realize the depth of her error and return Ardenn in well-deserved shame. Vadenn waited patiently, but surprisingly, the reports that she received seemed to indicate that Delenn was quite pleased with Ardenn. Unbelievable. Perhaps the Blessed Delenn was not so wise as Vadenn imagined her to be.

   But that was three cycles ago. Now was now. The Mistress had sent for her, and that almost never boded well…

   The Sisters escorting Vadenn peeled off and went their separate ways as she reached the ornately carved double doors to the Shrine. Vadenn shakily straightened her robe once more and was raising her hand to grasp one of the large crystal chimes when the doors opened seemingly on their own. After a moment's hesitation, Vadenn timidly set foot in the chamber.

   "Does this place frighten you, Vadenn?" A softly accented voice whispered quietly beside her. Vadenn almost jumped out of her skin. She looked to her left in shock to find Irilenn herself, Mistress of the Order, holding the door open for her. Smiling slightly at the younger Sister's obvious nervousness, Irilenn said, "Is it this place or is it me? Either way, there is little for you to fear…only that which you bring with you. You are safe, Vadenn, at least in here." With a grin, Irilenn added, "The public floggings are meted out in one of the other chambers."

   "Oh…I uh, apologize Mistress." Vadenn replied with a deep bow, recovering quickly. "It is rare for a Sister from so humble a chapter as I to receive such an august invitation as yours. I merely was…endeavoring to respect the sanctity of this place."

   "Your piety is noted, Sister," Irilenn amusedly said as she pushed the door closed behind Vadenn. "It is good to show respect for the dead, although they appreciate it not. Their souls have moved on to the next incarnation." Moving to stand beside Vadenn, Irilenn held out her arm, indicating the 'residents' of the Shrine. "You did not receive much of an opportunity to examine the Shrine when you were elevated, Vadenn," Irilenn continued. "You may do so now, if you wish. But quickly, please…we have matters to discuss, you and I, and time is of the essence."

   Vadenn quickly looked around. The Shrine of the Mistress was a large circular chamber, with a high domed ceiling supported by numerous stone pillars and a floor that started at ground level but became sunken as one neared the center. Crystal monuments honoring various esteemed Sisters from the past littered the chamber almost randomly around the outer wall, interspersed with an almost equal number of candles burning in braziers. The effect of the candles on the crystal monuments gave the whole chamber an eerie flickering glow. All of the outer accoutrements, however, served to draw Vadenn's eyes to the center of the chamber…the reason this area was called the Shrine of the Mistress in the first place.

   Forty crystal sarcophagi, twenty per side, lay in the center of the chamber…the tombs of all the previous Mistresses, each topped with a life-size crystal statuette of the person within. They started with Bevell, the second Mistress and traced an unbroken lineage to the last one…Avaier, mate of the great Dukhat himself. The fortieth tomb remained unoccupied and was meant for Irilenn, when her time came. Between the two rows, a large dais with a single sarcophagus centered on it stood. "Valeria…the First Mistress…" Vadenn whispered.

   "Yes, Valeria the Wise herself." Irilenn murmured beside her. "None outside our Order even remember that she was a living person. For them, she has faded into myth. Some among the Religious Caste even believe her to have been male. It is arrogant of them, but we forgive that as long as her message gets out." Motioning for Vadenn to follow, Irilenn descended the ramp leading from the entrance to the center of the chamber. As she walked, she said, "Our people have no deities, but if they did, Valeria would come closest to filling that role. She is the Mother of our Order and, to a lesser degree, the mother of modern Minbar. Over 1600 cycles ago, she was the first to discover the way…before even Valen. First, our way out of the cycles of violence brought about by the clan rivalries and then she discovered our weakness, the one that we strive against to this very day."

   As the mounted the dais, Vadenn noticed another smaller sarcophagus off to the side. It was draped in cloth and appeared to be much humbler than any of the others. "And who occupies that one, Mistress?" she whispered. "I did not notice it when I was elevated. It seems…out of place here."

   "That tomb belongs to the only occupant of this chamber who was not a Mistress of the Order." Irilenn replied. "But the occupant is revered all the same. More than that you should not know…not now, at least." Turning her gaze back to Vadenn, Irilenn motioned for her to walk beside her. "The history of this chamber is interesting and, under other circumstances, we could discuss it at length. But it is not why I summoned you, Vadenn. Your younger sibling, Ardenn…she has vexed me."

