2285/III: SISTER OF VALERIA

By John Hightower

 

 

 

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*****

   Earth Year 2285

   David shook his head and chuckled at his own gullibility as he watched Ardenn walk towards the residence. She paused at a turn in the path and looked back at him, purposefully positioning herself so the afternoon sun accented her petite but shapely figure, the diamond he had given her gleaming like a star shining on her hand as the light passed through it. In one of those rare moments of clarity that come to all people at some time in their lives, David realized that he now had his mental 'snapshot' of her. The image that he would carry for the rest of his life would be of her standing in profile like that. Ardenn was his wife and always would be, even if the ceremonies and rituals sanctifying that title were never completed…even if the worst happened and they never experienced more than one brief night together. Before she continued on out of sight, their eyes met and David saw that she recognized it as well. He was her husband for more than one day and she knew it.

   Once she was gone, David slowly stood. Ardenn had come about as close to brazenness as a Minbari could, and he laughed at himself again as he realized that he would look extremely silly trotting back into his parent's home with a full erection. Deciding that a moment of quiet reflection in his present location might be helpful, he was just flopping back down on the bench beside the stone garden when he heard a familiar, gravelly voice pipe up behind him.

   "You're not thinking about taking a leak in there, are you?" John asked as he came up behind him. "If you are, let me go warn your mother. You're a little bit too big now for her to wrestle up to me on her own…she might need Ranger One's help this time."

   "Hi, Dad," David answered. "Excuse me for not getting up…right now, that would be, well, uncomfortable to say the least."

   "I'll bet." John observed as he sat down beside his son. "I walked by a little earlier…and I can understand your discomfort."

   David experienced a moment of panic. His father would probably be amused at Ardenn's clever use of the marriage ritual, but his mother most definitely would not be…and his beloved needed Delenn on her side more than anyone right now. All it would take was for Dad to innocently mention it to her…and Ardenn might find herself buried so deep in the Sisterhood that he'd never find her. "So…" David asked casually, "You listened in, then?"

   "Hell, no, son," John replied amusedly. "I turned the corner and saw you on your knees. I didn't even know Ardenn was with you until I saw the tip of her bonecrest peeking out of your cloak. Once I saw that, I figured it would be best to be somewhere else for awhile." Clearing his throat, he lowered his voice and said, "I was going to ask if you two were staying for dinner…or eating out. Somehow the question seemed a little…uh, inappropriate under the circumstances." Leaning closer, John amusedly stage-whispered, "I'm pretty open-minded but if you ask me, son, there are more discreet places for that sort of thing than the Gardens."

   "You mean you thought she was giving me a…" David's eyes widened. "Dad…no! She wouldn't do that…well, I don't know if she would or not, but she was just a little cold, that's all. We didn't do anything…"

   John started laughing and raised his hands in mock-defense. "I know, son, I know…I was just trying to lighten your mood a little. So…did you give her a pep talk?"

   "Yeah, and I gave her the ring, too, but I don't think she really believes she can come back." Swallowing, David turned to face his father and asked, "Do you think she can? I'm trying to remain upbeat about this…I'm trying to present a cheerful front. Am I deluding myself?"

   "I don't know, son," John replied, his amused expression replaced by a serious one. "I don't know enough about the Sisters of Valeria to fill a thimble. What I do know is that right now the two most determined females on this planet are loading up their elephant guns to go into the bush after your fiancée." Grunting neutrally, he continued, "Now, I won't tell you not to worry or that getting her back is a sure thing, but in my experience, it's an unwise person who bets against your mother or Susan, and an unfortunate one who tries to take on the two of them together." Stroking his chin, John fell silent as he pondered the question further. After a moment, he reflected, "Now, with that said…I think there's something very suspicious about this situation, David, and so do the others. It makes no sense to me for the Sisters to leave Ardenn here six months longer than she was supposed to be for no real reason, and it makes even less sense to reward her for ignoring her recall by elevating her. Frankly, the Sisters should have expelled her for that. My gut tells me that the Sisterhood wants something from her and that something involves…you."

   "Me?" David exclaimed, "Why me? What the hell could I have that would interest them?"

   "Like I said…it's just a feeling," John answered, shrugging. "But think about it," he continued, "One thing I do know about the Sisters…about all Minbari, really…is that they're very punctual. She wasn't just forgotten about. There's a reason she was left here beyond her deadline. What's changed between six months ago and now?"

   "Well…you're back," David observed. "That's pretty obvious."

   John considered David's observation for a moment. "True," he ventured, "But I don't think I have anything to do with this. Ardenn and I have no real connection other than through you. No one could have predicted my return and she was already four months past her original recall time when I showed up. What else was going on six months ago?"

   "Let me think," David said, resting his chin on his knuckles. "Hmm, six months ago…Mother and Ardenn were here hosting a conference between the Narn and Centauri on border world mining rights. Ranger One was here contracting with the Earthforce liaison to build new jumpgates in sector 687 and I was on patrol near the Drazi Freehold. Ardenn has no connections to any other people outside of her official duties."

   "You had just returned from that patrol when you found out about me, right? How long had you been gone when Ardenn's time was supposed to be up?"

   "Ranger One had set up a patrol rotation among the fleet, and I was uh…two months into mine. It was my first time out commanding my own ship so I was pretty excited at first, but after two months, things were starting to get really dull."

   Everything else seemed normal enough, John noted to himself. No one connected to Ardenn was doing anything unusual. Except that David wasn't here…and if David wasn't here, then he and Ardenn couldn't become a couple. "Son, were you and Ardenn seeing one another before you went out on patrol? Were the two of you romantically linked in any way?"

   "What?" David asked, surprised at the question. Now that he was getting used to having John around, he had a tendency to forget that he hadn't been there the whole time. He didn't know that Ardenn had been merely a friend before his return. When David collected John from Mars, he had described Ardenn to his father as a romantic attachment even though that relationship was new. "No…uh, we were friends, but I didn't know she was interested in a romantic relationship then. Hell, I didn't even know I was interested. There was nothing serious between us until I got back…right before I came to get you on Mars. I mean…I thought she was beautiful then and I knew I loved her on some level, but…she's a Minbari. It never occurred to me that she was thinking along similar lines."

   "Well, that's it then," John noted. "That's what's changed...the two of you." Seeing that David appeared skeptical, he explained, "Six months ago, David, you weren't here with her…you weren't even on the planet. The two of you weren't a couple. She was unattached…just another little Apprentice running around doing her duty for the homeworld. Two months ago, everything changed between the two of you. The two of you fell in love…well, you were already in love with each other, but you finally said the words. You started dating…word started to spread about the two of you. You sensed that you were being watched…and boom! She gets recalled."

   "So, you think that the Sisterhood was watching us…" David murmured, mulling the idea over. "It makes sense…they saw what was happening between us and they objected to a human/Minbari couple. I guess it would be easier to discreetly recall Ardenn and end our relationship that way rather than confront anyone about it."

   "That's a possibility, David…only she ignored the recall. Like I said, they should have thrown her out for that, but they didn't. They selected her for elevation instead. If my understanding is correct, that's a pretty unusual honor to offer a twenty-three year old woman who has just finished giving them the finger. There's something else to this. Tell me, David…had they thrown her out, what would you have done?"

   "Dad…I know Mother wouldn't have approved, but there's no way in hell that I would've stood by and allowed Ardenn to be tossed into the street. I probably would have taken her away from Minbar. I guess I would have gone to Susan, requested a posting somewhere else, and when I left she would've accompanied me. I would've taken her to Mars…Uncle Mike's always got a place in his company for someone with Ardenn's language skills…or perhaps one of the remote outposts. Any place where people don't care about castes or clans would have been acceptable. If the price of that was never coming home or seeing Mother again…well, I would have lived with it."

   "I don't think you're being fair to your mother, son. She knows what it's like to be an outcast and she'd have found a way to help, but that's beside the point. Now, second question…had none of this come up and the two of you continued with your rituals, what would Ardenn have done once you were married? Was she planning on breaking with the Sisters?"

   "Yeah, that was one of the first things on her 'to do' list…she doesn't want to be a Sister and she wanted to avoid just this kind of situation. She was going to forswear the Sisterhood and then approach Mother about helping her find a position with some compensation." David chuckled and added, "Love is great, Dad, but it doesn't put a roof over your head or food on the table and Rangers don't exactly get paid a king's ransom. We'd have to set up our own household and things would be really tight if I had to support both of us on what I make."

   "That's what your mother and I figured she'd do," John observed. "You see the similarities, don't you son? In both of those scenarios I presented, Ardenn ends up leaving the Sisterhood. She becomes a free agent and is no longer under their influence. I'm becoming convinced that the first recall was just a test…a test to force Ardenn to reveal her intentions prematurely."

   "I don't understand. Are you saying the Sisters of Valeria recalled Ardenn…and expected her to refuse to return?"

   "I'm just thinking out loud, David. Suppose they knew about the two of you, but they weren't sure what Ardenn was planning. So they recall her…and she doesn't answer. Now they know she was planning on leaving them, and so they take steps to ensure that she can't. They want to keep her under their control, and they're going to great lengths to do so. That, and the six extra months they left her here makes me think that the Sisterhood is on a fishing expedition."

   "Fishing? What's fishing got to do with anything?"

   "Suppose you're an expert fisherman, and you have a favorite fishing hole that you go to. Now this lake is full of fish, but there are a few special fish that you're trying for specifically. What do you do?"

   David thought. Minbari fished for food, but not for sport as humans did. His Grandfather David had taken him fishing on Earth as a kid. David remembered this trip because it was the only time the family had ever gone to the beach, and his mother hated it. She didn't know how to swim, found the idea of immersing herself in the ocean ludicrous, the hot sand burned her feet, her pale skin sunburned easily and the mere idea that her son would be out on a boat in deep water had given her fits. Under Delenn's disapproving eye, his father had wrapped him in so many life preservers that he could barely move even though he could swim. David's grandfather had laughed as his daughter-in-law alternated between pacing the sandy shore nervously under a parasol and lecturing her husband the whole time they were on the water. That had been funny, but it had been the box with the shiny pieces of metal that really fascinated him. Grandfather David admonished him not to play with them, but he hadn't listened and ended up with a cut finger for his trouble. 'Lures', they were called…and every fish had a lure that attracted it. "You'd select the lures that you thought might attract those fish, I guess," David answered.

   "OK, so you've got your best lure on the line along with a sinker and a hook. You cast it into the lake…and then what happens? Nothing…at least not right away usually. Fishing requires great patience. It sometimes takes a while for that special fish to see the lure, so you wait. You wait…and eventually the fish notices, makes a grab and tries to swim off with it. After the fish snatches the bait, you play him a little, just to make sure the hook is in firmly…and then you start reeling him in. He's hooked, and it's just a matter of time at that point."

   "You're saying Ardenn is a lure? For me?"

   "It's not a perfect analogy…and I'm only hypothesizing," John replied, "But look at it objectively. Why is Ardenn here? Irilenn's got no shortage of talent available to her, and working for the President of the Alliance…that's pretty prestigious. I'm sure that there were plenty of volunteers within the Sisterhood to take the job, volunteers with far more experience. But instead of an older, more experienced full Sister, the President of the Alliance gets a woman who's barely an adult…one who's certainly competent enough to fill the job, but who also happens to have a lot in common with you. She's close to your age, she's smart, she has a sense of humor, she's very feminine for a Minbari and she's attracted to you. And, unlike a full Sister, she's not forbidden from forming relationships. In other words, the Sisterhood sends over a woman picked out for you, son, not your mother. The problem is, it takes a while for you to notice her…so when the time comes for her to return, the Sisters decide to be patient fishermen and leave her out for a little longer. Sure enough, you swim back and finally see her as they want you to. You take her and the two of you are off and swimming. They play out some line to make sure the hook is set, and now they're reeling her in, with you in tow."

   "So…she's part of some sort of plan to get me? I don't believe…I can't believe that Ardenn would be in on something like that. Even if it were true…why? What would be the point?"

   "I don't know, son. Why do the Minbari do anything? I've lived with your mother for over twenty years and I still don't always understand her reasoning. But if my hypothesis is the correct one, Ardenn's not in on this. That's why they tested her with the recall…they didn't know what she would do. I'd be willing to bet that if she had returned, the Sisters would have found an excuse to send her back to you for a little while longer…just to set the hook a little more firmly. With the recall, Ardenn gave them their answer and that's why she's being elevated. She was going to forswear them to stay with you. Good fishermen don't let the fish run away with their lure."

   "OK…so what can we do about this?"

   "We don't do anything, David. There's nothing you or I can do. We're human, and we're males…we wouldn't even get past the front door of the Temple or a Chapter House. This one, I think, is up to your mother and Susan. Have faith in them…they'll do everything they can."

   David nodded uncertainly and the two sat in silence, each lost in their own thoughts as the gazed at the patterns in the sand. After a moment, John spoke up. "Well, it still looks like sand to me."

   "Me, too. Mother must really be wired differently from us…she used to come out her and go all mystical looking at this."

   "I don't think that's it, son…I don't think she actually 'sees' anything in there. It's just how she unwinds, how she sets her troubles aside for a moment." Stretching, John sighed and scratched his cheek. "Speaking of setting troubles aside…" he continued, "David, I have a problem, and I'd appreciate your help."

   That pricked David's ears up. He was so used to things being the other way around that it sounded strange to hear his father ask for help. "What is it?"

   "I know that you're worried about Ardenn, but the rest of the universe doesn't stop moving just for that. Something else has come up. Ranger One's given me my first assignment as a troubleshooter…and she couldn't have picked a more difficult one for me. More difficult than she realizes. I've debated whether I want to bring you into this or not…but the way things are here with Ardenn, I guess it's worth the risk." Turning to David, he said, "A Warrior caste cruiser is missing, and Ranger One wants me to go find it. I'd like it if you'd come along."

   "Find a missing ship? If you ask me, Dad, you're a little overqualified for that. That sounds more like an assignment that I should have."

   "It's not the search itself, David…we're pretty sure we know where the ship is. That location is the problem." John grimaced and ran his hand through his hair. "The area is…well, 'politically sensitive' is an understatement. Ranger One doesn't want this mission advertised, even among the Rangers…and for good reasons. I haven't even told your mother about it, and I don't plan to give her any details when I do."

   "Dad, if its politically sensitive she ought to know. If word got out, it could blow up and she'd be caught in the middle."

   "It's precisely for that reason that I have to be the one to take this assignment, David. If anyone else were to go, even another Ranger, I can guarantee that it would blow up around her. And if your mother found out the specifics, she'd certainly try to quash this trip…but it has to be done, and frankly, I don't want to go alone."

   "You're…afraid?" David asked incredulously. "In Valen's Name, Dad…how bad can this place be?"

   "Bad. Very bad," John answered nebulously. Sighing, he continued, "I'm not exactly …afraid, David. I'm more like…reluctant. There are events in my life that I don't like to remember. There are things that I've seen that I wish I hadn't…and to see them again, well…I'm not afraid of that in and of itself. I'm afraid of the memories that'll come back into focus, and the emotions that will return." With a faraway look, John mumbled, "Circumstances have changed so much for me in the intervening years…I didn't know her then, or her people. I love the person she is. The person she was is a stranger to me…a stranger who no longer exists…"

   "Dad…you're not making any sense," David concernedly said. "What are you talking about?"

   "Nothing, son...just the muttering of an old man. Ignore it." Shaking his head, John realized he was thinking out loud and changed the subject. "Look, your mother has nightmares occasionally. You know this, right?"

   "Yeah…about the war. I know that much. That's one of the reasons why I was curious earlier today. She's gotten better since you returned, but while you were gone…damn! She must have had some bad experiences…and she'd never talk about them the next day."

   "Well…she's not the only one, David. I had some bad experiences, too. I don't have nightmares nearly as often as she does, but when I do…the place where the Warcruiser was last reported to be headed is the place that comes up."

   "You haven't made this trip sound particularly inviting. Are you sure that you want me along?"

   "Actually, I'm really uneasy about taking you…but I do want you along. When your mother finds out, she'll either be furious or…well, she doesn't know about this and as long as you, Susan and I stay quiet, she never will."

   "This is more than searching for a missing ship, isn't it? You're going to cover something up."

   "No, son," John stated. "I'm not going to cover something up. I did the covering a long time ago. Now, I'm going back to make sure it stays that way." Sighing, he leaned back on the bench and shook his head. "Remember what I said about that ten percent of secrets? Look, David…you don't have to go. I can't make you and it may just be a flyby anyway. You're a man now and you have your own issues to deal with…it's probably better if I don't saddle you with mine. You said you wanted to know about the war, and I thought this might take your mind off of Ardenn for a while. Now that I think about it, this might be more than you're looking for…maybe more than you want to know."

   "Is it going to be dangerous?"

   "That depends on what you consider 'dangerous', David…" Turning to his son, John gazed intently at the young man. His voice totally devoid of humor, he continued, "A little knowledge, son…sometimes a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. If you go with me and we have to land, you will gain a little knowledge. You may not be quite the same when you come back. You may find that you look at the people around you here a little…differently. Are you willing to take that risk?"

   "I'm not afraid to take risks, Dad," David replied just as seriously. "If you think getting all spooky on me will frighten me off, you're wrong." Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees and continued, "What I really want is to stay close to Ardenn…but you're right. What would I do other than worry? I'll just be in the way. Mother and Ranger One can help her, and I'd be of no use to them. I guess Nashon can finish with the ship…she's almost ready anyway." David came to a decision. "OK, I'm in. When do we leave?"

   "Tomorrow morning...early. The Isil'zha will be on the pad. Pack for about a week."

   "Shit…uh, Dad? I don't suppose you can delay that takeoff a little…"

   "Why? You plan on sleeping in? The sooner we leave the better…" John trailed off. Tonight…Ardenn' s last night. Of course she was going to spend it with David, he realized. Where else would she go? "You…look, son, I…uh, understand. We'll leave when you're ready. Um…tonight… don't just jump all over her, OK? A bad experience with someone as special to her as you are would be worse for her than no experience at all." "Dad…I heard what you said this morning about the Shan'fal and everything, but we don't have time for that anymore. She leaves tomorrow, and I don't know if or when I'll see her again. I'll go with you, but I promised her one night and I think…she needs it. I know I do. Don't say anything…please."

   "Son, you and she are adults. I won't say anything, but…"

   "She wants this, Dad…she wants me to remember her. I'm not forcing her into anything…she asked me to be with her tonight and she has every right to. I'll…I don't know…I'll think of something. I'll make it beautiful for her. I won't let her leave me sad or disappointed."

   John put his head in his hands exasperatedly. After a moment, he looked up and murmured, "Listen to me carefully, son. If you're going to do this, do it right. I don't want the two of you clumsily fumbling around in the dark. That's not 'beautiful', that's comedy." Sighing in resignation, he continued, "Her pleasure centers, son…you know some of them already?"

   "Uh…yeah, a few. It's not like I grew up expecting to sleep with a Minbari, you know."

   "I know. My own experience is limited to one…and she's almost completely human. I know a few general areas, though," Holding up his hands, John started ticking them off. "Um…The bonecrest folds are sensitive…you know that. The cerulean patch you probably know also. The eyelids, that's one that sometimes gets missed…the temples, where the nerve network enters the skull…the lips, obviously…the earlobe…the collarbone…the base of the throat. The fingers, particularly the tips…that's a big one, in case you were wondering why she likes combing her fingers through your hair. The spinal ridge…in the lower back curvature…uh, the breasts, just like humans…then there's the lower abdomen, near the navel. Once you reach that point, don't go straight for the oth'las…warm her up to it first by rubbing her abdomen…uh, or licking it, if you get adventurous. Minbari women like that. Any place that's blue is probably a safe bet." John shrugged and ran his fingers through his hair. "Sorry, son…it's not much. Shan'fal by proxy is about the best I can offer you."

   "Thanks, Dad…and I mean it. Any other advice?"

   "Talk to her…ask her what she likes. Even if she's inexperienced, she'll have a few favorites. Tell her you love her. Keep the lighting soft…candles are a good investment. Um, when you both decide you're ready…don't be in a rush. Take it slow and give her time to adjust to you. At some point, either you'll have to pull back or finish it. Let her make that decision, and don't get so carried away that you can't respect it. You'll understand what I mean when the time comes." Sighing, John added, "Other than that, the only thing I can think of is for you to keep you wits about you and stay in control of yourself. Oh, and bear in mind that she's a lot stronger than a similarly sized human woman…she might forget it herself in the excitement and remind you. Trust me, you don't want that. Oh…and remember this: Cinnamon."

   David looked at his father bemusedly for a moment. "Cinnamon? Ah, hell…never mind, Dad. There's a little more to this than the agitator in the washing machine, isn't there?"

   "Abso-fraggin-lutely, damn it." John chuckled. "OK, David…you do what you need to do, but don't take all morning. The longer I stay, the more chance there is that your mother is going to start asking questions. She's focused on Ardenn right now…and I want her to stay that way."

   

   ***

   Delenn lay silently in her bed…their bed…and considered what John was telling her. She did not like what she was hearing.

   "A week, love…neither Susan nor I figure it'll take more than a week," Laying on his back beside her, John stared at the ceiling and sighed. Delenn's silence was speaking disapproval in volumes. "A quick shot out, a quick look around…and then we come back."

   "This…quick shot, John. It is really necessary now?" Delenn whispered shakily. "We have much occurring here. Ardenn needs us, and I…I need you." Swallowing, she added, "Were you not here, I do not know how I would be handling this…you are my anchor right now, beloved."

   "Sweetheart, I have to do this…"

   "A missing ship, John?" Rolling over, Delenn faced her husband. "I pray for the crew, husband, and I do not make light of their lives…but a missing ship is not normally something that Entil'zha personally becomes concerned with. There are other Rangers, and the Warriors themselves have resources to conduct a search. Why is this mission important enough to require your personal attention?"

   John remained silent for a moment, groping for an explanation that would satisfy his curious wife without revealing more than he wanted her to know. "Precious…the search itself isn't really that critical, but the search area is close to Earth Alliance territory. My people still get jumpy when Warrior Caste ships transit their space…they much prefer dealing with your caste or the Workers. You know this…and the thought that a fully armed Wind Sword ship is missing in their space could become a political issue."

   "I understand that," Delenn conceded, "Still…"

   "The bottom line, love…the bottom line is that yes, another Ranger could handle this…but I thought this would get both David and I out of your hair for a little while so you can work things out with the Sisters regarding Ardenn without having to worry about us." Rolling over on his side to face his beloved, John continued, "Do you really want David hanging on the tails of your robe for the next few days constantly asking for updates? You know he would, and there's nothing he or I can do to resolve this. Irilenn…I've spoken to her a couple of times, but I think I'm considered more of a specimen than a person by her. I doubt that having Entil'zha John Sheridan sweep down to display his indignation is going to help Ardenn's case much."

   "No…probably not," Delenn conceded, "but having you here in my bed would do much to allay my worries…" Sighing, Delenn acceded to the inevitable and curled herself against her husband, resting her head against his chest. "A week. Seven human days…I will survive, I suppose, and it will occupy David's attention. Very well, John…but I will be watching the chronometer closely. If you have not returned in seven days, I will come looking."

   "I don't doubt it for a second," John chuckled, wrapping his arm around her. Counting himself lucky for escaping so easily, he hastened to change the subject. "Any word from the Sisters about Ardenn?"

   "Ardenn…do you mean the young Minbari woman in the next room who is waiting for us to go to sleep so she can sneak out to see David?" Delenn softly chuckled. "Yes…I was unable to reach Mistress Irilenn, so I contacted Sister Rakell instead. She is the 'Enlightened One' of the Order…somewhat akin to Irilenn's Executive Officer. Through her, I have arranged a meeting with Irilenn three days from tomorrow at their main Temple. Ardenn will already be elevated, but Susan and I shall see what sort of accommodation can be reached…if any can."

   John held her silently for a few minutes, thankful that she had at least been able to establish communications. It wasn't much, he conceded, but the fact that the Sisters were willing to meet at all made him suspect even more strongly that Ardenn's elevation was not as clear-cut as it seemed. If the Sisters intended this to be the end of Ardenn's association with the Sheridan family, they would not want to talk at all. A soft hand sliding sensuously across his abdomen shook him away from thoughts of Ardenn and David.

   "Do you think that Ardenn intends to sleep with our son tonight, John?"

   The hand on his abdomen had reached the waistband of his pajama bottoms. "I hope so," he replied. "This may be their only night together…for a while, at least. I don't begrudge them a night."

   "Nor do I," Delenn murmured. Sliding her hand inside the band, she found her husband's growing erection and started kneading it gently. "It occurs to me that this will be our last night as well…for a while, at least."

   "So it will…" John replied huskily, raising his hips so Delenn could pull his bottoms off. "So what did you have in mind? Another ritual you need practice in?"

   "No, beloved…" Delenn whispered. Pulling her nightgown over her head, she turned to John and pressed him back into the pillows. As she straddled him, she grasped him and guided him into her. "This ritual…is one I know quite well…and one I never tire of practicing with you…"

   

   ***

   Ardenn stood in the center of her small room, her door closed and her shutters drawn, totally unclothed.

   Her iron-gray eyes serious, Ardenn tried to force down the embarrassed flush that found its way into her cheeks as she looked at herself critically in the mirror. It was not that her nude body embarrassed her. Even though Minbari did not generally consider physical attractiveness as important as humans did, she knew that she was ascetically adequate for the most part…or she would be to another of her kind. A Minbari male would see her as satisfactory, but probably too small to produce robust children. She was not trying to see herself as a Minbari would see her, however. That was the problem. She was trying to see herself as David would see her. He was not Minbari, and the thought that David might not find her visually pleasing made her uncertain.

   Ardenn had never seen a live human woman unclothed. She had seen pictures in texts and watched vids, but the closest she had come to viewing a live human was her mentor. One of the first things Delenn had done after taking Ardenn into her service was disrobe for her. When the discomfited young Minbari stammered out her request for an explanation, the then-nude Delenn told her that it was necessary to satisfy any curiosity Ardenn might have about her appearance. Now that she knew, she said, the two of them could better concentrate on the business of the people with that unspoken question answered. Afterwards, Ardenn had wondered if her mentor would have displayed herself similarly had her new aide been male instead…but she never asked.

   Judging from Delenn's physical traits, which the young Minbari assumed to be pleasing to humans since she was married to one, Ardenn knew there were few major differences between her body and that of a human female. Overall, she was smaller than the average-sized Delenn…well, she was 'less tall' in any event…but the contours of their bodies were essentially the same. Her legs were toned and shapely, just as Delenn's were, and her hips were just as rounded. Her upper body was slightly better defined than Delenn's, owing to both the age difference between her and her mentor and the barely noticeable differences in muscle configuration that gave Minbari their strength advantage over similarly-sized humans. In several other areas, however, she was proportioned slightly differently. Her breasts were the most obvious, being somewhat larger than Delenn's. On a Minbari female as small as she, they looked almost disharmonious. Before Ardenn entered Delenn's service, Vadenn had often indicated to her that her breasts were a distraction, getting in the way and contributing to her constant awkwardness. Now, she hoped that David would find a way to overlook their size and would not find them a hindrance.

   Then there were the other minor differences. She had no body hair, of course, and her skin coloration was far different. Where humans varied from pinkish, like Delenn, to very dark depending on race, she was almost completely white, with the exception of her cerulean paths. There was the cranial patch, which everybody could see, but the pathways…human females had no equivalent.

   Ardenn examined her paths, furrowing her brow ridge as she thought. Would David find them disconcerting? Surely not, she reasoned. He was familiar with Minbari anatomy. He didn't expect her to look exactly like a human woman. It was not as if they covered her, after all. There were the two very sensitive feeding patches on her breasts…the ones that corresponded to nipples on a human and performed much the same function, and then there was the large dorsal path that started at the top of her spine and ran down her back. At the base of her spine, it faded to a faint bluish tinge and divided into two separate trails…following the swell of her hips and darkening again as the paths merged in a 'vee' under her navel. The abdominal path then plunged into her pelvis. David enjoyed kissing her cranial patch…an act she found extremely pleasurable. Perhaps he would not object to providing similar attention to the others? They were equally sensitive, and in her fantasy, he ministered to all of them…particularly the ones running across the curve of her hips to her abdomen. In her mind's eye, she pictured it for a moment…David's lips caressing her cerulean pathways…and then she stopped herself as she felt her oth'las moistening in response. <Later…>, she chided herself, forcing down the hand that had involuntarily found its way to her abdominal path and focusing her attention back on the mirror. <I will accomplish nothing at this rate…I have not even readied myself and I am already aroused…>

   Her oth'las…human women definitely didn't have those wavy folds of sensitive pelvic tissue, she noted as she mentally shook off her erotic thoughts and redirected her attention back to the mirror. They had an organ called a clitoris that performed the same function. She had read of it in a human anatomy text and this difference did not particularly worry her. Delenn still had the Minbari version, and from time to time Ardenn could not help but hear her mentor and Entil'zha John as they mated. Clearly, judging from the frequency of their lovemaking, humans did not find the presence of oth'las bothersome and were quite capable of stimulating them properly. Idly, Ardenn speculated that human pubic hair would probably serve as a more than adequate substitute for the corresponding oth'las of a Minbari male during intercourse.

   Turning her back on the mirror, Ardenn looked over her shoulder at the most 'glaring' of the minor differences between her body and that of a human woman…her spinal ridge. Human spines were completely internalized, and Delenn's was also, but full Minbari spines were not. The ridge, a column of soft, pale, articulated cartilage, emerged from her skin just below her neckline and ran down her spine to her lower back…framed on both sides by her dorsal cerulean path. Ardenn's spinal column was not nearly as flexible as a human woman's was, but judging from both the human and Minbari texts she had reviewed there were few mating techniques that required an inordinate amount of contortion. If any manifested themselves this evening, she would somehow adapt.

   Sighing, Ardenn ended her examination and turned away from the mirror. This body was the only one she possessed, and she could only hope that David would find it acceptable. As it could not be exchanged, she told herself, there was no point in worrying over it.

   Moving over to her bed, the young Minbari stooped down and pulled a small tub and pitcher out from underneath. Retrieving her ladle, she stepped into the tub, dipped it into the pitcher and poured cleansing compound over her head. She dipped the ladle into the pitcher several more times, pouring more of the liquid across her shoulders, chest and legs. Once she was thoroughly covered in the compound, she used a soft cloth to begin stripping away her epidermal skin layer. As she washed, she considered how she would address the one area that might prove to be a problem between her and her beloved.

   Internal differences. There were internal differences. Her body was not completely compatible with his. Similarities aside, she was small even for a Minbari female and David…she did not have a broad sampling for comparison, but judging from what she had felt through his trousers in the Garden, she was in for a logistical challenge. Quite frankly, she was not sure she could completely accommodate him. Given time, she knew she would have adjusted to him and the issue would have disappeared…but she no longer had that time. She could not test her own limits beforehand…not without violating several strict cultural taboos…and David had no more idea about how much she could take in than she did. Her beloved would no doubt be extremely concerned about hurting her when the time came for them to physically join. She did not want him to be worried about that…she wanted him to mate with her, and she wanted it to be beautiful for both of them.

   "Why can nothing be easy?" Ardenn muttered to herself as she poured one last ladle over herself to rinse the cleansed tissue away. She would just have to play things 'by ears' as the humans said and tolerate as much of him as she could, hoping that the her meager muscular relaxation skills would prove sufficient. If her internal capacity was still inadequate, she had learned other techniques from the texts. It would be beautiful…one way or another.

   Stepping in front of the mirror once more, Ardenn checked her now-cleansed body. With satisfaction, she noted that her skin was more lustrous and her cerulean patches were brighter. With some guidance from her, David would have no trouble locating her pleasure centers. Only one more ritual remained before she could clothe herself, one that among Minbari females was considered an unpleasant necessity. Picking up a file, Ardenn uttered a short litany to her beloved and began dulling the sharp points and edges of her crest, wincing and grimacing as the rough, gritty file screeched across the more sensitive areas. Unmated females generally kept the points and edges sharp as a signal to males that they were untouched. Mated females filed theirs to protect the hands of their mates. Ardenn had kept her crest sharp since beginning her relationship with David…not wanting to appear too presumptuous to Delenn by filing it down before the Petition. That no longer mattered. The Petition had become just another unrealized dream. As she continued to round the points and edges, she noted that filing the dull half of her crest did not pain her too greatly. It was small comfort.

   Determining that she had filed sufficiently, the young Minbari used a small brush to sweep the bone flakes off of the floor and into a wastebasket and then turned back to her bed. Dubiously, Ardenn eyed the garment she had chosen to wear for David on their first and last night together.

   Shortly after she entered Delenn's service, Ardenn met one of David's 'girlfriends', a fellow Ranger candidate he had brought home for dinner. That female had worn a revealing human dress, showing off areas of her body no proper Minbari would ever expose in public. Clearly, the young Minbari had noted at the time, the garment had been specifically designed to arouse human males. Surprisingly, the female's outlandish garb seemed to upset David's mother not at all. Delenn had even complimented the woman on her attire. Ardenn, her own feelings for David seemingly unrequited at the time, had swallowed her jealousy long enough to watch her secret love's reaction to the woman. From what she observed, the garment she wore had the intended effect, capturing his attention by accentuating her physical attributes.

   Ardenn did not completely understand why public advertisement of a female's pleasure centers seemed so exciting to human males, but she was not one to discard an effective technique when it came to gaining and maintaining David's interest. Unbeknownst to him, Ardenn had obtained such a dress…one from the most unlikely of sources. Shortly after Entil'zha John's return, Delenn had been clearing out her closet to make space for her husband's things as Ardenn looked on. To Ardenn's surprise, she produced a garment similar to the human woman's…calling it a 'little black dress' as Ardenn eyed it suspiciously. Seeing the look on her face, her mentor had laughed lightly and suggested that she try it on, handing her a matching pair of shoes. Ardenn had been uncertain but, recalling her beloved's response to the dress of his earlier 'date', she had done so.

   Upon donning it for the first time, Ardenn found the garment both revealing and snug. The bodice, although not uncomfortable, seemed specifically designed to make her already prominent breasts appear even more so, and the cut of the open triangle below the collar brazenly revealed the blue upper edges of her feeding patches. The material also clung to her hips and thighs, leaving nothing to the imagination about the contours of her body. When she moved in the garment, she found that the fabric slid softly back and forth across her abdominal path…sensual to be sure, but also rather disconcerting if self-pleasure was not what one was seeking while wearing it. Additionally her arms and shoulders were left totally exposed when the short jacket was removed, her milk-white skin contrasting sharply with the black fabric. She had never worn a garment that displayed more than an ankle before. At least her legs were covered…or she thought they were until she saw the long slit up the back. She could stand still and they would be hidden, but any movement would expose at least her calves and probably more. And her back…the garment covered it not at all without the jacket. Her dorsal cerulean path and spinal ridge were exposed to the world. The shoes were the worst, however. They increased her height, which pleased her, but the uncomfortable heels seemed designed to stimulate tension in the muscles of her calves, thighs and buttocks. At the time, Ardenn had stood there awkwardly in the shoes, her body looking to her as if it were exploding out the top of the garment, and expressed to Delenn in no uncertain terms that David would think her ridiculous were he to see her garbed so. The last thing she wanted was for her beloved to laugh at her.

   Eyeing her critically, Delenn put a crooked finger to her mouth in thought and, despite Ardenn's embarrassed protest, she indicated that the opinion of a human was needed before her young protégé expressed dissatisfaction. Smiling secretively, her mentor then summoned her husband rather than pronouncing judgment herself. An unsuspecting Entil'zha John had entered the bedroom, taken one dumbfounded look at her, invoked the human deity, and motioned for her to turn full circle. As she turned, revealing her completely uncovered shoulders and back, he made several other incomprehensible comments before turning to leave…shaking his head all the while and muttering about David not knowing how fortunate a man he was.

   Ardenn did not understand how she could be 'well endowed' when she had no clan from which to draw financial compensation, and the etymology of the term 'built' completely escaped her. At least the laughing Delenn was able to explain that the being 'statuesque' was actually considered a compliment…otherwise the young Minbari would have thought her body completely inadequate. Entil'zha John obviously considered her pleasing to the eye from a human perspective, so perhaps David would, as well.

   Later, the household tailor assumed the garment was being shortened at Delenn's request when Ardenn took it to him. The self-conscious young Minbari did not disavow that notion. The little black dress, which her mentor subsequently informed her was the garment she had worn on her first 'date' with Entil'zha John, had hung in her small closet ever since.

   Now, donning the outfit for a second time, Ardenn pulled it taut, smoothed it and looked at herself. Dropping the matching jacket, she felt totally naked…but also admitted to herself that, if she understood human physical ascetics correctly, her physique compared more than favorably to that 'human' woman David had once brought home. Perhaps if David found her appearance pleasing in this garment, he would like the little remaining hidden underneath equally as well. Her beloved would not be sorry that he had fallen in love with her. He would not be sorry that he had given her the beautiful ring adorning her finger…

   He would not be sorry he had chosen her to be his mate…had circumstances turned out differently. Ardenn knew she had many faults, but she would have been a good wife…and she would be. For one night…one night to last her for the rest of her life. Unbidden, words her mentor had spoken once sprang into her mind.

   "You are so young. Young and in love. You dream. You see a whole universe of possibilities before you. Look at my eyes. Are those my eyes now? I think not. I was a dreamer then, Ardenn. I have more nightmares than dreams now."

   The young Minbari found that she could look at herself in the mirror no longer. She had finally seen what her beloved would see. The woman looking back at her was strikingly beautiful…black, white and a hint of blue…and she was also the most pathetic, desperate person Ardenn had ever seen. Her eyes gave her away. That woman with Ardenn's body had Delenn's eyes…not the eyes of the Delenn sleeping in the next room, but those of the melancholy woman that she had been before Entil'zha John's return.

   Slumping down on the stool in front of her mirror, she put her head in her hands and began to cry.

   

   ***

   John sighed as he sat in the darkness of the family room, the only light the faint glow of the data crystal reader perched on the table in front of him. <Ardenn…> he mused as he listened to the faint sound of sobbing wafting down the hall. <It's amazing how everything can go straight to hell around here in the space of a day…>.