   <Ardenn. I knew it…she has finally achieved the ignominy she had coming to her…> Vadenn thought with satisfaction. Aloud, she said, "This troubles me, Mistress. I spent countless hours educating her in the ways of the Sisterhood, as you instructed me to do long ago. Despite my efforts, she never showed much potential. I think that she was never intellectually capable of grasping the nuances of the Order, and I am ashamed that my younger sibling failed after being placed in such an important position. How has she displeased you?"

   "I terminated her obligation of service to Delenn over forty turns ago, yet she has not answered her recall. I should expel her, but I wanted to talk to you before making a final decision regarding her. Even in distress, she is our child and we love her…as do you, no doubt."

   "Oh, yes, Mistress. My heart has been empty for the three cycles she has been away from me. She has so many obvious failings, yet I do love her and miss her despite them. It saddens me that she has transgressed so blatantly, but our policy states that she must be cast out. I weep for her."

   "You misunderstand me, Vadenn." Irilenn murmured forlornly. "I said I should expel her, not that I would. Although her continued absence is distressing, she has brought great honor to the Sisterhood by preserving the life of our dear Delenn. She has represented the Order well…but at the same time, the complexities of life outside cloister have turned her from the path, we fear. It is my own fault…I should never have agreed to allow one so impressionable into that environment. She believes that she has fallen in love with David Sheridan, and this physical attraction has replaced the love she should have for our people. Her emotions have clouded her sense of duty. This disappoints us, but she is young and it is understandable."

   "You do not mean to cast her out, then?"

   "Oh, no…absolutely not. As I said, I feel personally responsible for placing our dear child in the dilemma she is in. We love her but…" Irilenn leaned close to the younger Sister and disbelievingly whispered, "Vadenn, we fear that she intends to…to leave us. Shocking, yes? We do not want that to occur, particularly since her Elevation has already been approved by the Circle in absentia."

   "Her…her Elevation?"

   "Of course. She saved the life of a person destined to be a major historical figure on our world, incurring grievous injury in the process. She succinctly demonstrated the Third Principle of Sentient Life, and this more than merits allowing Ardenn to join our ranks." Inwardly, Irilenn smiled at the look of shock that briefly flitted across Sister Vadenn's features. Offhandedly, she continued, "As for her other transgressions, we are certain that a period of solitude and reeducation will make Sister Ardenn a productive and valued member of the Sisterhood. Do you not agree?"

   "Yes…yes, of course Mistress," Vadenn stammered. "But what has this to do with me?"

   "As her elder sibling, Ardenn loves you more than any of us, we are sure." From the folds of her scarlet robe, Irilenn withdrew an embossed envelope. Handing it to Vadenn, she said, "Go to her. Tell her we love and miss her, and that I personally command that she return. Explain to her that this is not a recall, it is a summoning. Ensure that she understands that she need not fear retribution from us. She has transgressed, but we understand her heart is torn and we forgive her…she merely needs to be shown the path again. Inform her that she has honored us, we are not angry, and that we mean to make her one of us. She merely needs to come before me and submit to the Obligation."

   Vadenn bowed and said, "It will be as you command, Mistress."

   "Vadenn, treat Ardenn gently, as we know you always have," Irilenn softly said. In a low tone, she added, "But ensure that she understands the consequences of…choosing unwisely. I would weep were it necessary for me to cast our little one adrift…I do not think she would survive long. Do you understand the task I have set before you?"

   "Yes, Mistress. I understand."

   "Then we are finished here. When you return, I expect Sister Ardenn to be accompanying you." With a wave of her hand, she dismissed the subordinate Sister. Vadenn bowed and turned to leave.

   "Oh…Sister Vadenn?" Irilenn added, seemingly as an afterthought, "There is one more matter…It almost slipped my mind."

   Vadenn turned back. "Yes, Mistress?"

   "By all accounts, President Delenn found Sister Ardenn's service quite satisfactory, her indiscretions notwithstanding," Irilenn mused. "And I believe that continuing the association we have built with President Delenn through Ardenn's loyal service is beneficial to both our Order and our people. It is possible that Delenn will request the services of another of our membership once Ardenn returns. Should she do so, I intend to select someone more resistant to the lures of the outside world, someone less impressionable and with greater maturity. As you raised and trained Ardenn...well, the selection would seem logical. But first things first, as the humans say."