   Turning off the viewer, he was about to go check on the young Minbari when she saved him the trouble. The sobbing tapered off, and a moment later her heard the click of a door softly closing. <It's about damn time, > John thought as he sat in the dark. When he had emerged from his bedroom and seen that Ardenn hadn't yet left, he speculated that the young woman had lost her nerve. Apparently she hadn't. From his vantage point he watched as a pale, ghostly figure glided silently up the corridor. She couldn't see him, and John observed Ardenn quietly as she emerged into the room and began to pad towards the entrance hall. John stifled a snort of sad amusement…the young woman had definitely dressed for his son. She was wearing Delenn's 'dinner date' dress, and filling it out even more impressively than she had the first time he had seen her in it. It had been a little long on her the first time she tried it on, but otherwise…David would have to be brain dead not to melt into his shoes when he saw her. Softly, John called out to her…

   Ardenn had collected her things and crept out her door after her short crying bout. Trying her best to move silently, she draped her traveling cloak over her arm and slung her small bag over her shoulder as she stole quietly down the corridor from the sleeping rooms and past the entranceway to the balcony. She was passing through the family room…just a short walk down the entrance hall and she would be out of the quarters successfully. A soft voice behind her froze her in her tracks. "You look good." The gravelly voice of Entil'zha John made the young Minbari's heart sink into her stomach. She was caught…caught by her beloved's father on her way out the door in a garment that announced her intentions regarding his son more than clearly. "Turn around, please," she heard him add.

   Ardenn turned. Entil'zha John was sitting on the couch in his bathrobe, a data crystal reader and a few crystals beside him. The area was almost totally dark…evidently humans had better night vision than her people did. As her eyes adjusted, she could see that he did not appear angry…if anything, he looked a little sad. Mustering her voice, she said, "I…know what you must think, seeing me like this…but I love your son, Entil'zha…and this is my last night. Please do not stop me."

   John held up his hands, a gesture Ardenn correctly interpreted to mean that she should stop talking. "No one here will stop you, Ardenn. No one in this home would deny you and David a night together."

   "Then why were you waiting for me? Why are you not in bed?"

   "I wasn't waiting here for you." Gesturing at the data reader, he continued, "I have other concerns…other work that needs to be done, and I didn't want to disturb Delenn. I'm glad you came by, though. Before you go, I want to talk to you for a minute." Ardenn glanced furtively over John's shoulder at the chronometer, and he chuckled. "Listen, Ardenn…you'll get to see David tonight. There's a flyer on the pad right now. When you finish here, you just need to go out and board it. The pilot is a friend of David's and she'll take you to him without any questions, but sit with me a moment first."

   John indicated the chair beside him, and Ardenn walked over and sat. John looked her over again and said, "You do look good, I mean it. That dress is bewitched, you know…only the most beautiful women in the universe are allowed to wear it. The night I realized I was in love with Delenn she was wearing it, and now you make two."

   "I…I am glad that you approve. I hope David will."

   "I don't think you have to worry about that. Now, that dress…Delenn gave it to you for a reason. It's not an old rag she tossed out of her closet. It's very special to her. It's the first human piece of clothing she owned and she wanted you to wear it for David at some point. In a perfect world, she would have preferred that to be later, but circumstances are what they are and now's as good a time as any. But I didn't really want to talk about the dress." Leaning forward, John held out his hand. "Let me see it…"

   David's ring. He was going to take it from her. Ardenn panicked and pulled away from him. "No!" she hissed. "You cannot have it! It was given between David and I alone!"

   John looked at her quizzically. "Sweetheart…I just wanted to see it on your finger. I wasn't going to take it from you. What kind of ass do you think I am?"

   "I am sorry…please forgive me." Abashed, Ardenn held out her hand. "I…do not really know what to expect from anyone anymore. Today started out as just another day…and now I find that my world is crumbling around me. Half of what is going on I do not understand, and the half I do understand makes me feel frightened and alone. David is my refuge, and this is all I will carry of him with me tomorrow."

   Taking her hand, John admired the ring for a moment. Her pale hand accented the band and diamond beautifully. "Did David explain the significance of this to you?"

   "He told me that he wanted me to be his wife. I accepted. He said he would always be with me, and I would with him."

   "David loves you a lot…as do Delenn and I," John replied softly. "We'll all be beside you tomorrow in spirit." John paused, and then added, "Ardenn, tomorrow when you leave, David and I will not be here to see you off. Unfortunately, the galaxy doesn't stop turning for our personal troubles. David is still a Ranger, and that means there's other work that he has to do. The two of you will need to say your farewells tonight. If there were another way…"

   Ardenn cut him off. Sadly, she said, "I…understand. Perhaps this…this is for the best."

   The tone of finality in her voice made John pause. "Your ring, Ardenn. When David gave it to you, he did it with my blessing. I figured he was going to do it…and it was the right thing to do." Reaching out, John placed his other hand over Ardenn's, gripping her hand lightly between both of his. "Now, Delenn told me what she said to you. It sounded harsh…she was upset, and she's very sorry. But I want you to remember what she called you, not her tone. You are the Daughter of our Heart." Sighing, John continued, "I want you to remember she called you that because it's not just a term of endearment. Delenn means it literally and she'll do anything for one of her children, whether they're natural or not. She'll do anything for you. Susan will, as well. When you walk into that temple tomorrow…it's OK to be nervous, but don't walk in thinking that you're alone. Walk in shoulders back, chin high and with fire in your eyes, because you're not some street Minbari. You're a member of my family, just like Delenn, David and Susan, and we Sheridan's don't take shit from anybody. We cry, we can be afraid, we hurt…but in the end, we win because we have faith. We don't lose hope."

   "I will remember. Thank you, Entil'zha."

   "Just call me John, sweetheart." Clearing his throat, he continued, "You know that I have, uh, seen some amazing things in my life, don't you?"

   "Yes…many people whisper about them on the outside. Some sound…unbelievable."

   "Most of it is true…well, kind of. I've seen and spoken to beings so advanced that they barely acknowledge our existence, Ardenn. I've learned a few things from them, as much as I was able to grasp, and I'll pass on one observation to you before you go. Perhaps it'll help you." Reaching out, John cupped the young Minbari's cheek and looked into her eyes. "Nothing in the Universe happens by chance, Ardenn," he whispered. "Stars aren't born, wars don't start, and races don't spring up by accident. People don't meet, nor do they fall in love on a whim. No ships pass in the night. We meet the people we are destined to meet and we love the people we are destined to love. I was always meant to love Delenn…and the Universe bent itself and brought us together from far separate worlds and cultures to make that happen. If you are destined to be with David, and I do feel that you are so destined…if the two of you were meant to fall in love, then nothing will separate you in the end. You will be together…someday. Have faith, and don't lose hope." John chuckled at the rapt look on Ardenn's face and said, "Well, you got a dose of my spiritual side. It must be late…Delenn gets the same look when I talk that way," Leaning forward, he kissed the young Minbari on the forehead. "You probably should go now. David's waiting for you and I have a lot of files to study before we leave tomorrow."

   With a grateful smile, Ardenn rose and turned to leave.

   "Oh, one more thing…" John softly called after her. When Ardenn turned back around, he said, "We Sheridan's have a saying: 'When you love, love without reservation…and when you fight, fight without fear'. When you and David are with each other tonight, remember the first part." More seriously, he added, "Tomorrow, remember the second, and be confident that two of the most determined people in known space are going to do everything they can for you. For what it's worth, Ardenn, I think this is only the beginning for you and David…not the end."

   Ardenn placed her hands together and gave John a respectful bow, smiling as she rose. Collecting her bag and cloak, she strode up the entrance hall…feeling far better than she had a few moments previously.

   

   ***

   David awoke with a start. Something was different.

   He hadn't meant to go to sleep, but he must have been more fatigued than he thought. Looking around his quarters, he didn't see anything out of place. The flickering candles he had positioned around room were still in their places, and the soft mat he had positioned in the center of the floor was untouched. Nothing else seemed disturbed.

   Not that there was much in his bachelor's quarters to disturb. It was a one-room efficiency apartment with one washroom. There weren't many frills or luxuries, but it was more than suitable for one person. He had a large mostly-horizontal bed that could adjust according to the desires of the occupant, a two-person kitchen table, a video / communications terminal, a couch and a reclining chair. Pictures were scattered around the room, mostly of his parents, friends and Ardenn.

   The door chime sounded again, and David abruptly realized what had awakened him. He had been waiting for Ardenn…and he had dozed off.

   Scrambling off of the couch, he hastily straightened his clothing and shouted, "Open…uh, open!" Glancing at the chronometer, he groaned to himself. <Almost midnight…hell, how long has she been standing out there?>

   As the door slid aside, he saw the center of his universe framed in the entranceway, a faint smile on her lips. She was wearing her traveling cloak, and had a small overnight bag in her hand. "Hello, beloved husband," she said. "You appear to have been sleeping. I hope I am not disturbing you?"

   "No…uh, absolutely not," David replied, indicating that Ardenn should enter. As she looked around appraisingly, he sheepishly admitted, "Uh, I did doze off…sorry. It's been a long day."

   "I understand, beloved," Placing her bag at the foot of the bed, Ardenn turned back to him and added, "Today has been just as hard on you as it has me, but we are together and alone now."

   "Yes, we are," David murmured as attention wandered momentarily. Returning to the present, he turned to his closet and held out his hand, "Can I take your cloak?"

   "Please," the young Minbari replied, unfastening the garment and passing it to him. Swallowing her nervousness, she stood there in the dress…fully expecting her beloved to turn around and think her clothing silly. Perhaps it was not too late to play her present garb off as a joke…

   As David hung Ardenn's cloak, he continued, "I have some juice and I've prepared some snacks, if you're thirsty or…" Turning around, he caught sight of Ardenn…or, more accurately, he was mentally grabbed and shaken by the sight of her. "Uh…or…hungry," he managed to finish. David was immediately sorry he'd set this up in his quarters. The woman standing before him was too beautiful for him to keep to himself. He recognized the dress…it was his mother's, but Mother had never filled it quite the way his beloved did. No, he reflected, Mother filled this dress very nicely, he simply didn't see her the way he saw Ardenn. Black on white…and the 'white' he saw was flawless…

   "You are…gaping, beloved," Ardenn observed uncertainly. Indicating her attire, she said, "Does gaping mean…you approve? I thought…I once saw a human woman in your company garbed similarly. I thought you might be interested in seeing how I…uh, stand up…to the competition."

   David was too far in shock to catch his beloved's unintended double entendre. She most certainly did stand up…and he did, too. Abruptly, he became aware that his eyes were roving over her barely hidden physique…probably with his tongue lolling out. Ardenn was waiting for him to say something and, judging from the look on her face (when his eyes got that high), she was actually unsure about what that might be. He was being rude.

   "Ardenn…" he murmured, "Beloved…forgive me for staring. I was just…trying to regain speech capability. You are…a vision. A beautiful vision. Robes don't do you justice."

   "Then you approve?" Ardenn asked hopefully. Realizing that she had forgotten one item, she cursed herself and hastily moved to retrieve her bag. Kicking off her regular slippers, she dug into the bag and pulled out the shoes with the uncomfortable heels. Hiking the skirt up to her knees, she slipped the shoes on and straightened.

   "In Valen's Name…" David whispered. He had seen Ardenn unclothed once before, when she was on a surgical table getting her crest repaired. At the time, he had been too worried about her to really notice how shapely she was. He was noticing now. The glimpse of her legs he had gotten as she changed shoes…they were toned and extremely well-formed. She had dancer's legs. The thoughts running through his head weren't thoughts anymore, and he realized in some sane corner of his brain that he'd better get a hold on himself. "Ardenn…you look fabulous." Chuckling a little at himself, he shook his head and added, "I'll have to forbid you from ever dressing like this in public…I don't think even the Anla Shok could handle the riots that would ensue."

   "You need not worry about that, beloved," Ardenn replied with a smile. "This aspect of me is yours and yours alone." Placing her bag back on the floor, she started back to him. "I did not wear the shoes because I have difficulty…"

   David lurched forward as he saw the difficulty she was referring to. The young woman teetered just long enough for David to get under her before she fell. He grabbed her and twisted so she landed atop him as they hit the floor. His head smacked the tile with a resounding thump, and he saw stars for a moment. When his vision cleared, he saw iron-gray eyes looking concernedly into his. "Uh…I think you were going to say 'walking in them'?" David murmured.

   "You…you are not hurt?" Ardenn breathed.

   "No…I have a human skull, but there's a little layer of bonecrest under the skin. It has saved my brainpan on occasion…like now. I'm OK."

   "Good. It would…displease me if you were to become injured tonight," Ardenn whispered. Realizing the position they were in, she started to rise but stopped herself. Instead, she shifted so she was completely atop him. "It would seem, beloved, that I 'have you where I want you' as your people say."

   "And now that you have me, what are you going to do?" David replied with a smile.

   "This," the young Minbari indicated, lowering her mouth onto his. Kissing him deeply for a moment, she then pulled away slightly and said, "And this…" as she commenced kissing her way up his jaw line. Her hands found their way to his chest and she began caressing him through the thin seam of his shirt. Somehow, she managed to undo the top buttons and her lips followed her fingers down his neck and onto his chest. Hungrily, she began nuzzling his throat and collarbone, and then she saw the mat on the floor. Pulling away momentarily, she licked her lips seductively and said, "Perhaps we would be more comfortable over there, beloved."

   "Perhaps we would," David agreed. Sitting up as Ardenn rolled off, he stood and helped her to her feet. Kneeling down again once she was standing, he reached out and caressed her ankles and calves. "I don't think you'll be needing these," he said as he slipped the high-heeled shoes off of her feet. Standing, he swept the young woman up in his arms and carried her over to the mat, setting her down with a kiss.

   That kiss led to more, and Ardenn soon found herself sitting in David's lap, his lips roving over her face. He kissed her lips, her eyes…he nibbled at her neck and ears and she did the same to him. As he kissed her, she felt his hands exploring her. Her dorsal path received special attention, and she shivered as his fingers probed at her spinal ridge. She caressed his face, and found herself gasping with pleasure as he took her fingertips into his mouth, teasing each one gently with his tongue.

   After some time, Ardenn recovered herself for long enough to halt David's exploration. "Beloved…there is more…more of me, and more of you. I think I am ready…if you would indulge me, I have brought our Shan'Fal robes. I would like for us to wear them, even if it is only symbolic. May I use your washroom to change?"

   "You can change out here if you like."

   "You will see me soon enough, beloved." Breaking away from David reluctantly, Ardenn placed her hand under his chin and gave him a seductive kiss. Moving to her bag, she pulled out two robes, each made of thin, silvery material. Handing one to David, she said, "I will 'slip into something more comfortable' and be right out. It would please me if you would slip into something more comfortable as well." Smiling, Ardenn glanced meaningfully at the bed before closing the door behind her.

   Ardenn emerged from the washroom to find David kneeling on the bed, awaiting her. The robes they were wearing were not strictly for lovemaking, but the material was designed to hide little while covering everything. During the Shan'Fal, lovers were expected to explore each other through the thin material of the robes, touching everything while touching nothing. Pleasure could be given and received without either participant's body being violated. As she climbed onto the bed and faced her lover, Ardenn knew that the robes would not stay on. As David began caressing her again as she rose up on her knees and pressed her lips against his, she knew that they would not stay on for long.

   As if in a trance, Ardenn noted a soft, warm haze falling across her thoughts as she opened herself to the feelings being generated inside her. David's knees were touching hers as they knelt on the bed. Reaching out, she slid her hands up her one-night husband's back and eased herself back towards the pillows, bringing David along with her. As she pulled him down atop her she parted her legs to grant him access, the fasteners of her robe unsealing up the middle and the fabric falling off to the sides. David, still kissing her, did not seem aware that her pale, shapely legs were now bared up to her thigh, and she did not tell him. He leaned into her, pressing his thighs against her pelvis, now covered only by the thin material of her undergarment. Ardenn found the pressure of his manhood intensely arousing, and she indulged herself by bending her knees slightly, angling her hips so his pressed more tightly against her most sensitive areas. Simultaneously, she took her hands off of his back so she could tug the edges of his bed covering across their bodies. David's quarters were sealed and the privacy indicator was activated on the door, but she would take no unnecessary risks. She was a shy woman, and her body was for David alone.

   Once she was covered, she hastily eliminated one more minor inconvenience, reaching up between the two of them and unclasping the small brooch holding her robe closed at her breasts. The brooch had been Delenn's until the older woman had given it to her as a gift on her last Naming Day, and it was one of Ardenn's most treasured possessions. Now, she reflected hazily as her desire deepened, her mentor had given her another gift, albeit indirectly. She started to set the brightly-colored piece of metal aside, but it slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor as David's lips roamed from hers and began nuzzling a particularly sensitive area below her ear. With a low moan, Ardenn instantly forgot her mentor's gift and buried her trembling fingers in David's hair as she turned her head to give him better access. David, still nipping at her now-exposed earlobe, propped himself up on an elbow to take some of his weight off of her upper body. Slipping his hand under her head, he began to slowly stroke the folds of her crest. Ardenn's breath quickened, and she could hear her heart pounding in her ears as she sensed that David had no intention of drawing back. The combination of his mouth, touch and the slight friction of his need pressing against her was stiffening her oth'las… generating both lubrication and waves of heat that radiated from her pelvic region through her extremities. David seemed to know exactly how to touch her, knew even better than she did herself. He was working his way down from her ear, his mouth tracing its way down her neck to her collarbone, another of her pleasure centers, and she moaned his name when his tongue caressed the base of her throat. He knew her pleasure centers. Ardenn did not know how, but David knew them…and more. David was sliding his free hand up her leg as he kissed and licked his way around her collarbone, and Ardenn trembled at his touch, already hearing a low, distant roar…the breakers of an ocean that she had only visited alone prior to this. In countless private fantasies, David's imagined touch had brought her to this place. Now, his touch was real, and Ardenn found that all of her fantasies amounted to a mere, thin reflection.

   The sea was approaching. David continued to stroke her crest, his other hand now positioned inside the band of her undergarment, cupping her buttocks and holding her tightly against him. Her fingers remained tightly woven in his hair, and her breath was coming in short gasps. A small part of her mind was furiously trying to tell the rest of her to relax…that she was starting to near climax too quickly…but the effort was futile.

   Her beloved's mouth moved lower and Ardenn arched her back slightly, releasing one hand from his hair to hurriedly peel her robe away from her breasts. With her other hand, she guided him to where she wanted him and she felt the caress of his breath an instant before his tongue tentatively flicked across the sensitive blue flesh of her feeding patch. The touch of his tongue pulled a needy cry from her and, in response, David lowered his mouth on her fully, lashing the pleasure center rapidly with his tongue and gently nipping at it with his teeth as both of her hands found their way into his hair again. The young Minbari felt as if electricity were coursing through her and the waves of pleasure washing over her became a steady throb.

   The young woman knew she was being selfish…none of David's needs were being satisfied…but her body had taken over. Trembling slightly, she whispered, "Please…" and pushed him lower. David complied, and Ardenn felt his kisses tracing a path from her feeding patches to her abdominal path. "Yesss…Oh, yes…" she sighed as she felt the caress of his lips and tongue slipping softly across more sensitive blue flesh. She luxuriated in the heat rising off of her belly for what seemed an eternity as her lover…her husband lavished attention on the cerulean pathways of her hips and abdomen.