   Vadenn was hard-pressed to keep from dancing out of the chamber. She did not see Irilenn's gaze hardening at her back. As the door closed behind the gleeful Sister with a resounding thump, Irilenn softly muttered, "foodbeast offal…" and shook her head in derision. More loudly, she called out, "She is gone, Rakell. You can come out now."

   From the shadows cast by one of the pillars, another red-robed figure emerged. "I must admit, Irilenn, I fail to understand this course of action. You have no intention of cloistering Ardenn…and certainly no intention of placing…that one," Rakell, Enlightened One of the Order, screwed up her nose in distaste, "in Delenn's service. I watched as Vadenn raised the girl…she was heartless and cruel, and were it not for your command, I would have taken the child from her long ago. It surprises me not that Ardenn's loyalty to the Sisterhood is questionable with her as an elder sibling."

   "Vadenn would not last a week serving Delenn, I admit," Irilenn airily replied, "But she is a useful tool, and it gives me some pleasure to spite one so uncaring as her. She despises Ardenn, I know…but she raised Ardenn as I wanted her raised. Think not that it pleasured me to watch the poor child suffer, but it was necessary for the Plan. Were Ardenn more loyal, she would be too obedient…and that would not serve our purposes. Sending Vadenn to collect her will place even more stress on the young woman."

   "Why summon Ardenn at all?" Rakell asked. "She is doing exactly as we want her to do. Left to her own devices, she would join with young Sheridan. We could simply sit back and let nature take its course, as the humans say."

   "Two reasons, Rakell," Irilenn replied, picking at an imaginary piece of lint on her robe. "First, if left to her own devices, Ardenn would consummate the joining…this is true. But she would also renounce us, and we would lose our hold over her. She is far too important to the Plan to allow that, as you know. We must maintain our influence over her and, as a Sister, our sword will always hang over her head." Clasping her hands, Irilenn sighed and said, "Second, I sense an opportunity to advance the Plan tenfold in several ways…with Delenn's unwitting assistance."

   "But Ardenn as a Sister? I doubt that she will willingly take on the Obligation of Sisterhood."

   "Oh, she will swear," Irilenn countered. "She will swear…and she will be lying through her teeth the whole time." Smiling, she added, "I am relying on it."

   "She is not ready to know the secrets…" Rakell halfheartedly argued.

   "I will need to reveal some to her…but not all. Enough to ensure that she follows the course of action I wish for her to follow." Rubbing her chin thoughtfully, Irilenn continued, "When I finish with Ardenn, she will know that she is a tool, and that knowledge will sting…but I believe she will realize also that her desires and ours are not far different. I think she wants my grandson badly enough that she will not require much education regarding her position or function, particularly when she finds out that we can provide her with something that she will eventually need. When Vadenn brings her before me, Ardenn and I will discuss her options, privately. She will cooperate. She will be unwilling, but she will cooperate. Her alternative will be…most dissatisfying."

   "And Delenn?" Rakell asked.

   "She will come on behalf of Ardenn and her son." Irilenn replied, her tone businesslike. "I intend to give her some options as well…David and Ardenn are the lever and fulcrum that I needed to move her, and I intend to use them to the fullest."

   "Her circumstances are not what they were before, Irilenn," Rakell mused. "Alone, she might have agreed to assist us, but her husband has returned to her. Even if she were inclined to cooperate, he almost certainly will not be."

   "She has kept secrets from him before. This will merely be another. He cannot object to what he does not know." Irilenn noted. Smiling, she added, "Do not look upon John Sheridan's return as an obstacle, Rakell. Look upon it as it is…a blessing. His return has provided us an opportunity to do something with Delenn I had considered out of reach before…a small way to advance the Plan on a personal level."

   Rakell was silent for a long second. "Irilenn…no…she is too old."

   "Perhaps. Perhaps not. We shall see."