   Pausing, David pulled away from her and Ardenn was confused for a second. Had she done something wrong? Her fears were allayed as she felt her beloved sliding her undergarment off. Raising her hips, she allowed him to remove the restrictive piece of cloth and then she startled as he lowered himself back to her abdomen and began kissing her again…this time following the path from her navel to her now moist and fully-stiffened oth'las. Closing her eyes, Ardenn tried to internalize her response as she felt him cupping her buttocks again, this time lifting her…but the first gentle touch of her lover's mouth against her now-oversensitive pubic area sent a jolt of exquisite fire shooting through her. Her abdominal muscles clenched and she rose off of the bed, crying out in ecstasy as she alternately reveled in the feelings David was creating inside her and fought to keep from inadvertently hurting him in her excitement.

   "Cinnamon…why that old bastard…" David whispered with a smile as he teased her oth'las with gentle nips and caresses. "You…taste like cinnamon. That's amazing."

   Ardenn barely heard him. Her private ocean was swirling around her and it would be so easy…so easy for her to let him finish her just like this…just a little more… "David?" she whimpered, "not like this, beloved…this is beautiful but I want you inside me…"

   Wordlessly, David stopped. Releasing her buttocks, he rose up on his knees and reached for the cinch tied around Ardenn's waist…untying it and tugging the folds of the robe away from her. As he gazed down at her now completely bare body, the young Minbari could see that his own eyes were heavy with desire for her. "You're…beautiful, sweetheart…exquisite, like a china doll," he murmured. "Your body…this will sound funny, but the blue and the white…you remind me a little of a White Star."

   Smiling, Ardenn reached up to untie David's robe. As she worked the knot out, she whispered, "Then perhaps it is time for you to…how do you say? Fly me?" Finishing with the knot, the young woman peeled David's robe off of his shoulders and gazed at her beloved through heavy-lidded eyes. David's physique did not disappoint her…he was slender but well-muscled, with wide, strong shoulders inherited from his father. Like a Minbari, he was nearly devoid of body hair, with his pubic region being the exception. He had no cerulean patches and his skin was flawless, with one notable exception. Rising up to her knees so she was facing him, Ardenn cast her robe aside and reached out with a tentative finger to probe the discrepancy. "Your…neck. Beloved, your neck and shoulder are scarred. What…what happened to you? I was not aware that you had been in an accident…"

   David glanced down at the scars and back at his beloved. He knew she would notice them when this time came. Sighing, he said, "When I was a teenager, the Drakh snuck a Shadow Keeper into the house. It affixed itself to me and tried to take control of my mind. My parents and Uncle Mike were able to get it removed, but the scars…the scars remain."

   Ardenn gasped. "A Keeper? I have heard of them…does it hurt?"

   "No…but sometimes…" David cleared his throat and continued, "Uh, sometimes…I'll feel the uh, memory…the afterimage of the connection…it's kind of like…like you'll be sitting in an empty room reading a book and almost hear someone call your name…or you'll be dozing off and the bed will shake." Chuckling with a little embarrassment, he added, "It's kind of tough to describe."

   "I understand…beloved husband…" Stretching, Ardenn proceeded to softly kiss the scars, one by one. David groaned with pleasure as she did so, and Ardenn realized that, strange as it seemed, she had found one of his pleasure centers. Her kisses were arousing him even more than he had been, and she could feel his erection pressing hard against her abdomen. Pulling back, she looked down at it and glanced concernedly back up at David. He was even larger than she anticipated.

   He must have read something in her expression, because he grinned sheepishly and said, "Yeah…believe me, I know. I'm probably the first human male who ever wished he was smaller rather than larger." His grin fading, he added, "Are you sure you want to go through with this? If you don't, there are other ways…"

   "Hush, David," Ardenn replied, reaching down to gingerly touch him. He groaned again as she ran her fingers lightly along his length…and she smiled as he twitched beneath her fingers. "I did not come here for foreplay, beloved husband. I came to formalize my claim to you. You said you would comply with consummating our relationship. Have you changed your mind?"

   "No…but if you keep stroking me like that, it'll become a…uh, a moot point."

   "Then stop equivocating and…and make love to me, beloved. I am ready...now."

   David started to guide her onto her back and then thought for a moment. There was no way she could take all of him in at once like that. He might hurt her. Sitting back up, he said, "Wait…I have an idea…"

   Ardenn watched as David crossed his legs in what she knew was called 'Indian style' by humans. What that sitting position had to do with India, she had no idea. David finished positioning himself and held his arms open to her. "Come here…"

   The young Minbari immediately understood what her beloved intended to do. Sitting back up, she came into his lap, straddling him and positioning herself over him. He was giving her control of the joining…letting her set the pace. In this position, he had no leverage and the odds of him inadvertently forcing anything before she was ready were greatly lessened. Gazing lovingly into his eyes, she reached out, caressed his cheek and murmured, "Thank you…beloved husband…" as she began lowering herself onto him. When she was positioned correctly, she sighed and closed her eyes. "David…beloved…if it were possible, I would give you many children…but, for now…we can content ourselves with each other…"

   "For now, for tonight, beloved wife…" David whispered in reply as he felt her opening to receive him, "satisfying you is my only concern…" Ardenn laid her head on his shoulder, increasing her downward pressure and David could feel her breath on his neck as she slowly continued to take him in. He kissed her collarbone lightly and put his hands on her hips to steady her. She was stretching to accommodate him, but it was taking every ounce of his self control to keep his instincts from taking over…she felt incredible, and he loved her. Risking a glance at her face, David wildly thought for a moment that she was sleeping. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was shallow and regular. It took a moment for him to realize that she was performing a relaxation exercise…that it was requiring that kind of intense concentration on her part for her to make this work. Almost as if she were reading his thoughts, his beloved's brow ridge furrowed and she sucked in a shaky breath through her teeth.

   Opening her eyes slightly, Ardenn gazed at her beloved. He was holding completely still, and she knew that his body was probably screaming at him to move more deeply into her. He was controlling that urge, and she was extremely grateful…as she expected, it was taking every nuance of her relaxation skills to open herself to him. It was hard…she had never felt anything like having David inside her…but the part of him she had managed to accommodate so far was radiating waves of pleasurable heat throughout her body. Her instincts were warring with her, and she was fighting the urge to let go. David looked down at her as her head lay on his shoulder and his eyes held such love for her that she momentarily lost control of those instincts. Involuntarily, she lowered herself more quickly than she intended and a sharp pain lanced through her midsection. David, sensing her discomfort, grasped her hips more firmly and stopped her from slipping further.

   "Beloved…slow and easy," he murmured, releasing her hips and sliding his hands up and down her dorsal path. "Don't hurt yourself for me."

   "It is…difficult, beloved, but…just hold still a moment…" Ardenn sighed shakily, and David felt her interior muscles adjusting. "Better…" she whispered. "I am not…hurt. I simply needed to…reposition a little," Raising her head off of David's shoulder, she kissed him deeply and said, "I have…I have gone as far as I think I can without…your assistance," Combing her fingers through his hair again, Ardenn drew his head back down to her breasts. "Perhaps…if you stimulate me a little more…"

   David had never seen a body as lovely as his mate's. For a Minbari, she was top-heavy…but she was perfect to him. As she wished, he began licking and teasing the nubs of her feeding patches, allowing her to guide him. Simultaneously, he continued to caress her spinal column. In response, he felt his beloved shudder as small sounds emanated from her throat. Her interior muscles loosened as her body responded to his touch, and she slid down until she was fully seated on his lap. Inside her, he could feel himself pressing against a barrier…and it took him a moment to realize what it was.

   The two lovers held each other in silence for a moment, David continuing to concentrate on his sweetheart's pleasure centers while she reciprocated by caressing his back and shoulders. David knew that she was readying herself to accept him completely, and he also knew what that entailed. As good as she felt wrapped around him, he was uncertain they should progress any further.

   "David…beloved husband…lay me down." In his arms, Ardenn pulled away and leaned back, wincing a little as David tried to get his legs out from under himself without moving inside her. Positioning herself underneath him, she reached down and grasped her lover's buttocks firmly. "It is all right, David," she murmured with a smile as she saw the hesitant expression on his face. "You will not be taking anything that is not already yours. You have restrained yourself for me, and I am now ready."

   "Sweetheart…I can't hurt you…you know I could never hurt you."

   "I know…" Ardenn whispered. "And you will not have to…" Without warning, the young Minbari abruptly reminded her love that she was stronger than a human female. Tightening her grip on his posterior, she wrapped her legs around David's and drove him into her fully before he could pull back. David felt her tear inside as her hips met his. The scent of Cinnamon filled the room.

   Ardenn screamed, both in pain and exultation as David entered her completely. She cried…fire raged through her body, and she was dimly aware that David had wrapped his arms around her and was holding her tightly against his chest. Pain…she had never felt any pain like she felt at that moment, nor had she ever wanted to feel pain like she wanted to feel this. Relaxing her legs, she let them fall away from her lover and she simply allowed herself to be held and comforted for the moment.

   "Shh…" David whispered as he noticed she was crying. Holding her against his chest, he kissed her crest and stroked the folds as he tried to comfort her. After a moment, her crying stopped and she began to move slowly against him, testing herself. Her movements slowly grew more vigorous as she gained confidence, and David could not help but respond…his hips moving against hers in a rhythm as old as both their races.

   There was still pain, Ardenn noted dimly as the shock of her breaking subsided, but she could set it aside. The feelings David's thrusts were creating inside her more than compensated for that moment of pain. Her beloved was inside her…making love to her…just as she had dreamed. At that moment, Ardenn did not care about tomorrow, or the Sisters or her elevation. All she cared about was the Now…and in the Now, her lover was quickly bringing her to climax…the roaring of the ocean was again in her ears. Looking up at her beloved, she reached up to caress his face and murmured "I love you, David…and I always will…you are my husband…"

   His face full of both love and effort, David looked back down at her and she lost herself in his large green eyes…and stepped into the Abyss…

   As she fell over the edge, she closed her eyes and her instincts completely took over. Ardenn scissored David's legs tightly between hers, intertwining her ankles to hold him against her pelvis more firmly. The throb in her ears became a roar and she threw her head back, her eyes snapping open. Ardenn felt as if her whole body were lifting off the ground, her pelvis grinding hard against her lover as she arched her back and screamed his name at the top of her lungs. She was climaxing, the roar in her ears in perfect synchronicity with the waves of heat coursing through her. Each wave felt as if it would last forever…and she held on to each one, wanting them to. With a hard, final thrust, David followed her into her orgasm, clasping her tightly against him with one hand while the other stroked her crest. He echoed her cry, her name on his lips.

   After what seemed to her an eternity of pleasure, her climax began to subside. Dimly, Ardenn became aware that David was supporting her weight. He was holding her steadily against him with the hand on her buttocks. His other hand, the one that had been caressing her crest, now was firmly positioned at her crest's apex, protecting the delicate point against impact with the headboard. She also realized that she was clamped around him like a steel vise, her legs wrapped around his and her arms bound about his neck. She had lost complete control of herself, she realized as she relaxed her grip and allowed David to gently lower her. As she settled, David lowered himself atop her, laying his head on her chest between her bared breasts, being careful not to rest all of his body weight on her. "David," she whispered when she felt she had enough control to speak, "That was…I do not have the words to describe what you did to me, the way you made me…feel inside. 'Wonderful' seems a poor and inadequate choice."

   He did not reply immediately, and doubts began to assail her. She had forgotten how strong she was when compared to a human. David was stronger than she was…but not by as much as the difference in their sizes would indicate. Had she hurt him? "David?" she whispered timidly, her fingers pausing in their exploration of his hair, "Did I…hurt you, beloved? Please speak to me…"

   "Hmm? No…you didn't hurt me, sweetheart," David mumbled. "I'm not nearly as strong as a full Minbari but I'm stronger than the average human male. Don't worry about it."

   "Then I have soiled you. I…I used you selfishly as a tool to obtain sexual release, disregarding your wishes in this matter. I…am ashamed."

   "What? No, Ardenn, absolutely not!" David exclaimed, finally looking up at her. Ardenn was both surprised and gratified to see an impish grin on his face. "I did nothing that I didn't want to do. Pleasuring you pleasures me…I'm not soiled." Chuckling and shaking his head, David added, "Well, not soiled in the manner that you're implying. You did, uh…lubricate my sheets pretty thoroughly, but I don't mind.

   "Oh, I see," Ardenn replied, trying to catch her breath. Raising her head, she watched as David withdrew from her. Rolling off of her, he pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately. "I love you…and we are one now, beloved wife."

   "Beloved wife…" Ardenn sighed. She was getting drowsy already. The texts she had reviewed indicated that intercourse often made one sleepy afterwards. David pulled her in a little more closely, and pulled the comforter across them. When he settled, she nestled her head in the crook of her husband's shoulder and drifted away…

   

   ***

   She awoke to find David dressed and out of the bed. He was hastily stuffing clothing into his travel bag. Looking past David and out the partially shuttered window, Ardenn sadly murmured, "I believe that 'tomorrow' is upon us, beloved."

   Following her gaze, David saw that light was beginning to stream through. "Yes…it is," Turning back to his heart, he watched as she gingerly climbed out of bed and collected her own bag. Wordlessly, she padded into David's washroom, emerging a few moments later in her normal Apprentice's robes.

   Ardenn stepped in front of David's mirror and straightened her clothing. Her beloved came up behind her and wrapped his arms around her, kissing the top of her head affectionately "No regrets?" he asked.

   "No regrets, beloved," Ardenn whispered in reply, turning in his arms to face him. Standing on tiptoe, she kissed him as he slid the brooch he had retrieved off of the floor back into the front of her inner robe. Ardenn allowed herself to be held. Before talking to John, she had been sure she was going to spend the morning crying, but oddly, she did not feel like crying at the moment. She simply felt too…alive…at that moment for tears. That, and her abdomen felt as if it had been through a meat grinder…

   "You know that mother is going to get you back." David, murmured. It was a statement of fact, not reassurance. Ardenn chose to believe him.

   "Yes."

   "My mother is…a tough person to say 'no' to, even in a situation such as this. She said that she would help you, and she will. And if it comes to pass that Mother is unsuccessful, I'll go see your Mistress myself. Irilenn will have to tell me from her own lips…she may be able to say 'no' to Delenn, but she'll have to say it to me as well."

   "Who is Irilenn?"

   "The Mistress of your Order." David paused. Ardenn wasn't supposed to know this. One of the requirements placed on Delenn by her mother was that Ardenn was not to know of the connection between them. Thinking a moment, David decided that it didn't really matter much at this point, so he continued. "Listen, Ardenn. When you face the Mistress Irilenn, you will be facing my Grandmother…Delenn's mother, obviously. You weren't supposed to be told this while you were in my mother's service."

   <David's Grandmother is the Mistress?> Ardenn thought. Several things were becoming a little clearer with that bit of information…like how she had come to be here in the first place. Delenn's mother was the Mistress. That explained the 'how' of her presence, but not the 'why'. "Why was I not told of this? It does not seem to be a particularly important secret?"

   "Some of the senior Sisters play a little fast and loose with the 'no outside associations' vow and Irilenn doesn't want anyone outside of that circle knowing that she maintains contact with either Mother or I. Not that it'll be any great secret to you when you see her. Irilenn looks younger than she is…just like a full Minbari version of Mother, and you would have figured it out even without me telling you. Listen to me, Ardenn…carefully. She looks just like Mother, but she's not Delenn. Do not make the mistake of thinking of her that way, or of trusting her the way you do Mother. She's not evil, but she has an agenda…I don't know what it is, but I know enough to be suspicious."

   "I will be careful, beloved," Glancing at the chronometer, she looked back at her husband one last time. He was slinging his bag, the same expression in his eyes as hers. Mustering a wan smile, Ardenn murmured, "Do you think our marriage will hold together long enough for you to fly me back over to your parent's residence?"

   "I suppose so. Why?"

   "I have heard of this human organization…the 'Mile High' club…"

   

   ***

   When she awoke, Delenn was alone. She had eventually fallen asleep in John's arms, but she doubted he had slept. His mind had been far away as he held her…she could tell from the expression on his face as she slowly dozed off. Beside her pillow that morning, she had found a rose…his promise to her that she would see him again soon. It was beautiful, but even his rose did not warm her bed as he did. John was gone…for about a week…and he had taken David with him. Although she would miss them both, Delenn was grateful for her son's inclusion even if John had avoided passing the details of his mission to her. She would not have to worry about him while she met with Irilenn and Rakell. Were he to be here, he would almost certainly be underfoot. Her husband had wisely redirected his attention with work, at least until they returned.

   Hopefully, she would have some resolution regarding Ardenn's status by the time she saw them again. Hopefully, there would be two women waiting to deliver 'enthusiastic greetings' when John and David returned.

   The clatter of cutlery sounded softly down the hall. Throwing on her robe, Delenn hastily ran a brush through her hair and then made her way to the residence's small kitchen. Stopping in the entranceway, she watched silently as her young protégé…now her former protégé for the moment, she amended…scuttled about as she tried to prepare a breakfast for the two of them. In the corner, a small satchel waited. Ardenn had entered Delenn's service owning little…and she was leaving with the same. <No,> Delenn corrected herself, <Ardenn is leaving with far more than she had when she came…but what she has gained is more than material.> She still wore her crimson-scripted outer robe, but today was the last day Ardenn would be garbed as an Apprentice, she mused as she watched the young Minbari's back. A flash of light from the young woman's hand caught her eye. There was also the gleaming band on her finger to consider…

   The young Minbari, not noticing Delenn standing behind her, sighed tiredly as she stood over the cooking unit, dropping one of the spices she had been holding. Stooping to retrieve it, Ardenn groaned softly and put a hand to her abdomen as she rose. Delenn shook her head and smiled sadly at the gesture…she knew that feeling well from the early encounters between her and John. It was of no great surprise to her that Ardenn had been with David for most of the night, and the older woman had little doubt about what had occurred between them. Intercourse with a human male was wonderful when it was occurring, but the first few times did leave one a little sore and cramped the next day.

   Ardenn must have seen her standing in the doorway. "Ah, you have awakened," the young woman murmured as she turned back to the cooking unit. "My flyer is already on the pad and I will be departing shortly, but I wanted to make certain that you were fed before I left." Ardenn paused and sighed again before continuing. "I…have updated your calendar so that my…replacement will not be left unaware of your obligations for the next month." Pausing again, Ardenn made a show of stirring something in the pot, and Delenn noticed that her hands were shaking. "Additionally…I have left several…briefs on your desk…forgive my inefficiency, but two are…are overdue. My attention…my attention for the past…few weeks has not been…it has been divided, and I lost…track of them…"

   Ardenn was starting to shake, and Delenn realized that she was crying. Moving up behind the young woman, Delenn wrapped her arms around her and rested her head against Ardenn's crest. Ardenn was shaking so badly that she dropped the spoon she had been stirring with on the floor, spattering Delenn's robe. "I am sorry…I had almost convinced myself that I could resist this…" she sobbed as she started to kneel to retrieve the utensil.

   "It is all right, Ardenn…" Delenn murmured, holding her a little more tightly. "Just…let it go. I understand."