*****

   "…And so, as I noted earlier, you must take special care not to allow the candle wax to drain towards Delenn. As the subordinate, the unsightliness of the candle wax must be kept on your side of the holder. This becomes especially important when the ceremony extends into the second hour, because the candle will have burned down considerably by then." Brightly, Ardenn continued, "Do not worry, however. You will have a spare candle available, of course…although to light it before the beginning of the third hour of meditation is considered an omen that the joining will not be long and fruitful…"

   "Oh, no…" Susan murmured resignedly from where she sat with her head in her hands. "We can't have that pesky pooling wax problem now, can we? I'll be sure to use a long-burning candle." Abruptly, a stray thought occurred to her. Sitting up she interrupted the young Minbari before she could continue. "Um…Ardenn? I have a silly question for you."

   "Of course. Questions are always welcome. I do want you to fully understand the process, which is why I am here. What is it?"

   Curiously, Susan sat up and eyed the young female. "What exactly are you going to be up to while I'm doing all of this bowing, scraping and meditating?"

   "Oh…you do not know, do you?" Ardenn replied innocently. Smiling indulgently, she continued, "I will not be with you. According to tradition, I should be ritually cleansing myself, choosing the proper presentation garment to wear and gathering my possessions so I can take up residence with my new prospective family. At the very end, you will summon me into the home to physically present me to David's parents. They will accept me and give me their blessing. That concludes the petitioning.

   "Oh. OK," Susan said, nodding. "I…hey…wait a minute," Suspiciously, she lowered her tone. "You don't have to gather any possessions…you already live there! And you don't have to choose a garment to wear…all the ones you have look exactly like the one you're wearing right now." Susan looked hard at the young woman, understanding dawning across her features. "So let me get this straight…you're telling me I'm doing all of this stuff and all you have to do is bathe, get dressed and pop your head in the door to say 'Hi' when I call for you?"

   "I believe you have…fully grasped the essence of my contribution to the presentation, Mother." Ardenn replied worriedly. "But…but it is not because I am shirking," she hastened to explain, "Traditionally, the petitioner is not allowed to be present, as face might be lost on my part in the unlikely event that my petition is refused. You see, Delenn cannot simply say 'no'. She must explain her reasons for refusal to you. Were that to happen, it would shame me greatly to have Delenn discuss my faults and character flaws in front of others with me present."

   "I can see where that might be a problem," Susan conceded after a moment, "But you already said that she won't refuse. I still don't understand."

   "No…she will not refuse," Ardenn explained. "But, there have been others, you see…other Minbari females that have indicated some interest in David as a potential mate. Delenn has shielded him from them. She wants him to marry for love and I think that she expected him to choose a human. She is happy that I am his selection, I think, but the fact that she discouraged females from good families and strong clans, and accepted one who is not even a Worker…there may be a political backlash. When our relationship becomes public, some may consider Delenn's choice of me as an insult to them. For that reason, the traditional ways must be followed to the letter. We cannot allow a basis for protest. If tradition says that the Petitioner is not supposed to be present, then that is the way it must be." Ardenn reached out and patted Susan on the hand. "I know that I ask much of you, Susan, and if it were permitted, I would not hesitate to present the petition myself. While you are with David's parents, I will not be 'goofing off', as you say. I will be preparing the location I have chosen for my Shan'fal."

   Mollified, Susan chuckled, "Setting up you little love nest, eh? I suppose you've arranged for attendants and watchers, too."

   "Not…exactly. The Shan'fal of the Religious Caste requires both multiple observers and at least one attendant. The Shan'fal of the Worker Caste is far less complex, only requiring a single person to serve as both observer and attendant…usually a family member."

   "Hmm…well, you may have a problem, then. I don't see John signing up for that. He had a hard enough time even having the observers in the next room for his own Shan'fal. As for getting Delenn to do it, I kind of doubt that David will be at peak performance knowing that his mother is watching."

   "Neither Entil'zha John nor Delenn were who I had in mind." Ardenn stated, looking at her expectantly.

   Susan's eyes widened. <The little minx…she wouldn't dare… > "Oh, no. Hell, no. No, Ardenn. Absolutely not. Stop making eyes at me that way! Don't you ask me to do this, Ardenn. I'll recite litanies for you until I'm blue in the face. I'll drink tea with my pinky in the air until my bladder's about to burst. I'll light so many candles for you that the house catches fire but I WILL NOT sit and watch the two of you get all naked and touchie-feelie with each other. If I want uh…married people stuff, I'll go rent a vid, thank you very much."

   "But it is not like that, Mother of my Choice. The Shan'fal is an ancient ritual, performed with great reverence…prayerfully and sensitively, with deep love and respect for all involved. It is a tender ritual of mutual exploration, understanding and revelation…"

   "Yeah, I've heard that one before. That's the same 'sucker' line your mentor used just before she clubbed David's father over the head and dragged him back to her cave." Susan countered. "Look, Ardenn, I didn't just fall off of the turnip truck you know. I've been in my twenties before and I've seen the way you and David look at each other. That 'prayerful reverence' of yours will last about five seconds before you and he are glued together like Greco-Roman wrestlers…and I'm not going to be the one trying to pry the two of you apart."

   Ardenn was flustered. She had not expected Susan to balk at attending the Shan'fal. Being asked to attend was a high honor among her people, and it had not occurred to her that a human might not consider it so. "I…do not understand all of your idioms but please do not say 'no' out of hand, Susan," she stammered. "David will never agree to having one of his parents attend even if one were willing, and I would be too embarrassed to…to open myself emotionally in front of a stranger for a ritual this intimate. There is no one else for me to ask. Perhaps…perhaps allowances can be made. Give me a chance to consult the texts…there may be an acceptable solution there."

   "Go right ahead," Susan said airily, "consult your 'how-to' manual. I'll tell you, though…it'll have to be a pretty good solution to get me to agree to this."

   "I…I will find something." The suddenly uncertain young Minbari stammered. "I…please…"

   Just as Ardenn was grasping for a way to convince Susan to reconsider, Susan's aide poked his head in the door. "Ranger One?" he called out softly.

   Raising her hand to quiet her stammering guest, Susan said, "Yes? What is it, Tulann?"

   "Two messages have arrived for you." Consulting his datapad, Tulann said, "President Delenn has called, and she states that Ardenn needs to return to the presidential compound. She has a visitor awaiting her. President Delenn implied that her return sooner rather than later would be preferable."

   "This is odd," Ardenn whispered. "Who would visit me?"

   Susan glanced at her. "I have no idea." Looking back at her aide, she said, "Did the President identify the visitor?"

   "No, Ranger One. Not by name, but she did say that the Visitor is a Sister of Valeria."

   "Ardenn, is there any reason that a Sister would visit you?" Turning to the young woman, Susan hesitated. Ardenn had performed the Minbari equivalent of going as white as a sheet. Susan could see fear in her eyes. "Ardenn," she said softly, "what's wrong?"

   "There is only one reason a Sister would leave cloister to come see me in person, Susan." Ardenn whispered. She pushed away from the table and stood shakily. "Would you…please have your aide contact Delenn and tell her I am returning? I…I will gather my things."

   Susan looked over at her aide, who nodded in acknowledgement as he turned on his heel and left. Turning back to Ardenn, she noticed that the young Minbari's hands were trembling. "All right. We're alone, and it will take a few minutes to ready a flyer to return you anyway. Out with it."

   "They have come for me…to force me to return to cloister. My service as Delenn's aide is over."

   "How do you know? Maybe they're just checking up on you."

   "No…" Ardenn trailed off, slumping down in her chair and trying to get herself under control. Looking back up at Susan when she felt she was able, she said, "Susan…I need to tell you a secret. I have done a…a shameful thing."

   Susan was at a loss. The confidant, cheerful Minbari woman that had come to visit her had been abruptly replaced by the timid young girl she had been when first entering Delenn's service. "What did you do?" she asked.

   "Shortly after we returned from Fulmer's Colony, I…received a letter from the Sisters. They informed me that I needed to prepare to leave Delenn's service, as I would soon be returning to cloister. They asked me to…to acknowledge that I had received their message.

   Susan immediately saw where this was leading. Her heart fell even as she made the connection. "…And you didn't acknowledge it, did you?"

   "No." Ardenn whispered. "I was…everything was…everything I had ever dreamed for myself was happening, Susan. David openly proclaimed his love for me…he had accepted my offer to begin the joining rituals. He…he has been taking me out… showing me places on Minbar that I have never seen before, introducing me to his friends…including me in his activities. And Delenn…Delenn was beginning to treat me more like a friend than a subordinate. Entil'zha John had returned and there was true happiness in her eyes again. I watched all of this going on around me, and I realized that I was a part of it. For once, I was not on the outside looking in…I was included. Then I received the letter. I sat in my room and cried…and then I tore it up and burned it, so no one else would know."