   Ardenn ceased trying to pick up the spoon and simply stood facing the cooking unit as sobs began wracking her body. She did not resist as Delenn pulled her back into her arms, holding her as she trembled.

   "Turn around," Delenn murmured over her shoulder.

   The crying young woman hesitated a moment and then spun quickly in Delenn's arms, wrapping her own around the older woman. Pressing her face into Delenn's robe, she sobbed against Delenn's shoulder. "I…I do not want to go. I…will miss you all terribly…"

   "Shh…" Delenn murmured into her ear, "It will be all right. I know that leaving is hard…but the world will not stop turning. Things appear dark to you now, but the humans have a saying…'every cloud has a silver lining'. Susan and I will be working to find yours while you are away from us. Valen willing, that time will be short."

   Sucking in a shuddering breath, Ardenn whispered, "I…I need to tell you something…David and I…I went to him last night…"

   "Stop talking, Ardenn," Delenn interrupted. "Just…stop." Squeezing the crying woman reassuringly, she continued, "You and David were together last night. I already know…I was not 'born yesterday' as the humans say. What occurred between the two of you…is between the two of you. I would have preferred that you wait…but I understand why you did not and I accept it. I only hope my son left you with a beautiful memory to hold onto while we try to get you back."

   "He…he did, Delenn. I thought it impossible to love him any more than I did before, but I do…love him more. He has made me a stronger person…as have you." Pulling away from the older woman, Ardenn wiped her face and chuckled a little ruefully through her tears. "He probably thought me a little clumsy and demanding…but I think we suit each other."

   "I think you do as well," Delenn agreed with a smile. Her smile quickly faded and her face became remorseful. "Ardenn…yesterday, I was very hard on you. I was upset, and I apologize." Releasing her hold on the younger woman, she grasped her lightly by the arms. "You know that I would never forbid you from returning here…this is your home. I know…I know that you trust me. I am ashamed that I suggested that I believed otherwise. Your error in judgment…it was small in the grand scheme of things." Laughing ruefully, Delenn continued, "My husband…sometimes his 'human' manner of interacting with others conceals the fact that he is a very wise and perceptive person. He told me once that the only serious mistakes one can make are those that cause death, injury or incarceration. Yours did none of those. Do not be hard on yourself about not telling me. I should not have needed you to remind me…I knew what needed to be done and I was just as remiss as you." Looking fondly into Ardenn's eyes, she added, "We both erred, and I want you to know in your heart that I intend to correct both our mistakes."

   "I…I believe you, Delenn. I believe…in you. Entil'zha John…excuse me," she corrected, "John told me last night that this family wins in the end because they never lose hope and they have faith. I will endeavor to keep both while we are separated." Glancing at the chronometer, Ardenn noted the time. "I…I suppose that Vadenn is awaiting me. I…I should depart now." Picking up her bag from the corner, she slung it over her shoulder. Bowing in the manner of a subordinate to a superior, Ardenn said, "Good night…no. Not good night. Farewell, Mistress."

   As Ardenn turned to leave, Delenn reached out and stopped her. "One last item, little one," she whispered. "Your ring is beautiful and it will be noticed. Should any Sister ask you what it is, you tell them it is a meditation stone and it was a personal gift from the President of the Interstellar Alliance to her trusted aide. It is an untruth, of course, but a forgivable one. I would be most displeased if the Daughter of my Heart's claim to membership in my family was confiscated. You are not supposed to keep any attachments to the world out here, but it would be a bold Sister indeed who would think to take something you personally received from Delenn of Mir."

   "I…I will do as you say…" swallowing, Ardenn hesitantly added, "Mother of my Heart…I love you."

   Delenn smiled, and bowed in the manner of a senior family member to a junior one. "Farewell, daughter. You will see us again…and I love you also."

   

   ***

   "So, ver'kaff," Sister Vadenn muttered irritably as Ardenn boarded the flyer, "Did you say you 'good nights'? Did you cry?" Looking at Ardenn's face, she nodded. "Yes, I see that you did."

   Ardenn sighed. "Revered Sister…yes, I cried…and my tears carried no shame. I said 'farewell' rather than 'good night', as I fully intend to see them again and I want you to know this. Also, I have addressed you as 'Revered' for the last time, as I intend to speak to you no more prior to my elevation. Your authority over me is now in the past."

   "We shall see, ver'kaff…we shall see."

   Turning on the older Sister, Ardenn barked, "You will no longer call me ver'kaff! I may have no caste or clan, but I do have a family…and their reach is long, even within the Sisterhood. You would do well to consider that if you and I encounter each other in the future." Taking her seat, Ardenn was silent for a moment…and then she added, "By the way, elder sibling…just so your curiosity is satisfied, I did not 'bleed like a gored foodbeast' when David and I were together. Our joining was beautiful, but you do not understand beauty so it would mean nothing to you for me to describe it any further." Smiling with mock-sweetness, the young Minbari concluded, "Now, have a nice, quiet flight."

   The flight to Yedor was uneventful, and Ardenn dozed through most of it, only waking as the flyer touched down on the pad at the Central Temple. Gazing out the window at her new surroundings, Ardenn forced down her nervousness. She was surprised to find that she was not particularly afraid…but had John not told her that nothing in the Universe was chance? She would see her family again…'her' family…Ardenn found that she was actually relatively calm. Entil'zha had seen things no other human or Minbari had seen, or so it was whispered. Words of reassurance from him were not lightly given, nor should they be lightly discounted. And Delenn had called her 'daughter'…

   Vadenn exited the flyer. Gripping her satchel, Ardenn started to follow, but a hand on her shoulder stopped her. Turning, she gasped with surprise as she faced the flyer's pilot. "Susan!" she excitedly breathed, "I had no idea you were flying us! I would have come up to sit with you…"

   "It's all right…I don't mind," the older human woman replied with a small smile. "You looked like you needed rest more than conversation. I assume you didn't get much sleep last night, hmm?" Laughing, she continued, "By the way, you were a knockout in Delenn's dress. I'll bet David's jaw hit the floor when he saw you." Ardenn's eyes widened in surprise and Susan explained, "I flew you last night, too. You mean you didn't notice? You really had your mind on other things, didn't you?"

   Recovering quickly, Ardenn grinned and said, "If you must know, Mother of my Choice, I was not…in the dress for particularly long after arriving but yes, David was suitably impressed."

   Susan looked over Ardenn's shoulder. The courtyard was starting to fill with red-robed Minbari females. They were forming a line from the massive entrance portico of the temple out to the flyer. "I think your welcoming committee has arrived," she observed. Moving forward, Susan grasped Ardenn and held her. "Don't despair, OK? I'll keep a close eye on David for you until you return." Ardenn saw that she had tears in her eyes as she pulled back. Glancing at Vadenn over Ardenn's shoulder, Susan added, "You handled her really well. I'm extremely proud of you. Now, one other matter…" Releasing her, Susan grasped Ardenn's hand and held it between both of hers. "I know that you feel like you have no choice in this, but you do. When you go in and the process starts…if anyone says anything you don't like, if anyone looks at you funny, if anyone or anything makes you uneasy…you turn around and walk out. Call me, and I'll come get you immediately. No one who loves you will think any less of you…Understand?"

   Ardenn would not do that, and both she and Susan knew it. Reaching out, Ardenn placed her hand over Susan's heart. "Yes, Mother of my Choice, I understand. I…I should be going. I love you."

   "I love you, too. Take care."

   

   ***

   Slinging her bag, Ardenn walked past the silent line of Sisters, doing her best to follow John's advice. She walked purposefully, keeping her chin high and her eyes serious. Behind her, she could sense the Sisters falling into place behind her…keeping their distance but following her. <As if I could turn and run…> she snorted disgustedly to herself. Mounting the steps, she turned and waved to the brown-garbed human woman waiting by the flyer and forced a smile as Susan waved back. The Sisters massed between her and the flyer looked at her strangely…waving was not a proper Minbari farewell custom…but otherwise showed no emotion.

   Turning back to the entrance, the young Minbari paused a moment, took a deep breath, pasted on an expression of studied neutrality and entered into what she hoped would be a 'short' new life.

   More Sisters lined the corridors. Ardenn uneasily noted that she was the only person visible wearing a crimson-scripted robe. Elevations were not for the uninitiated, of course, but the young woman had little idea of what to expect. She was not even sure she was headed in the right direction…the only indication she had of the way to go was the steady line of Sisters she was passing. None spoke to her, but all seemed to be noting her passing. After a short time, Ardenn neared another massive set of doors, this time guarded by a middle-aged Sister wearing robes even more ornate than those of the others she had passed. As Ardenn approached, the Sister held out a hand to stop her.

   "Apprentice, this is the Gate of Dedication. You may not pass."

   "I must," Ardenn replied uncertainly. "The Mistress has summoned me, and I do not have the option of refusal. Revered Sister, is this not the way?"

   "That depends…" the Sister replied with a small smile. "Perhaps this is the way for you, perhaps it is not. What is your name, little one?"

   "I am Ardenn of Valeria, revered Sister."

   "Ah…Ardenn. We have been expecting you. The Mistress anxiously waits for you…and has waited for somewhat longer than she likes. You will, I think, find her most happy to see you among us again."

   "Forgive me, revered Sister," Ardenn replied determinedly, "But I would have been far happier had you all forgotten me and left me where I was."

   "Some people are destined to be forgotten, Ardenn of Valeria…and some have different destinies," the Sister replied cryptically. "Your path is yet to be determined. My name is the Most Revered Sister Rakell. The Mistress summoned you, but I executed your return. I am the Enlightened One…the Sister charged with translating the will of the Mistress into direction for the Order. The Mistress desired your Elevation…and so here you are."

   "Yes…here I am," Ardenn echoed. "Against my will."

   "You are going to be a difficult one," Rakell sighed. "Very well…if you turn back the way you came, you may leave. No one will stop you."

   "You know that is not possible for me."

   "That does reduce your options then, does it not?" Leaning in close to the young woman's ear, she quietly added, "We know that you did not want to return, Ardenn, but we mean you no harm. Come with me and meet with the Mistress. Accept the Obligation, and we will help you understand."

   "I will come," Ardenn indicated. "As you say, my options are few." The young woman again tried to pass the Sister. Rakell again held out her hand to forestall her.

   "You may not pass, Ardenn."

   Muttering a human epithet under her breath, Ardenn turned and said, "You want me to meet with the Mistress, and yet you still indicate I cannot pass? What must I do to get by you?"

   "Apprentices may not pass these doors. Remove your outer robe, Ardenn of Valeria, and leave your belongings here."

   Ardenn hesitated a moment, then placed her satchel in the place Rakell indicated. Unclasping the waist buckle of her overgarment, she slid out of it and laid it across her bag. Sister Rakell watched the whole time, saying nothing. When the young Minbari straightened to face her again, Rakell conversationally asked, "Tell me, Ardenn, do you love our people? Do you carry a love for Minbar in your heart?"

   "Yes…of course I do," A puzzled Ardenn answered.

   "Then follow me." Turning, Rakell led the former Apprentice deeper into the bowels of the temple.

   After walking a short distance, Ardenn and Rakell approached a second gate. Ardenn slowed and Rakell stepped in front of her. Indicating the portico above, Rakell said, "This is the Gate of Remembrance. You know, Ardenn…this temple is almost 1600 cycles old. The history of this place is a microcosm of the history of our race. So tell me…do you think the history of Minbar is important? Do you believe that its preservation is a worthy goal? If that history were to be lost unless you dedicated yourself to maintaining it, would you do so?"

   "I am not a Historian, revered Sister…but yes, I would not stand by and watch 7000 cycles of recorded history vanish from the universe. I would do what I could to preserve it."

   Rakell smiled and nodded. "Good," Indicating a small room off to the side, she said, "Ardenn, you will need to remove your inner robe here. It is still the garment of an Apprentice. In that changing room, you will find another robe to wear. We will continue on once you emerge."

   Looking uncertainly at the senior Sister, Ardenn entered the changing room. It was really little more than a closet. On the wall, there were four pegs. On the first peg hung a brown hued robe of fine silk, a garment that a successful Worker Caste guild master might wear. The second peg held a robe made of black velvet trimmed in silver…clearly the robe that a Warrior would wear when not training. The third peg supported a beautifully colored robe resembling those that Delenn might wear. The fourth peg…was a robe of white. It was well-made, but unadorned. Except for the absence or red script in the collar and cuffs, it was little different from the robe she was already wearing.

   Clearly, this was some sort of test, Ardenn mused as she removed her own robe. She was obviously supposed to choose from among the four. Gazing at them, she discounted the Warrior's robe immediately. She would never wear the color of death. Briefly, she considered the Worker's…although she did not know her caste, she in all likelihood had been born a Worker…they made up eighty-five percent of the Minbari population, after all. No, she decided, even if she was truly of that caste, she had not grown up in it. Shaking her head, she passed the tan and brown silk aside.

   The Religious Caste robe tempted her. If Valen himself were to appear before her in that moment and ask her to choose a caste, Religious would be her choice…not because she was especially learned or pious, but because it was the caste of the person she admired most in her life. And it was the caste of scholars, healers, government officials and diplomats. She had been trained in government by the Sisterhood. Her own skills would mesh best with this caste…but she was not of it and never would be.

   Sighing, Ardenn acceded to the only acceptable choice and donned the plain white robe…hesitating only long enough to retrieve the precious brooch Delenn had given her from her old garment. Sliding the stickpin into the white robe to clasp it closed across her collarbone, she exited the room.

   Rakell was still waiting when Ardenn emerged. Neutrally, she looked over Ardenn's choice and murmured, "Surprising…I expected you to choose the Religious Caste robe." Secretly, she was pleased with Ardenn's choice. She now wore the inner robe of a Sister.

   "I am not of that caste," Ardenn replied as the two began walking again, chatting every now and then as they passed a particularly interesting statue or painting. Rakell was a good conversationalist, and Ardenn found that, while she could not say she liked the senior Sister, she was pleasant company.

   Rounding a corner, Ardenn and Rakell came up on a third Gate. The reliefs set into the walls around the gate were scenes of war and death. Minbari…injured and dead…were carved into dark crystal. Hovering around them were Sisters ministering to their needs and taking care of their bereaved families. "This is the Gate of Mercy, Ardenn. It should be especially meaningful to you, as it was through this part of our purpose that you came to be among us. Tell me, Ardenn…would you help our people if you saw them suffering? Would you minister to them as you yourself were ministered to? Would you care for them in their pain…even if it put your own life at risk?"

   "Revered Sister," Ardenn replied in a low voice, "look closely at my crest. See those thin white lines? A third of my crest is damaged beyond complete repair because I loved the leader of our people more than I loved myself. Does that not answer your question? Yes…It frightens me to risk my life, but to save others I would do it. I have done it."

   "Well spoken, Ardenn," Rakell said as she indulgently smiled. Turning, she pointed down the corridor. "That gate in the distance…it is called the Gate of Secrecy. Beyond it is the Shrine of the Mistress. Ardenn, we have secrets in the Order, and if you proceed beyond here you will learn some of them. Can you keep them? Even from those close to you?"

   "This is not the path I would have chosen, revered Sister…but yes, I will keep secrets if they need to be kept. Delenn entrusted me with privileged information regarding Alliance activities as part of my duties. This is no different."

   "Fair enough." Reaching into a hidden recess, Rakell pulled out a crimson outer robe. "This is the blood of our people, Ardenn. We wear crimson for as long as there is war involving our people. When there is war no more, we of the Sisterhood will remove them. You must be wearing this to proceed past the Gate of Secrecy. You may walk away from the Shrine as a Sister or you may just walk away, but to enter you must wear it. Will you?"

   "But I am not yet a Sister. I have not accepted the Obligation…"

   "Yes you have, Ardenn. You accepted it as you walked to this point. Each gate represents an aspect of the Obligation…and I offered you each aspect at each gate. You acknowledged and accepted all of them…all but one. The last Obligation can only be extended by the Mistress herself. Now, will you put on this robe and proceed into the Shrine with me, Sister Ardenn?"

   Still not quite understanding, Ardenn took the robe and slipped it on. Fastening the clasp at her waist, she tugged the folds straight and indicated she was ready to continue.

   Passing into the Shrine, Ardenn gasped. The large, circular chamber was filled with Sisters. Only the central dais was empty, but for one person. Beside her was a large sarcophagus with a small crystal statuette affixed to the top. Off in the corner, a shroud covered what appeared to be a smaller sarcophagus.

   "That is the tomb of Valeria," Rakell whispered beside her, pointing to the large sarcophagus. "The first secret you learn is that Valeria existed, and her remains still reside with us. The other tombs you see are all the Mistresses that followed her." Nudging the awestruck young Minbari slightly, Rakell indicated that she was to walk to the dais and mount it.

   "What do I do now?" Ardenn whispered when they reached the steps leading to where the hooded Mistress stood.

   "You mount the dais, speak to the Mistress and make your decision," Rakell answered. "I will be right behind you."

   Wordlessly, Ardenn nodded and mounted the steps. She found herself facing a woman taller than her, garbed in white and holding a Triluminary. "Reach out and touch this, Sister Ardenn," The Mistress intoned, holding the artifact out to her.

    Ardenn startled. She had Delenn's voice…the young Minbari had been expecting it, but it still surprised her a little to actually hear it. Extending her left hand, she brushed her finger across the device. In response, it glowed brightly. The diamond in her ring caught the light and magnified it further, bathing the whole dais in light. Ardenn was surprised to note that none of the gathered Sisters expressed any shock at this. They continued to watch, their faces neutral.

   Lowering the Triluminary, the Mistress hesitated a moment and then pulled back her hood. Ardenn was intensely grateful that her beloved had given her some warning, otherwise her teeth would have been on the floor. She knew that the Mistress was Delenn's mother and they resembled one another…but seeing that resemblance in this venue was another matter. The Mistress could have been Delenn's Minbari double. Ardenn struggled to keep her composure…to keep her chin high and fire in her eyes. She would not disappoint her 'parents', even if they were not present to see her. And David…her beloved…she would not cower. She would be worthy of him.

   The Mistress smiled at her…almost as if she could read her mind. "Welcome, Sister Ardenn. I am the Mistress Irilenn and I welcome you back to us. We have been without your presence for far too long. You have served our Order with distinction, and now you are here to accept the final Obligation." Sighing a little, Irilenn continued, "It is the final Obligation because it is the hardest to accept, Sister. The others…dedication, remembrance, mercy, secrecy…most Minbari can acknowledge. They are easy enough. The final Obligation is selflessness...and selflessness is hard. Selflessness requires sacrifice, Sister Ardenn…the sacrifice of the people and ways of life you hold most dear." Looking intently the young Minbari, Irilenn said, "Ardenn, picture in your mind the person most precious to you in this incarnation."

   Involuntarily, David's image sprang into her mind. Ardenn began to tremble as the import of what was happening sank in.

   "Yes…you see that person now…perhaps he or she is a parent, a friend, a lover…the individual is not important really, except that he or she is the center of your life right now," Irilenn observed. "Now, weigh that person on a scale. On the other balance, place our people…their hopes, dreams and their very existence. Does your love for that individual outweigh your love for our people?"