   "Dammit, Ardenn…have you lost your mind?" Susan retorted, more harshly than she intended. "Why the hell would you do that?" All she succeeded in doing was drawing a piteous wail from the young woman as her composure completely crumbled.

   "Because I am happy here!" Ardenn choked out angrily as tears started to come. "I am finally happy and I do not wish to go back! Is that so hard to understand? My life is finally becoming a Life! I have friends! People love me here and are not afraid to tell me so!" Burying her face in her hands, she whimpered, "You all opened up your family to me…found room for me in your Clan. I have none of that in the Order…there is no love in the Sisters of Valeria, only cold hearts, devoid of affection…but it is not just that. I have found my soul mate, Susan. David loves me. Everything else, I could survive without, but that. How can I possibly let those frigid women take him away from me now?" she sobbed.

   Softening her tone, Susan continued, "Delenn said she would help you if this happened, Ardenn. Honey, she can't help you if she doesn't know…"

   "I…this is why I am shamed, Susan. I was…upset." Shakily, Ardenn struggled to regain control as she spoke. "I…reasoned that if Delenn tried to help me and failed, she might forbid me from seeing David to save us from the pain of a final separation…I could not allow that to happen. I…David has opened his heart to me and he deserves more from me than that. And…and I thought that perhaps if I could get through the petitioning before…before they came for me, I might be in a position where I could refuse the recall."

   "And now?"

   "And now, they have come. We have not made my petition. I am unattached still in the eyes of our people and they will present me with a choice…either obey the recall and return to cloister or refuse it and be cast out of the Order."

   "So…let them cast you out. You don't want to go back anyway."

   "No…you see, I cannot stay with Delenn's family if I am cast out…I would become ver'kaff…one without clan or caste…a non-entity. For them to harbor me under those circumstances would put Delenn's own position within her family and caste at risk. I cannot ask that of her or of David." Ardenn's eyes widened. "David…oh, Valen!" she wailed, burying her face in her hands, sobbing again as she realized the magnitude of what was about to occur. "What have I done to him?" she cried, "What will he say when he finds out? I will hurt him, Susan…Delenn and Entil'zha John will be disgusted with me for withholding my recall from them, but David…I have truly and irrevocably failed him. I asked him to accept me as his mate and now I have made a liar out of myself…it will break his heart, as I feel mine breaking now…"

   "Stop, Ardenn." Susan began rubbing the young woman's shoulders, trying to console her. "Stop crying." Ardenn didn't seem to hear her, tearfully caught up in her own misery. "STOP! For God's sake!" Finally, she seemed be getting through to her. "Pull yourself together, Ardenn! Get a grip! Jeezus!"

   The young Minbari continued to sob for a moment. Finally, cried out, Ardenn sniffled and looked up at her. "Susan…" she ventured timidly, "Are…are you disappointed in me?"

   Susan gazed at the young woman. "Yes." As Ardenn ashamedly looked back down at her trembling hands, Susan softly added, "But what mother isn't occasionally disappointed when her daughter makes a poor decision, hmm? My own mother died before she had a chance to really get torqued at me, but my dad…hell, we had some doosies. Now, are you done with beating yourself up yet? Have you got all of those tears out of your system?"

   Ardenn hesitated a moment, then shakily nodded her head.

   "Good." Gently standing Ardenn up, Susan motioned her towards the bathroom. "Now, go clean yourself up, sweetheart. I hear the ship coming in. You must…I repeat must…go home with your chin high and your cheeks dry. Understand? When we get there, DO NOT get emotional. Consider that another Life Lesson - When faced with adversity, assess the situation first, and then decide how obstinate and uncooperative you need to be. Got it?"

   "W…we?" Susan heard Ardenn call out hopefully over the sound of running water.

   "Of course 'We'." Susan retorted. "God, Ardenn! Did you think I was just bullshitting you when I said I would be your Mother? You saved my best friend's life…don't you realize that? Do you think for one second you're going to face this without me standing right beside you?"

   Ardenn emerged from the bathroom still trembling, but more or less composed. "Thank you, Susan. I…I am beginning to understand why…why Delenn and the others feel about you the way that they do." Unexpectedly, she walked over and buried herself against the human woman, wrapping her arms around her.