   "No…no, Mistress," Ardenn whispered, "How can it? Your comparison is…is flawed…personal love does not replace love for our people. The two can exist in harmony…"

   "Not in the Sisters of Valeria, Ardenn," Irilenn replied gently. "We must be selfless. That means we require total dedication to the needs of Minbar. I am sorry, but there is no room for dedication to others." Waving her hand at the gathered Sisters, she continued, "Every one of us has made the sacrifice, Ardenn. There are mothers among us who have forsworn their children, myself among them. There are wives among us who have forsworn their husbands to serve. You have no husband and no children. Is this sacrifice harder for you than it was for us?"

   Ardenn squared her shoulders. Looking into eyes so like her mentor's, she said, "No, compared to others I have little to sacrifice, but what little I do have is mine. I wish to serve…and I can serve without being a member of the Order."

   Seeing that there was a strong possibility that Ardenn might walk out, Irilenn glanced over the young Minbari's shoulder at Rakell and nodded slightly. The senior Sister came up behind Ardenn and whispered, "Little Sister, please do not leave us…you are special, and if you accept the Obligation, you will be treated specially. I told you that we understand that you do not desire to be here, and I told you we mean you no harm."

   "Why…why are you doing this to me?" Ardenn whispered back, her voice cracking. "I was happy where I was…"

   "We know, little one…we know. But there is so much occurring that you do not know! If you leave now, not only will this life be lost to you, but your former one will certainly be as well! Go through with this, hear us out…and understand." Seeing that Ardenn was wavering, Rakell added, "Your Mistress Delenn and Anla Shok Na are coming to see Irilenn and I about you in three days time. Your former life may not yet be completely lost to you, but it will be if you refuse to forswear."

   Ardenn nodded slightly and Rakell moved back to her place, indicating to Irilenn that she was free to proceed. "Ardenn of Valeria…do you accept the Obligation of Selflessness? Do you forswear those oaths and contacts of your former life and accept the Obligation of Sisterhood?"

   <Forgive me beloved…and Valen forgive my lying tongue…> Ardenn thought miserably. "I accept."

   "Then welcome…revered Sister," Irilenn intoned, smiling. Turning to the assembled crowd, Irilenn called out. "Welcome our newest Sister…Sister Ardenn of Valeria…"

   As one, the multitude of Sisters made the symbol of the triangle with their hands and bowed. After a moments hesitation, Ardenn did the same in return. She was not smiling.

   "The ceremony is concluded," Sister Rakell whispered behind her as the spectators began filing out. "I have other duties to attend to, but the Mistress would like to speak to you after the others have left. Please wait a few moments." Bowing, she added, "Be well, Sister," as she turned to leave. As she moved past the younger woman, she leaned in and furtively whispered, "I am not your enemy, Ardenn…remember that," before continuing on her way. Hands clasped in front of her, Ardenn waited patiently as Irilenn bade farewell to some of the departing Sisters. She seemed to be in no hurry, and Ardenn felt almost forgotten as she stood in the middle of the dais, feeling totally miserable and alone. Images of Delenn, Susan, John and David kept swimming to the surface of her thoughts, particularly David. Nervously, she twisted her engagement ring on her finger. At least no on had asked about it yet.

   Finally, the last of the Sisters filed out. Irilenn closed the large entrance door…the Gate of Secrecy…and made her way back to the dais. "Well…" she said briskly as she came up the steps, "It is good to get that out of the way, Sister. You gave me a bad moment there…it actually occurred to me that you might rather be a street urchin than one of us. But Rakell apparently spoke some sense through that hard crest of yours." Chuckling, she added, I suppose you want some answers now, hmm?"

   "Yes, Mistress…answers would help, and seeing as I am now a captive audience…"

   "A captive audience…is that how you see yourself now?" Irilenn chuckled. "Answers you may have…if you merit them…but indulge me first, Sister Ardenn." Retrieving the Triluminary, she held the relic up near Ardenn's eyes and asked, "Do you know what this is?"

   "Yes Mistress. It is a Triluminary."

   The older woman nodded. As she suspected, Delenn at some point had passed on information that an Apprentice was not supposed to have. It was not Delenn's fault, nor was it Ardenn's…neither knew what information the Sisterhood considered protected. As Ardenn was now essentially a full Sister, she would have been informed anyway. "Little one, simply by knowing the name of this device, you know more than all but a handful of our people. Tell me what you know of it."

   "They are devices that were brought to our people by Valen when he appeared among us. Their full capabilities are unknown, but part of their function is to detect human genes. A Triluminary can also function as the control unit for a device known as the Chrysalis…a machine Delenn used to transform from Minbari to Human. There are three Triluminaries, one of which you are holding and one which is possessed by the Grey Council."

   "And the third?"

   "Delenn has possession of the third."

   "Well, Ardenn," Irilenn noted matter-of-factly, "That would explain how you know things that you are not supposed to know about these devices. You also did not appear overly surprised to see my resemblance to Delenn when you entered, so I assume that she also informed you that she is my offspring…again, against my wishes. I should have been more stringent in my admonitions to her about what you were to be told."

   "Mistress, Delenn passed on the information about the Triluminaries with some reluctance. I was honored that she trusted me enough to tell me of them, and of her own transformation. Obviously, she trusts me more than those of my own Order do. As for your relation to Delenn, it was David that informed me. I suspect that you put no such restrictions on him, so do not hold Delenn accountable."

   "I will take that into consideration when next I speak to her. It is of no matter, I suppose. Did Delenn test you with the device?"

   "Yes."

   "I assume, then, that you know of the Children of Valen."

   "Yes. I am one, just as Delenn is."

   "We are all Children of Valen in the Sisterhood, Ardenn." Irilenn informed her. "To even be considered for membership in the Order, one must be of Valen's lineage. It was not always so, of course. The Sisters of Valeria had already existed for 800 cycles when Valen appeared among us. Our goals did not change, but after Valen left us we realized that new opportunities…new paths to achieving those goals had been presented. Children of Valen were necessary to follow those pathways. Thus, there came a day when every Sister was also a Child of Valen, and it has remained so since. What else concerning this did Delenn tell you?" Ardenn hesitated, and Irilenn snapped, "Speak, Sister! You have no secrets here."

   "She told me…that Valen was originally a Human, Mistress. She admonished me to guard that information carefully." Ardenn bowed her head ashamedly and added, "I fear that I have now abused her confidence."

   "You have not," Irilenn said soothingly. "The Sisterhood already knows this. I am merely trying to determine how much protected information you already possess. It appears from what you have said that you essentially know what Delenn knows…in other words, just enough to make you slightly less than ignorant. I find this…acceptable." Irilenn smiled at her mysteriously and set the Triluminary into a crystal pedestal in the center of the sarcophagus platform. Stepping away from the device, Irilenn indicated two circles, each about one meter in diameter, set into the floor on opposite sides of the pedestal. Indicating the nearer circle, she said, "Now, you have the opportunity to learn more...much more. Please step inside, Ardenn."

   Despite the brave front she was presenting, Ardenn's earlier feeling that she was out of her depth returned with a vengeance. As much as she loved David and could feel his presence in her soul, she found herself wishing even more strongly for Delenn to be beside her at that moment. Her mentor was so much smarter than she was. Surely she would understand this woman's cryptic words and allusions and know what to say in reply. Walking over to the circle rather hesitantly, she began to comply but thought better of it and stepped back. Eyeing Irilenn suspiciously, she said, "Why?"

   "You think that I would hurt you? The Mistress of your own Order?" Irilenn laughed. "I should be scandalized, Ardenn, but I suppose that you were right earlier…we have given you little reason to trust us, so I will let it pass. The device will not harm you. Watch me." Irilenn stepped past Ardenn and into the circle. She motioned with her hand and in response, the Triluminary began to glow brightly. The circle in which Irilenn was standing began to glow as well, filling the interior with pale light, and presently Irilenn was standing inside a softly glowing beam that sent tendrils towards the darkened chamber ceiling. "Do I appear to be in pain, little one?" Irilenn chuckled as light played across her skin and clothing. "Now, look at the other circle. What do you see?"

   Ardenn, who had been gazing openmouthed at the older woman, turned to look where Irilenn indicated. Another woman stood there…one intimately familiar to her. "Delenn…" she breathed.

   "Is it truly Delenn you see here?" Irilenn murmured…or, more accurately, the image of Delenn murmured.

   Ardenn looked more closely. The face had the same timeless beauty of her former mentor, but she wore the robes of a Sister rather than her Religious caste garb. Her physique was the same…straight-backed, slender and stately, but her hair was far grayer than Delenn's and her eyes…they were intelligent and piercing, as Delenn's were, but something was different about them. They lacked the warmth of her mentor's eyes. "What is this?" Ardenn demanded angrily. "What have you done to her? Whatever it is, release her immediately and undo it!"

   "Calm yourself, Ardenn," the image laughed. "It is not Delenn that you see. It is I, or more accurately, a hologram of the person I would be if I were to undergo the transformation. The Triluminary has the capability to predict the results of human gene activation…in essence, it provides an image of the finished product prior to activating the sequence. My daughter activated the Chrysalis without knowing that it had this capability…when she transformed, she did not know what she would emerge as." Sighing wistfully, the figure in the hologram continued, "Sometimes when I am alone here, I activate this device and look at my alter ego. I look, and I wonder…would I have been more like Delenn had I undergone the Chrysalis? Would she have been more like me had she stayed Minbari?"

   "Why did you not undergo the process and find out?" Ardenn stated, still looking at the image.

   The image winked out, and Ardenn heard soft footsteps coming up behind her. "Because it is a moot point, Ardenn," Irilenn murmured as she approached. "The transformation was not meant for me. The time was not right…specific events had to occur prior to that first use of the Chrysalis device. I was not the person chosen…the one to use the device had to be attractive, unmated, outside of the Sisterhood and…of childbearing age." With a soft chuckle, the Mistress added, "In my vainer moments, I sometimes tell myself that I was attractive enough…but I met none of the other requirements." More seriously, she continued, "Delenn, though…she was the right person at the right time. She acted as fate meant for her to act, just as I do." Sighing, Irilenn concluded, "As for using it now, I am far too old…well over ninety years as the humans measure time. The transformation is a physically demanding process…one that can kill those over forty who try it. Had Delenn waited much longer it might have killed her, and Valen himself was very fortunate to survive."

   Ardenn turned on her and sharply said, "And I suppose that you want me to step into 'your' circle so you can show me how I would look. Well, I am happy just as I am."

   "Are you really?" Irilenn said with a smile. "Are you really happy? I think you speak an untruth. Tell me, Ardenn…in the three cycles you served Delenn, did you not once wonder what it would be like to be a human like her? Or like your friend Anla Shok Na…who, by the way, seems to have taught you some hostile behavioral habits. Are you simply afraid? You want to see yourself despite your words. Step into the circle…if for no other reason, you can at least satisfy your curiosity."

   With a last suspicious look at the older woman, Ardenn turned and stepped in. Irilenn smiled again as she watched the newest member of the Sisterhood play right into her hands.

   Light engulfed the young Minbari and, as Irilenn had indicated, it was not painful. Ardenn looked down at herself in fascination as sparkles played across her arms and through her fingers, almost forgetting to watch the other circle.

   "Look at yourself, Ardenn," Irilenn whispered as she stood just outside the pillar of light. "Look at yourself as a human."

   Ardenn looked up and nearly forgot to breathe, transfixed by her own stare.

   The person gazing back at her looked like her…physically, she seemed identical. She was still not tall, her figure was the same and her face was unaltered. She still had a slight brow ridge rather than eyebrows, but her crest…two thirds of it was missing. Only the crown remained, emerging from her temples, wrapping around her skull and coming to a sharp point in the back just as her present crest did. The missing two-thirds had been replaced with the lightest shade of hair she had ever seen on a human. In fact it had almost no shading at all…it was nearly bone-white. White hair cascaded off of her head and down onto her shoulders. More hair covered her scalp, hiding her cerulean patch, although she could see a hint of blue through the hair that indicated it was still there. Her skin was similarly devoid of color…if anything, it was as pale as that of a full Minbari. "My…uh, her skin and hair," Ardenn murmured, "They are completely colorless. Delenn's skin and hair are not like this. Her skin has a pinkish color and her hair is dark…or it was in the older pictures of her that I have seen."

   "In your human manifestation, you appear to be what is known to the Humans as…what is the term?" Irilenn furrowed her brow ridge and tapped her chin in thought. "Oh, yes…an 'albino'. You did not inherit the gene that gives human skin its pigmentation. That is also why your hair is white. Unlike you, Delenn inherited that gene, so her skin and hair are different from yours. Albinos among humans are rare, but not unique. On Minbar, the lack of pigmentation would not be an inconvenience at all for you…for her. Were she to travel to a planet with a more radiant sun, such as Earth, she would simply need to be more careful in direct sunlight than a human."

   "Would I…would she be considered…acceptable by humans? Even as a…um, albino? Or would…she be considered a freak?"

   "Not a freak, Ardenn, definitely not a freak…quite the opposite. This woman would be attractive to humans…males especially. I think the descriptive human term for a woman such as this is 'angelic'." Irilenn murmured beside her as Ardenn wondrously fingered her bonecrest, watching as her human image mirrored her movements and ran fingers through her hair. "I think that a human such as David could love this female. Do you not?"

   "Why…should I be concerned with that?" Ardenn queried nervously, pausing in her exploration of herself. "David…is David. He may love as he sees fit."

   "Do not be so closemouthed, Sister. Do you think that I do not know that you have fallen in love? He is my grandson, after all. On your finger…is that not the human joining ring he gave you?" Irilenn laughed as Ardenn's gaze tore away from the image and she covered the ring to hide it. "I have already noted its presence on your hand, so it is too late to cover it. I know what it represents, little one. I know far more about human practices than any Minbari except perhaps Delenn. Do not fear…I will not take it from you, although I should. I am not a cruel woman, Ardenn…I understand your resentment over your elevation, and I have no wish to make this process any more painful for you than it already is. I am willing to make concessions to change your perception of us. Consider my generosity as it is, a gesture of…good will…on my part."

   Her ring safe, Ardenn's gaze turned back to the image. She could not seem to take her eyes off of it. She murmured, "If you know what it represents, Mistress, then you know that David loves me just as I am now. This image of me is fascinating…but I do not need it to have his love."

   "True. He loves you as the person you are…yet you could be so much more. You could give him so much more…" Irilenn decided it was time to play her trump card. Softly, she stepped into the circle behind Ardenn. Ardenn gasped…to her, it looked as if Delenn herself stood beside her in the hologram. The image, so like her mentor, placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and whispered, "If it were possible, love…I would give you many children…did you not whisper those words to David as he entered you?"

   "You…you spied on us? You watched as we made love? Am I so…entertaining…that you could not even grant me my first and last moment of true intimacy with my beloved to enjoy alone?" Ardenn hissed, her voice quivering with shame and rage. "Our most intimate words…meant just for the two of us…"

   "Yes, we watched…but even if we had not, I would have known. His scent and the scent of your breaking are on you even now," the image of Delenn whispered. "I know more about you than you can imagine, little Sister. You want to be this woman, Ardenn, I know that you do. You want those children…and you want David to be their father. Do not be ashamed that you gave him your heart or your body. I arranged that…I arranged for you to meet David, and I can arrange for you to return to him. It is true that you can love him as you are, but that love will be all you can ever have. When the two of you are gone, so will it be. I can change that, Ardenn…I can give you both immortality. I can create in you this woman for him…a woman who can both love him and bear his offspring. I can make every one of your secret fantasies come true."

   "By summoning me here, you destroyed that fantasy."

   "No, Sister…you are wrong," Irilenn countered strongly, "I did not destroy your fantasy. I merely changed the conditions under which your fantasy can become reality. I rearranged them so they, and you, serve our purposes first and foremost." More gently, Irilenn continued, "I know that it does not seem so right now…but we want similar things, Ardenn. I knew that you and David were forming a bond, but had I stood aside and done nothing, you would have eventually foresworn us. That, I could not allow. We want you to be happy and we mean you no harm, but…understand this. You are a Sister of Valeria now, not an Apprentice. You are no longer free and you never will be again…the chains that now bind you to us are the strongest our traditions can fashion. You belong to our people and through us you will serve them in everything you do. You are a key element in the Plan and you will fulfill your part, Sister Ardenn, but I think you will find that our requirements of you will be few and hardly what one would consider a burden."

   "What do you want from me!" Ardenn cried, finally realizing with Irilenn's words that she was undergoing anything but a normal elevation. "Why could you not just leave me where I wanted to be! You know that I do not want this!" Ardenn could face the image of her 'human' self and the pseudo-Delenn no longer. Turning to face the 'real' Irilenn, she spat, "I was just an Apprentice! One of many! Why am I so special…and what is this 'Plan' you speak of!"

   "What we want from you for now is your obedience. Do not fight us, Ardenn. All you have to do is submit to me. Acknowledge your place in the Plan and perform your duty to our people. Do this, and you can have everything you dream…and more." Irilenn replied. "As for the details of the Plan and your place in it, you want answers that I will not give you…yet. I can only explain once you have agreed to face the Circle...once you are truly one of us."

   "What circle?" Ardenn queried. "You have sent the other Sisters away. The ceremony is over."

   "Have I really?" Irilenn asked knowingly. "Look around you, Ardenn. How many Sisters remain in this chamber?"

   "Three. You, Sister Rakell and I."

   "No, child." Irilenn replied. Turning around slowly, she waved her hand, indicating the shrine's contents. "Forty-four of us remain. The three of us, my thirty-nine predecessors, Valeria herself and one…other. The Circle."

   "But…but they are dead!" the young Minbari exclaimed. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her hologram mimicking her disbelief. If her hologram were any indication, she noted, fear was written all over her.

   "Yes…but their spirits live on with us." Irilenn replied cryptically. "I want them to see you, Ardenn. Very few in the Order get this opportunity. I advise you to accept it."

   "Accept what? What will this 'Circle' do?"

   From behind Ardenn, Rakell spoke for the first time. As Irilenn and Ardenn conversed, she had been moving among the sarcophagi performing tasks that the newly minted Sister had barely noticed, focused as she was on the Mistress. "They will grant you wisdom," she said. "They will refocus you on the Path. They will truly 'elevate' you."

   Ardenn spun to face the Enlightened One. "But…I already accepted the Obligation! I am already Elevated!"

   Irilenn laughed, but her laughter contained no mirth. "Surely, little one…surely you did not think that a few simple words were all that were required for the answers you seek? For one such as Sister Vadenn, who serves in the capacity we wish the outside world to perceive, the words are enough. From one such as you…from one as important as you, we require much, much more." Irilenn retrieved a device resembling a small crystal globe as she spoke, inserting it into a slot on the pedestal above the Triluminary. Stepping back, she examined her handiwork for a second and then waved her hand again. Ardenn felt a weight clamp across her feet and ankles. "In fact," Irilenn added softly, "we require everything that you have. Oh, and Sister? If you ever desire to see David again, we require access to everything that you will have."

   "What are you doing to me!" Ardenn struggled to get out of the pillar of light, but weight around her ankles had crept up her calves to her knees. Her legs were immobilized, and she was terrified. "Let me go!"

   "Do not struggle, Ardenn. You cannot break free. You will only hurt yourself."