   "Whuff!" Susan wheezed, caught by surprise. "Ardenn…uh, pleeeze…relax your grip a little, sweetheart…you're a lot…younger and stronger than I ammm…"

   "Oh. I am sorry, Susan. Forgive me, I forget how fragile human women are sometimes…" Ardenn relaxed her hold, but did not release Susan.

   "Yeah, well…anyway. Listen to me, Ardenn. If this is a recall, as you suspect, Delenn will probably be pretty upset that you didn't tell her. I know that you love and respect Delenn, but I don't want you to worry about her. She can be extremely intimidating, but she has an enormous capacity to forgive and she'll be on your side even if she's upset with you. Acknowledge her anger, but do not concentrate on her. The one you need to focus on is the Sister sent to collect you. I know that you're a woman of peace, but I want you to walk in as a warrior. You'll have to be one to get out of this. Can you do that?"

   "I…I will try. Suppose David arrives? I do not know if I can face him and maintain my composure."

   "Then you simply won't face him," Susan stated flatly. "If David shows up, I'll keep him away from you until we find out what's going on. When you're ready to see him, let me know."

   Glancing out her door, Susan motioned to Tulann. Her aide was studiously not hearing the conversation within and it took Ranger One a moment to catch his attention. When he noticed, he hopped up and walked over to where the two women stood. "Yes, Ranger One?"

   "You said there were two messages. What was the other one?"

   Tulann consulted his datapad. "The second message is an intelligence report. Our sources within the Warrior Caste report that a Warcruiser belonging to the Wind Swords has gone missing."

   "Gone missing? Nobody just loses a Warcruiser, Tulann. They're the largest warships in known space."

   "Nevertheless, several different sources confirm it," the Minbari Ranger replied. "Odder still, the Wind Swords have made no effort to ascertain the location of the ship, the circumstances surrounding its loss...if it is truly lost…or to mount a search."

   "OK, if they won't look, we will. Find out ship's last known location and pull its flight plan. Once you've done that, contact the nearest Ranger base and have them dispatch a ship."

   "Already done, Ranger One. The ship was outbound on a training mission. Destination was the Mieliar System, an uninhabited stellar group on the border of the Federation and the Earth Alliance. There are no Ranger bases in that area."

   "Are there any human outposts nearby? Perhaps Earthforce would be in a better position to conduct a search."

   "We have checked. The Earthforce liaison states that the only human outpost in the area was destroyed during our war with your people and the only habitable planet was not recolonized after hostilities ended." Tulann glanced at his datapad quickly, scanning his notes. Looking back at Ranger One, he said, "Hmm…this is odd. Apparently, the planet has not only never been recolonized, but it has also never been revisited. This goes against the curious nature that I have come to expect from Humans."

   Susan felt a chill crawl slowly up her back. "The planet's name, Tulann. What is it?"

   "The Warrior Caste call the planet Khon'dar. On Human star charts, it is called both Flynn's Colony and Flynn's World." Scrolling further through his data, the Minbari continued, "Apparently, the fighting there was quite brutal during the War. There were no survivors among the human colonists, regrettably." As he concluded, Tulann noted that his leader had gone pale. "We could find little other information. Is this important, Ranger One?"

   Susan, trained by years of experience, schooled her features into neutrality almost instantly. "What? Oh…no, nothing to trouble yourself over," Susan replied, "It does not seem…particularly important." Trying to appear unconcerned, she added, "Tulann, belay my order to send a ship. I doubt searching that area is worth sending a White Star. A scout would probably be better…our resources are strained as it is."

   "Should I alert a scout, then?"

   "No, I'll handle it. I know a scout who's…uniquely qualified." Susan answered with seeming offhandedness. Under her breath, she muttered, "Although he sure won't want to go back there…"

   Beside her, Ardenn glanced at her concernedly. "No, I'm not sending David, sweetheart." Susan whispered, sensing the young Minbari's thoughts. In the distance, she saw her flyer settling on the landing pad. "Are you ready?"

   Hands clasped in front of her, Ardenn held her chin high as Susan instructed. Her expression neutral, she nodded.

   Susan's expression became troubled again as the two walked out to the waiting transport. <One problem at a time… > she thought despondently. She let none of her uncertainty show, however. "We'll talk more in the flyer," she said crisply to her companion. "You, my dear, are going to give me the five-minute briefing on the Sisters of Valeria on the way over. I want at least a vague understanding of your weird organization before we arrive."