   Ardenn's thrashing ceased. The numbness had reached her waist. It was disorienting, but not painful. "You seem…to have left me little choice, Mistress."

   Irilenn sighed. Pausing, she clasped her hands and turned back to the young Minbari. "No, little one…" she murmured, "You always have choices. If you wish, I will stop the process now, but you will simply become another Sister, and mistake me not …I will send you far, far away from here." Noting the fear that flickered across Ardenn's features, she continued, "I understand that the Temple in the North is very cold and lonely, and you would spend your remaining cycles serving those Sisters who retire there to pass beyond. It is a necessary service, but it does not sound like much of a life for a beautiful young woman, tending the dying during the day and crying as you yearn for the touch of your lover at night…and the nights there, Ardenn, are so very, very long. Or…" she added brightly, "You can face the Circle, have all of your questions answered afterwards, and perhaps…when you understand your place…" Irilenn turned her palms up in the Minbari shrug and concluded, "The choice is yours."

   Irilenn's words seemed to indicate that there might be some hope of seeing David again if she complied. To see David again…Ardenn would tolerate anything to make that happen.

   Irilenn nodded at her with a small smile, as she seemed to read Ardenn's choice from the expression on her face. "I thought you would see matters my way," she murmured. Almost as an afterthought, the older woman added, "One more item, Ardenn. The numbness you feel…it is a stasis field. Were you not immobilized, the stress you are about to undergo…well, you might try to hurt yourself. You will be able to see, hear, think and unfortunately, feel. This process is extremely painful, and I apologize for putting you through it…but it must be done. Your mind must be opened to establish the link so the Circle can see you, and this is the only way."

   The light around Ardenn intensified to a brightness that was almost blinding, and the young woman noted that the globe on the crystal pedestal bearing the Triluminary was beaming like a small sun. She was now completely paralyzed, and the soft light of the image projector had been replaced with jagged bolts of electrical energy that pulsed around her legs. Where they touched her, jolts of pain ran up her nerves and seemed to explode in her brain. And it was getting worse. Just as the numbness had crept up her body, so the electricity was doing. Ardenn gritted her teeth for as long as she could, but a particularly strong jolt dragged a whimper from her. Others soon followed. Soon she felt nothing but pain and she became aware that she was wailing almost continuously, crying out for David to come help her on the few occasions when she could muster the energy. She prayed that she would pass out, but she remained conscious…and the stabbing pain continued to intensify. Finally, electricity surged around her entire body and she screamed.

   Outside the pillar of light, Rakell moved up beside the now silent Mistress. "This is a mistake, Irilenn!" she whispered vehemently. "No Sister has faced the Circle against her will in over eight hundred cycles!"

   "I offered her a choice, Rakell."

   "You offered her no real choice!" the Enlightened One hissed. "Submit to the Circle or be locked away…that is not a choice! We do not force Sisterhood on those who do not desire it! When your predecessors see her, they will know that she does not want to be one of us! What will they do to her? Under these conditions, her sanity could be destroyed!"

   "I pray that her mind survives, but…the Plan does not necessarily require her to be sane," Irilenn replied. "The link will not harm her physically. If all else fails, we will have her living body…and the genetic sample David Sheridan has provided. We have all the tools we need to move forward already."

   "What sample? We have never gotten close enough to him to gather one."

   "No, we have not," Irilenn agreed. Waving at the crying young woman frozen in the beam of light, she added, "But Ardenn has. She brought more of my grandson back with her than just a ring, Rakell. She carries a sample within her even now, and she will for several more days, at least. It is of no use to her as she is…but it can be of great use to us."

   "Have we…stooped so low as that?" Rakell whispered in disbelief. "We would reach into that poor child's womb and extract it?"

   "Many cycles ago, old friend, Mistress Avaier and I discussed doing something similar to Delenn if she proved unable to conceive naturally. If I was willing to consider that step with my own daughter…" Meaningfully, Irilenn trailed off. Placing a gentle hand on Rakell's shoulder, she added, "Please do not look at me so. The idea sickened me then, Rakell, and I find it equally reprehensible now…but our people are dying. I have sworn to do whatever necessary to save them, and if that requires violating this innocent child's body, then I will do it. I will hate myself afterwards, but I will do it." Turning back to gaze impassively at the newest member of the Sisterhood, Irilenn's expression became determined. "This situation has three possible outcomes," she stated flatly. "Should Ardenn emerge insane, we will extract the seed, transform her, and then impregnate her with it. Should she emerge sane but uncooperative, we will sedate her and perform the extraction, transform her and impregnate her without her knowledge. Should she emerge and prove cooperative…well, she will know a life of happiness with her beloved…and eventually she will ask us for the Chrysalis so she can conceive. She will be happy, and we will have the same end result. I truly hope she proves cooperative, Rakell. I would sleep much better knowing that the other steps were just poor considerations rather than realities."

   As the two older Sisters talked, Ardenn's screaming tapered off and a strange calm seemed to settle over the chamber. "It would seem that her mind is now open," Irilenn whispered. She motioned again at the Triluminary pedestal and beams of light shot from the globe, striking the crystal figurines perched atop the surrounding sarcophagi. The figurines began to glow with an eerie green light. Turning back to the paralyzed Ardenn, Irilenn asked, "Can you hear me, little one?"

   "Yes…" To Ardenn, her voice sounded far away and indistinct…almost as if she were in a waking dream. There was still intense pain, but it no longer seemed to touch her. She felt adrift and listless.

   "The technology we are about to employ is ancient and alien…older than even our race. It, like the Triluminaries themselves, is from a time before even the Shadows and Vorlons, when the First Race walked the stars as mortals. It is technology far in advance of our own, but it was not designed for us and it is not entirely compatible with our kind. That is why you feel so much pain."

   "Yes…Mistress…" Ardenn noted dimly.

   "I know it is hard, but listen to me carefully. I am about to light the pathway between you and the Circle. They seldom speak, but from time to time one or another chooses to come into one of us and do so. Among the Sisters, it is said that those spoken to are blessed." Pausing, Irilenn considered for a moment, and then added, "When I stood where you are, Valeria herself spoke to me and told me of the path I must follow. For Rakell, it was Bevell. Other living Sisters have spoken to various other former Mistresses on occasion. All who have done so have gone on to the highest levels of our Order. If any choose to speak to you, listen! Their words…they can be portentous. Do you understand?"

   "Yes…Mistress. I…will listen."

   Irilenn keyed in the final sequence on the pedestal, and one last beam of light issued from the globe. It shot through the stasis field and seemed to wrap around the helpless Minbari within. Around her, shapes began to swim in the light pillar. "Sister Ardenn," Irilenn intoned, "You will open your soul to us…to the Circle. Now."

   For a moment, Ardenn's eyes appeared confused. As more shapes entered the light and swam about her, fear crossed her features. The shapes began to swim more quickly about her, and Irilenn noted her eyes widen as the beam…the pathway…reached full strength. Ardenn's face took on a faraway look…she was looking down the pathway, Irilenn knew. At the end she saw…Irilenn knew not what, but it was not as it had been with her. Irilenn had seen a peaceful garden…Valeria had been tending flowers when Irilenn arrived. Other Sisters reported similar scenes with other Mistresses. The young Sister was not in a peaceful garden. Her expression became terrified...and she began to scream.

   

   ***

   "Do you see, Irilenn? It is as I told you! The link is driving her insane!" Rakell waved her hands at the brightly shining device. Indicating the beams of light streaming out to the sarcophagi, she continued, "None of the Mistresses are speaking to her! They know that she is in the link under duress! They do not approve!"

   "No…it is not that, Rakell…I do not understand. She is the one we have waited for! The Circle…despite what I told her, they should be jostling one another to speak to her…"

   It was true. One by one, the light paths between the sarcophagi and the globe were terminating as the 'shade' of each former Mistress looked at the new arrival and refused to talk to her. Soon, there was only one light path remaining, the one to the tomb of Avaier, Irilenn's immediate predecessor, and then…after a moment more…there were none.

   Ardenn continued to scream. "Terminate this!" Rakell pleaded. "We may yet salvage her mind!"

   "Quiet yourself, Rakell!" Irilenn hissed. "The link is still activated…it should have terminated itself once the Mistresses departed! The device is not causing her pain any longer…she screams at what she is seeing! Someone is communicating with her!"

   "Who, then? None of the statuettes still glow! Something is wrong…"

   "Look behind you, Rakell." Irilenn had turned and was looking at the rear of the dais, away from Valeria's sarcophagi. "Look now! We are witnessing an…an unprecedented event."

   Rakell spun about and immediately realized what had captured her Mistress's attention. The small, unmarked sarcophagus was set off to one side, seemingly forgotten. As always, it was draped in a shroud, but a faint light peeked out from underneath.

   "The Outsider? She…she never speaks, Mistress…not to anyone." Rakell murmured in disbelief. "In the eight hundred cycles she has been here, she is the only one who has never spoken in the link."

   Irilenn quickly turned back to face the terrified young Sister in the circle. She, the Mistress of the Order, had forgotten something she was sure, but what? Glancing at the second circle, Irilenn noted that Ardenn's 'human' hologram was still activated and was mimicking the 'real' Ardenn's expression. Shaking her head, she started to turn back to the Outsider's tomb when it hit her. "Rakell…I know! I know why none of the Mistresses spoke to her!" Grasping her companion by the lapel, she dragged her over to face the human hologram. "I should have thought of this before now, Rakell," she hissed, "I said the words to her! And damn me for showing her this version of herself! This woman…this 'human' is who Ardenn wants to be! It is how she wants others to see her! When she is in the link…this is the image she projects! Do you understand? Half the Mistresses predate Valen and have no conception that humans even exist, and the other half have never seen a living hybrid! The only two that would have any idea of what she is are Avaier…"

   "…And the Outsider." Rakell finished.

   "I hoped that Avaier would be the one to speak with her, but her shade surrendered position to the Outsider, I am sure. Come! Help me uncover the tomb!" Irilenn hissed as she hurried to pull the drapery off. "I should have planned for this, Rakell…curse me, I should have expected that Ardenn would interest her! They have much in common…the Outsider was also compelled to join the Order! Any of the Mistresses would have gently directed Ardenn back to the Path…modified her thinking so she would be more cooperative, but the Outsider…none can predict what she will say or do! This could be very unfortunate…"

   Ardenn's screams fell to whimpers, but the terror on her face remained. "In Valen's Name…" Rakell whispered, "What is the Outsider doing to her?"

   

   ***

   A black spidery shape screamed in low over her head and Ardenn screamed back at it in fear and confusion, throwing herself out of the circle and to the ground. The shiny black vessel hovered over the broken dome of the Shrine as if it could sense her presence, and then continued on apparently without noticing the young woman below, fiery red beams of destruction lancing down from its belly to chew up anything unfortunate enough to capture its attention. Ardenn staggered to her feet and looked around, gaping uncomprehendingly at the broken chamber surrounding her.

   She was still in the Shrine of the Mistress, but something…horrible…had happened. What had occurred…she had no idea. One moment, Mistress Irilenn had been speaking and the next…the eyes of many faces had peered uncertainly at her. They had peered, and all but one drew away in confusion. The remaining one had smiled fondly at her for a moment before drawing away…and then she had awakened to a place both the same and far different from what it had been before.

   The Shrine was in shambles…it was war-torn. The light, the candles…they were all snuffed out. Twisted braziers and shattered crystal littered the whole area…even in the little dim light remaining, that much she could tell. Ardenn was not a coward, but she was not a warrior and warfare was almost unknown to her. She did know enough to realize that any protection was preferable to remaining in the open. Gathering her crimson robe about her knees, she stood and bolted for the nearest available cover…Valeria's sarcophagus. Wedging herself as far under its overhanging lid as she could, she drew her knees up about her chin and screamed for David as she saw more of the terrifying black spiders passed overhead. She was alone, afraid and had no idea what had brought her to this devastated place.

   A particularly close blast rocked her hiding place, sending a shower of shimmering crystal dust down on top of her. From the light that flared briefly in the chamber, she could see that she was not alone as she had first thought. Other Sisters of Valeria were scurrying for cover in the darkness…with most not making it. Red robed females were lifted and flung around like scraps of paper as they prayed and cried, and Ardenn screamed again as one of the unfortunates was slammed to the stone floor of the dais with bone-crushing force almost at her feet…her sightless, glassy eyes staring straight at the young Sister. Hunkering down further, Ardenn fought to get her breathing under control and shortly thereafter managed to reduce her screaming to whimpering…not much of an improvement, but at least her panic was subsiding so she could reason. The presence of fellow Sisters in the chamber told her that some time had passed; she had been alone with Irilenn and Rakell when entering the link, and she realized abruptly that those black ships…they were Shadow warships! But the Shadows were gone…had been gone since before her birth, and they had not attacked Minbar itself when her mentor and Entil'zha John fought them. What was this?

   Several more Shadow ships sailed overhead and a moment later, a massive explosion from elsewhere in the main Temple complex tore at her eardrums. Ardenn's hands flew to her ears as she was tossed violently against the top of her hiding place, dazing her momentarily and nearly dislodging the tomb's lid. Something was not quite right with her, she noticed vaguely. Her ears felt funny. She did not have time to ruminate on it, however. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a pressure wave from the last detonation billowing up the corridor through which she had originally entered the Shrine. As the shock wave exploded through the entranceway, she threw herself flat against the ground, avoiding most of the dust as it passed overhead. Several of the crystal pillars that had once supported the massive dome buckled under the force of the blast, spraying a shower of small shards down on her as they toppled to the floor. Shaking her head to clear it, Ardenn again noticed that she felt different as she crawled back into her hiding place, this time seeking protection from falling debris.

   After the last explosion, the screaming of the Shadow ships gradually faded away, and an eerie calm descended on everything in Ardenn's field of view. She remained hunkered in her hiding place, watching as none of her fellow Sister's bodies in the chamber showed signs of life. Ardenn knew that she should move from her position and check them to make certain, but her muscles did not seem to want to respond. She could offer little aid to possible survivors in any event…the Sisterhood had trained her in government and administration, not healing…and it was growing darker outside. The shadows within the Shrine were lengthening, and soon, Ardenn could barely see.

   Berating herself for her weakness, Ardenn hesitated a moment longer and then forced herself to move. Glancing out cautiously, she was about to dart for the nearest body when a flash of red caught her eye. Another Sister was working her way through the chamber, winding her way through the remains of masonry and jagged crystal blocks and checking bodies as she went. Ardenn resisted the urge to run out to her as she came closer…the Sister's expression was grim, and her temper was flaring as she checked the corpses.

   "Dead…all dead," Ardenn heard the Sister disgustedly muttering to herself in heavily accented Adronato as she neared the body at the mouth of Ardenn's hiding place. "I told them…but did they listen? No…the Sisterhood never listens. I told them the Hall of Records would be hit…and they all nodded their heads at the right places. But did they evacuate…no, of course not. And now look at this mess…Hello? Sister Ardenn, are you there?"

   The Sister turned in Ardenn's direction, and Ardenn pressed herself further back into the shadows. Eyeing the female suspiciously, Ardenn noted that she looked…well, odd. Her crest was carved as Ardenn's was, but the shading of her skin was slightly off…as if she had been in the sun too long. Her facial structure was a little different around her eyes…they were almond-shaped, a very dark brown and canted at a slightly different angle than normal for a Minbari. Other than that, she appeared unremarkable. She was dressed similarly to Ardenn, of a similar size and she appeared to be about forty cycles old.

   "It's all right," the Sister murmured into Ardenn's hiding place as she checked the body at its front. "You can come out. The Shadows got what they came for. They're gone…and I doubt they'll return. They always try to get the historical records last before they go back into hibernation. That way, people will have forgotten how to fight them when they return."

   Ardenn did not move, and from the angle the Sister was viewing her, all the Sister could see was her eyes and the tail of her robe. "Sister Ardenn…I know you're in there. You're in no danger. I brought you to this place. Please come out," the Sister entreated as she moved closer, trying to get a better look at the hidden Minbari. "I saw you in the link? You understand that I am speaking through the link? It's been so long since I talked to anyone..."

   So this Sister was one of the Mistresses, then. Ardenn had seen enough of Mistresses and Sisters. She had no desire to talk to any others. "No, it is not all right!" Ardenn shouted as she drew herself in even more tightly. "Those were Shadow ships! They are not supposed to be here! They have departed the galaxy! They departed before I was even born!"

   "Before you were born?" the Mistress queried, momentarily at a loss for words. "Yes…yes, before you were born…I think I understand your confusion. Come out…come out and I'll explain." A secondary explosion sounded in the distance, and the red glow of flames danced around the curved edge of the shattered dome as black smoke rolled through the air. "Please, little Sister…it gets so lonely here in this place of death. I mean you no harm…nothing you see here can hurt you. I know that you're afraid, but I…I hoped that, being what you are, you might be able to see past your fear."

   That statement puzzled the young Minbari. "What…what am I?"

   "Come out, and I'll show you." The Mistress paused a moment and put a finger to her lip in thought. Lowering it, she said, "Perhaps this might help you trust me." The Mistress ceased speaking in Adronato and, in halting, slurred English said, "Can…you…understand…me?"

   "Yes…I am relatively fluent in that human tongue." Ardenn confusedly replied in the same language. Realizing that she was being unreasonable and this Mistress seemed to be sincere, the young Minbari grew bolder and she started to creep out of her hiding place. "I do not understand any of this…" she continued in English as she crawled.

   Being careful not to panic her jumpy companion, the Mistress cut her off and slowly asked, "What…year is it?"

   That was an odd request, and it confused Ardenn for a reason she could not pin down. She answered, "It…it is cycle…"

   "No, not the cycle. The year."

   "It…it is the year 2285, as the humans record time." Ardenn answered innocently, climbing to her feet and dusting herself off. "Now, you said that you would explain. You said you brought me to this place, yet it is the same place I started…but it is not."

   Rather than switching back to Adronato, the dark-complexioned Mistress continued speaking in broken English. "I…will…explain…why to speak…with you I wanted," she began, reaching out with a trembling hand. "Forgive me, Sister…can I just…touch it…please? It's been so long since I have seen any…"

   "Seen…seen what?" Ardenn asked hesitantly. "I do not know what you are speaking of."

   "Your…hair. It is…beautiful." The Mistress's hand touched the side of Ardenn's head and the young woman nearly jumped out of her skin when the female drew forward a handful of silky white hair. Ardenn's eyes widened in shock as she abruptly realized why she had felt vaguely different since arriving in this place. "Know…you did not?" The Mistress continued, noting Ardenn's expression. "In the Link…your hair and face I saw. Old memories surfaced, friends almost…forgotten. Your appearance…made me homesick? Yes, homesick. From a time both before and after, I knew you to be. This…explains…much? Uh, a lot," the Mistress continued as she rolled the hair gently between her fingers in fascination. "You…know what has…happened? You are…you have undergone the Chrysalis?"

   "No, Mistress," Ardenn replied in puzzlement. "I do not know how this has happened. I was a full Minbari when I entered the Shrine."

   "Then how you see yourself…how you want to be seen, it is." Shaking her head in frustration, the older female added, "Forgive my poor syntax…but indulge me. It pleases me to English speak once again. Now, explanations you wanted. I will try to your questions answer."

   "I do not know where I am, Mistress…I was in the Shrine and a device was used on me. There was pain and light…and then I was here. Where is this place?"

   "Not 'where'," the Mistress replied. Gesturing at the chamber, she continued, " 'Here' is where…but 'when' your question should be." Pointing at both Ardenn and herself, the Mistress said, "We…speak, but I am not…true? Not true…real, that's the word. I am dead…a long time. 2285, you say? I have been dead for a long time…over one hundred? No, one thousand years. 2285…On Earth now, it is the year…1220? No, 1221. This is the 'when'."

   Indicating the damage to the chamber and the bodies, the Mistress continued, "You witness…the finish, the end of the Shadow War before the…the conflict you are familiar with. The Shadows now retreat to hibernate, but the Order's Hall of Records is destroyed. Sisters of Valeria…smart and clever they are but understand their danger they did not. I told them to spread…no, disperse the records, but Valen forbade it…the records destroyed must be or the timeline would be…hurt? No, damaged." The Mistress shook her head in frustration again. "English…it is hard…forgive me, I have not speakings it over of fifteen years. Uh…in over fifteen years."

   "I have traveled 800 cycles back in time?" Ardenn exclaimed with a gasp. Looking around, she abruptly noticed that, where there had been forty sarcophagi before, there was now only half that number.

   The Mistress smiled wanly at Ardenn and answered, "No…no, here you are not …you are still in the Shrine of the Mistress in your time. I'm…how would you say… your head inside? You see me here, but this in your mind is. Thus, you have hair here…and a nice little bonecrest. Very pretty you are. In your mind, you appear as you like, but I think your true image this is, yes? That's why I see you like this. Do you understand…I am no longer alive…I am a…record? No…uh, sorry, I am more than just that…the word? Oh, yes, I am an artificial intelligence."

   "A personality matrix? I am intimately familiar with the concept, Mistress."

   "A personality matrix? Human technology that is… quite the same it's not. Different technologies, similar results…but this…is less? Uh, not complete like a matrix. I am…frozen? Yes, frozen in time here…a pattern on a crystal statue embedded. I my life remember, but I'm locked…constrained to this setting. Frightened you I did with it…the War. Sorry. To scare you was not my goal. I…defied the Order, you see, and my punishment this is. From my memories this scene of destruction was pulled on my deathbed when my pattern was imprinted. My pattern…in this moment of my life is stranded. Thus, you see the War when with me you speak, but my choice it was not for you. Understand?"

   "I…I think so, Mistress."

   "Mistress?" The Sister laughed lightly. "You call me Mistress…yes, in the Shrine my body would be, wouldn't it? Both revered and reviled." Chuckling again, she said, "Ah…good, my English is returning. Anyway, in the Shrine I am, but a Mistress I am…uh, I'm not a Mistress. I'm more like the…the crazy Aunt locked in the attic that the family knows about but nobody speaks of. The Order can't throw my body away, but what to do with me they know not." The Sister paused for a moment, and then added. "You…facing the Circle, correct? And I wished to speak to you. The Circle…did you face them of your own free will? Do you want to be a Sister?"

   "No. I was taken and forced to submit. I…I had no choice. It was either this or banishment to the North."

   "I the feeling know. Many cycles…ten years I spent in the North…hidden away because I was different and my knowledge was valuable. To go there you want not…trust me. The people…afraid were those that found me, you see my kind they did not know. A demon they thought I was. I was imprisoned by the Warriors, and then enslaved, in the care of the Sisters. There was no other place for me to go…until Valen arrived and understanding dawned. He came and freed me, after a fashion."

   "There is no slavery on Minbar," Ardenn stated flatly. "All are not equal, but no one is a slave."

   "Really?" The Sister smiled and tugged gently at the crimson robe Ardenn wore. "Is the Order not slavery, for those who don't wish it? To the Sisterhood your body belongs now, just as mine did. I was also forced into the Order by circumstance rather than choice, and the others of the Circle know this. They resent my presence even though they love me for what I provided them…so around they keep me. A few, I think would visit me, but my…environment here unsettling is so they speak to me not and I don't speak to them. As for the new Sisters in the link, I never to them speak because I don't want to inflict my punishment on them. You, though… special you are. I know you don't want to be here, but compelled to speak to you I felt. Although I'm not real, I'm so lonely here."

   "Sister," Ardenn began, "You say that you want to speak to me, but all you have done is confuse me. You say that you are not a Mistress, but you are in the Shrine. You say that you are both loved and hated, and that you defied the Order and are being punished for it…yet at the same time, the Order reveres you because of what you gave them. What did you give the Order that they would love you even as they punish you? And who are you?"

   Sighing, the Sister amusedly replied, "Questions…so many questions. Well, I did promise you answers, didn't I?" Indicating a crystal block, the Sister smoothed her dusty robe and sat. Once Ardenn was seated beside her, she began, "Who am I…that such a long story is. I have many names…depending on who you talk to and when. I was called 'Vik'irildun', 'Seaweed Head' when the Warriors captured and imprisoned me. I was named 'Drala'Fizha', the 'Dark One from the Stars' when the Sisterhood bought me from them and locked me away in the North. I was named 'Katrenn ra Valir' when I was freed, elevated and returned to my mate. After he departed, I defied the Sisterhood and that name was stricken from the records of the Order. I became known only as 'Zha'Ver'kaff', the One Outside, or the Outsider. My real name though…comes from far closer to your time. I am called simply Catherine…Catherine Sakai."

   "That is a human name…yet you are as Minbari as I am!" Ardenn exclaimed.

   "Precisely," Katrenn replied, reaching out and meaningfully fingering Ardenn's hair, "I'm as Minbari as you are, yet I'm also a human…as you are. And, as for what I gave them…well, I gave them you, Daughter. You and others like you. Ardenn, I'm your mother…your mother one thousand years removed."

   

   ***

   The small ship swept quickly through chaotic red currents of hyperspace, its destination a planet long ago abandoned by the living...abandoned; yet some resided there still.

   Of the two people on board the small ship, only one was aware of those residents. The other's attention was divided. That other, Ranger David Sheridan, stared out the forward viewport of the Isil'zha at the red vortex currents without really seeing them. His mind was on other things…a young woman far away and beyond his ability to help. To his companion, he muttered, "Three days, Dad…Mother is supposed to meet with Irilenn today, right?"

   "Right, David," John Sheridan answered <…for the hundredth time…> he mentally added. Sighing, he looked over at the pensive young man. David had talked about little other than his worries concerning Ardenn since they left Minbar. In a way, John was grateful for that. Ardenn's predicament kept his normally perceptive son from asking too many questions about their destination. Conversely, the older man had endured three days worth of what felt like the 'All Ardenn, All the Time' channel on the vid unit. He understood his son's distress and was concerned about the young woman as well, but his attention at the moment was on what, regretfully, was a more immediate concern. "Son…don't worry too much about this. The more I've thought about it, the more convinced I am that Ardenn's elevation is less about her becoming a Sister and more about manipulating you and possibly your mother. Whatever Irilenn's planning, it'll serve no purpose to lock Ardenn away. You'll see her again."

   "But to see her and to know that she and I can't be together the way we want to be…"

   "Jeezus, David…one thing at a time, son. Take it one thing at a time. Let's get her back first, OK? Then we can worry about what sort of relationship the two of you can have." Trying to lighten the young man up, he added, "When we do get her back, you two are definitely going to have to figure out a better sleeping arrangement. She left one hell of a crest print on you and it still hasn't completely faded." As he grinned at the younger man, an alarm began sounding on the control panel and John turned to examine a data display. "OK, it's about time to drop into normal space. Get on the deep scanners and activate the IFF. Maybe we'll pick up their beacon."

   David turned to do as John requested. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his father remove a ratty-looking old notebook from his pocket. Thumbing quickly through the pages, his father appeared to find the one that he wanted. "What are you reading, Dad?"

   "Something I hope we won't need." John answered nebulously. Keying commands into the ship's navigation system, he continued, "I'm dropping us back to normal space. We'll come out far enough away from the planet to do a long-range general sweep, and then we'll move in close for the more detailed stuff. A ship as large as a Warcruiser should stick out like a sore thumb. Hopefully the ship is intact and I pray that the crew didn't have to abandon ship for the surface."

   "Why?"

   "Because it's terribly cold down there, David…the planet's in the middle of an Ice Age. Minbar can be cold…but nothing like this place. It's barely habitable even for humans. For Minbari in the open…they wouldn't last long unless they could get to the settlement...or what's left of it."

   As the ship exited hyperspace, David got his first look at Flynn's World. It was a smallish, unremarkable planet…blue-green near its equator but whitening to the north and south, culminating with large frigid-looking poles. "It doesn't look particularly inviting," the young man observed. "Dad, I have to admit ignorance. I meant to look this place up before we left, but I was, uh, otherwise occupied. There was an Earth colony here? And it's gone now?"

   "It was overrun by the Minbari during the war, David." John quietly answered. "The planet is inhospitable, but at the time it was Earth's primary source of Quantium-40. We couldn't have built or repaired jumpgates without this place and that made it strategically important. Because of that, this planet was more heavily defended than any other in the Earth Alliance outside Earth itself. It was so heavily defended that the Minbari were forced to blockade the whole system and land troops rather than taking the place from orbit. It was a hard fight…we killed hundreds of Minbari, and some died from exposure…but the colonists and our GROPOS were cut off, so it was just a matter of time. The end was…inevitable."

   "We? Our GROPOS?" David asked. "You were down on the surface during the fight?"

   "No. I was commanding a ship outside the system…trying to break the blockade," Looking at David seriously, John added, "Son…there's no one left alive that was down on the surface for that battle, at least among the humans who fought in it. If you want first-hand accounts, you'll have to talk to the Wind Swords. What little we know was gleaned from information we recovered after the war, when the Minbari withdrew from the planet and our damage assessment team went in to see what was left."

   "And what did they find?"

   "What did I find, you mean," John corrected. "I commanded the damage assessment team, David…and as for what I found…well, that's a story for later." Indicating a screen behind David, John pointed to a flashing symbol on the schematic. "I think we've found something…"

   David stifled the question he was about to ask and turned back to his screen. "OK, Dad…I've got what appears to be a Warcruiser in geosynchronous orbit over the planet's northern hemisphere," Checking other instruments, he added, "Uh, no discernable transmissions or power readings, and we're still too far out for life signs."

   "Hail them."

   David did as his father instructed, trying several times to raise the mysterious derelict on both Alliance and Warrior Caste frequencies. Shaking his head negatively, he indicated, "No response, Dad."

   Activating the ship's holographic display, John examined a larger reproduction of David's sensor information. Nodding to his son, he said, "Very well. I'm taking us in closer. Keep an eye on your readouts. I think you'll be detecting other contacts shortly."

   As the Isil'zha closed on the derelict, David watched his screens intently. After a moment, he held up a hand and said, "Multiple contacts…uh, they appear to be smaller. Satellites, I think…yeah. I have several different types of battle satellites fairly close in to the ship…fifteen Earthforce MK-410 rail cannons, ten MK-318 sandcasters, ten OB-1 ion pulse guns, uh…and about thirty MK-600 rapid-fire plasma cannons. Phew! Pretty antique stuff, but heavily concentrated." Looking a little more closely, he added, "Strange…they also seem to be active."

   "The Minbari aren't the only ones who build things to last," John indicated. "Minbar and Earth have different approaches to technology. The Minbari develop hardware that never breaks down. Humans build hardware to be redundant when it does break. Both approaches have advantages. Now, those satellites are all near-war vintage, but they're triple-redundant. They were originally more spread out, but they probably detected the Warcruiser and were drawn to it."

   "The ship itself is in their firing range, but I don't see much damage. The hull looks mostly intact."

   "Look again," John indicated as he keyed up the magnification on the holographic viewer. "She's missing hull plates, and her dorsal stabilizer is sheared off. That glimmering you see trailing behind her? That's debris blown out of her engineering sections and her drive. Her gun ports are open to space, but it's not a gesture of respect. That ship is dead, David."

   "You're right," David confirmed. Indicating a reading on one of his instruments, he added, "There are no life signs, and her interior is open to space. I'm registering organics, both inside the ship and drifting in open space close by." Puzzling for a moment, he said, "They must have come up on the satellites not realizing they were active and been caught by surprise, but how did all of these satellites get here?"

   "You're about to find out," John responded. As he spoke, an image appeared on the screen.

   David gasped. It was his father…a much younger version. As David watched, the image began speaking.

   "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…"

   "That's you!" David exclaimed.

   "Your powers of perception sometimes rival even your mother's," John commented humorously. "I told you I commanded the damage assessment team. The satellites are here because I put most of them here. The 410's and 318's were part of the colony's original defense grid. The OB's and 600's are a little newer…developed from Centauri designs during the war. I emplaced them before we left and used the older satellites to augment them." Indicating the warning ticking down on the screen with his old message, John returned to matters at hand. "David, switch our frequency to 481.75. If I don't deactivate the satellites, we'll end up finding out how effective they still are. They're old, but I'd rather not test them using our ship."

   David keyed in the new frequency. As he did so, he said, "We could just cloak. The sensors in those satellites wouldn't detect us."

   "No, but we need to do some close-in scans of that ship, and they would detect those. The satellites are smart enough to triangulate back to our probable location." John turned back to the main viewer as the Earth Alliance seal replaced the image of the Warcruiser. Through the ship's comm system, a crisp female voice announced, "EAS Lexington Defense Mainframe #2 on line. Identify."

   "Voice recognize Commander John J. Sheridan, Earthforce, Commanding Officer, EAS Lexington."

   "Identification in progress…"

   Apparently, his father had left one of his former command's targeting computers behind to coordinate the satellites, David realized. What would be that important about this place to require the intensive labor necessary to remove such a critical system just to leave it behind, he had no idea. The war had already ended when his father's team returned here. Concernedly, David glanced at the chronometer as he and his father waited for the computer to process John's voice. <Less than a minute…> David thought. <I hope Dad's voice hasn't changed much in thirty-plus years…>.

   "Identification verified. Welcome, Commander Sheridan. Password?"

   "Obsidian," John replied, glancing in his tattered notebook again.

   "Password accepted. Instructions?"

   "Stand down satellites, uh…A-1 through AB-13, and download activity logs for the period 10 February 2285 through 23 February 2285."

   "Instructions accepted. Satellites A-1 through AB-13 are deactivated. Log download in progress. Stand by."

   As the record was transferred, John turned to his son and said, "The video on these satellites is pretty piss-poor, but if the angle is right they might give us some clue as to what happened here." Pulling up the schematics of the Earthforce satellites, he continued, "These satellites are good in a fight, but that Warcruiser could have swept them aside with almost no effort. They might have done some damage, David, but something else destroyed that ship."

   "Raiders, maybe?"

   "Possibly…but if raiders have something capable of going toe-to-toe with a Minbari Warcruiser, we definitely need to know about it."

   "Download complete," The computer voice intoned. "Instructions?"

   "Switch to voice-command stand-by. No further instructions." John replied. To David, he said, "Bring up the records we just downloaded. Most of them should be blank, except for the times the satellites detected intruders."

   David complied, and it did not take long for the proper record to be found. Keying the record up on the holographic viewer, both men watched as the satellites detected the incoming Warcruiser. John's warning was transmitted and ignored, and the satellites began firing on the approaching ship.

   "See, son? The satellite's weapons are having little effect. That Warcruiser barely even notices," Sighing, he added, "That's what most of our encounters with the Minbari were like during the war. We'd fight tooth and nail, but the Minbari would just shrug it off and keep on coming."

   "Wait Dad…look," David indicated the screen. A small ship darted by in a blur and a moment later the Warcruiser turned to pursue. "Computer…enhance the image. What's that ship?"

   "I still can't tell," John grunted as the record magnified the new ship. "This video is simply too poor. Even enhanced, that ship is a blur. Mark this portion and continue play. Maybe Susan's analysts back in Tuzanor can do something with the image."

   The Isil'zha's computer tagged the frame, and the video started playing again. The Warcruiser continued its pursuit of the unknown vessel until it left the satellite's field of view. John and David continued to watch an empty star field for a moment before the younger man shrugged and said, "I think that's it, Dad."

   "No, the vid's still running…look at that!" John exclaimed. There had been a flash on the video. David looked again and the flash repeated. "Son, I've seen my share of fleet battles and, unless I miss my guess…that's heavy weapons fire. No satellite did that…that's coming from another capital warship."

   As John spoke, the video angle shifted, as the satellite's weapons became active again. John and David found themselves looking at the aft end of the Warcruiser, an aft end that was now heavily damaged. "Something is really chewing her up, David. Whatever it is, it's forced a Minbari Warcruiser crewed by Warrior Caste elite to try to withdraw." Unexpectedly, the satellites opened fire again on the now-vulnerable ship…right into her open aft compartments.

   "So the satellites did destroy her, after all…" David whispered as the concentrated fire from the Earthforce rail guns and pulse cannons ripped through the Warcruiser's inner hull and started opening her up from the inside out. The video followed the dead Warcruiser as she drifted past the outer ring of satellites. As he watched, two large shapes moved past. "Freeze image!" David exclaimed.

   Frozen in the frame were two Warcruiser-sized ships…massive wedge-shaped engines of destruction that he didn't recognize. They looked almost like Narn heavy cruisers at first glance, but these ships were trilaterally symmetrical rather than bilateral as Narn ships were. "Computer, search registry database. Identify subject vessels."

   "No information available," The Isil'zha's computer replied. "Subject vessels are unknown."

   "What?" David said disbelievingly, "This is a Minbari database, Dad. Every active ship type in known space is recorded right down to the hull number. Dad? Are you OK?"

   "Jeezus H. Christ…I don't believe what I'm seeing…" John whispered to himself. He was in his seat, a look of shock plastered across his face. Seeing that David was watching him, he shakily answered, "Yeah…uh, yeah…I'm OK…David…we need to get out of here and back to Minbar…now. Susan needs to know about this."

   "What is it? Maybe it's still not too late for first contact protocols if they come back…"

   "Son, we don't need first contact protocols. Those ships aren't in the database because they no longer exist…not because they're unknown, and Minbar never encountered their warships when they did. The race that built those ships wisely avoided contact with the Minbari Federation…at least officially." Pointing at the ships on the screen, he concluded, "These ships, David…they're called 'Penetrators' and they were once the backbone of the Armada…the war arm of the Dilgar Hegemony."

   "The Dilgar? But they're dead! They've been dead for more than fifty years!"

   John hesitated a moment and then pointed slowly at himself. "Son…in case you haven't noticed, there's more than the Dilgar running around in 2285 that's supposedly dead. Wouldn't you agree?" With that, he jumped back into the pilot/captain's station of the ship. "I'm moving us out of the satellite grid. We have the answers we came for and a lot more. If the Dilgar are in Alliance space in force, all hell may be about to break loose."

   "I think it already is breaking loose, Dad! I have multiple jump points forming…close in!"

   A short distance from the Isil'zha, three Dilgar Penetrators emerged from hyperspace on a vector straight towards the smaller ship.

   "Son…" John murmured as he watched their approach, "Don't look now, but we're standing in some deep kimchee."

   "What does a smelly cabbage dish have to do with the fact that our asses are about to be handed to us?"

   "Never mind," John murmured. "Son, if you want to live to see your fiancée again, get to your station and do exactly as I say…"

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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