   "Yes, Susan."

   "Oh, and one more thing, Ardenn," Susan added as they walked. Leaning in, she whispered, "We do love you. Whatever happens, don't forget that."

*****

   "…to unidentified ship. This is Commander John Sheridan of the Earthforce destroyer Lexington. You are transiting an Earth Alliance-restricted sector, and Earthforce has been notified. You are ordered to change course or your ship will be targeted by planetary defenses. You have two minutes to comply. I repeat, this is Commander John Sheridan of the Earthforce destroyer Lexington. You are transiting an Earth Alliance-restricted sector, and Earthforce has been notified. You are ordered to change course or your ship will be targeted by planetary defenses. You have one minute, forty-five seconds to comply…"

   On the darkened bridge of a hidden warship, a shadowy figure gestured at a viewscreen on which the transmission was displayed. "…And no one received this warning?" he asked.

   "No, War Marshal." The figure beside him replied. "The Earthforce outpost the transmission was directed to was decommissioned thirty human years ago."

   The first speaker sighed. "Our engagement with the Minbari Warcruiser was unexpected. How does this affect the campaign plan?"

   "Very little, War Marshal. We detected no emergency beacons and no effort on the part of the Minbari to contact others of their kind once engaged." The second figure paused, touching a display toggle. In response, a schematic of the Minbari ship was displayed. Looking at the image, he continued, "Based on that, our analysts believe that the ship was here on a covert mission that was not sanctioned either by the Minbari government or the Alliance. It is likely that they were here seeking the same information as we. In a way, we were fortunate that it was a Minbari ship we encountered. They do not know us."

   "Your analysts," the War Marshal spat. "I have little faith in them. This 'John Sheridan', the very man we see on this screen…your analysts told me he was dead! Your analysts told me that…and now they come to me and say 'we were wrong…he is alive'. Well…which is it?"

   "He is…quite alive, War Marshal," the subordinate stammered. "Although he is no longer the leader of the Alliance and he is far older than the man we see here. This transmission is several decades old…a leftover from the Humans' war with the Minbari." Timidly, he ventured, "Our intelligence has been unable to determine exactly…uh, why…he is still alive. The intercepts we have reviewed for the past three human years indicated that he had likely died. We are still reviewing the data to find the error."

   "You do realize, do you not, that one of the reasons we selected this time for our incursion was because this very individual would no longer be a threat?" the War Marshal noted, his temper rising along with his voice. Loudly, he continued, "Our fleet expects to attack a flimsy alliance of squabbling races, led by a world-weary Priestess!" Jabbing a finger, he shouted, "Our fleet expects to fight a military led by a competent but defeatable commander! Now, look at us! The advance guard is here, the campaign is in motion, and what do I find? The very person I did not want to find! Do you understand the ramifications of this? Because of this one individual, our whole plan of attack has been thrown into jeopardy! We now find ourselves potentially facing an experienced field General who has a proven record of successfully engaging in coalition warfare!"

   "We still have the element of surprise, Esteemed One, and we still have the planet under surveillance. Once we have dismantled the remnants of the Minbari ship, no one will know that we were here. We can then remove the minor obstacle presented by the battle satellites and the surface will be open to us. Once we have what we need, Sheridan will be of little danger to us."

   "I do not believe that the passing of the Minbari ship will go unnoticed, even if its mission was covert. Someone will come looking…" Trailing off, the War Marshal fell silent, thinking. After a moment, he said, "Do not dismantle the Minbari ship. Leave it where it is."

   "I do not understand…"

   "Of course you do not. That is why I am Marshal of the Fleet and you are my idiot Intelligence Officer," the figure snapped. Calming quickly, he thoughtfully added, "They will send someone to look. If they do not find the ship here, they will do a flyby and leave to search elsewhere. But…if they do find the ship, they will stay to investigate…"

   "And we…want this?"

   "Yes. Assuming that you are correct, neither the Earthers nor the Minbari wanted this place visited…and with good reason. The Ranger Leader, Ivanova, will be sensitive to that and will no doubt send someone here who already knows the secrets the planet holds...to keep others from finding out."

   "Someone such as…John Sheridan?"

   "Precisely. It would appear that he was part of the cover-up, so the choice would be a logical one. When he comes, we will be awaiting him."

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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