2285/IV: WORLD OF SORROWS

By John Hightower

 

 

 

[Note from the JumpNow.de editor:
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*****

   Earth Year 2285

   "They're closing in on us. It shouldn't be long."

   David nodded and bent over his control panel. The three Dilgar Penetrators were rapidly approaching the dead Warcruiser, coming closer to the hidden Isil'zha on an attack vector. His father had eased the small ship up under the inert warship's ventral fins using their maneuvering thrusters as soon as the Dilgar ships appeared, cloaking them in the shadows. It was a temporary refuge, but it wouldn't last. The Dilgar already knew they were there. "In Valen's Name, they found us fast," the younger man muttered. "It's like they were waiting for us."

   "They were," John noted grimly. "They probably left a signaling device to warn them if anyone came nosing around in here. We've been set up, David...and we walked right into it." Glancing at the younger man, John said, "Options?"

   David gazed out the viewport, his green eyes straining to see their as-yet-invisible adversaries. Thinking quickly, he said, "We can try to skirt by them and bolt for open space, we can fight it out in here or we can make for the surface." There was one other unvoiced option…surrender. It went without saying between the two that giving up was out of the question. Rangers didn't surrender. "With that said," he continued, "I don't feel good about any of them."

   "Open space is a no-go, son," John replied, scratching his chin as he considered courses of action. "Those Penetrators would have their Scorpions on us before the jump engines charged."

   "Scorpions?" the younger Sheridan queried.

   "Their fighters, David," John explained, watching the Isil'zha's passive sensors like a hawk. "We used to call them that during the Dilgar War. They're incredibly fast and just as lethal as their namesakes."

   "You fought in the Dilgar War too?" David asked, his eyebrows arching. "I didn't think even you were that old."

   "I wasn't," John managed to chuckle. "The Dilgar War ended during my first year at the Earthforce Academy, but we studied it in detail." Seriously, he continued, "Now, I think the surface is our best bet, and I think I can spring a surprise or two on our new friends on our way down…but I'm going to need your help." Moving from the command/pilot's station, John motioned for David to take the helm. "I'm going to need you to fly the ship, son. You think you can buy me a few minutes before we get vaporized?"

   "Can I buy you a few minutes? Huh. I'll have you know that they called me 'Magic Fingers' during training," David harrumphed as he moved from his position and took John's seat.

   "Magic Fingers?" John retorted with a slow smile. "Is that what Ardenn calls you too?"

   David didn't look up from where he was familiarizing himself with John's control setup, but he couldn't hide the slight flush that rose in his cheeks. "Um…let's just say she didn't complain about my dexterity the other night and leave it at that."

   "I'll bet she didn't," John murmured, chuckling. Turning serious again, he said, "Okay, Magic Fingers, ready to show me what you've got?"

   With a bemused grin, David murmured "Where do you want to go today?" as he changed a couple of settings. Finishing, he looked back at his father and folded his hands in his lap. "Ready when you are."

   "Good," John noted. David wasn't showing a trace of fear, his trust in his father absolute. Inwardly, John wished he felt the same way. Moving to the station his son had just vacated, John rifled through his tattered notebook and keyed a code into the communications system. In response, a low tone sounded over the speakers in the cabin. "When we go, follow that tone. It'll home us in on the colony. You need to track that, and give me a few minutes. We've got to warn your mother and Susan about this, and I need a couple of minutes to get a transmission off."

   "They're going to be jamming us as soon as we run."

   "I know," John replied, keying more commands into the comm system. "I'm not going to transmit directly from here." As he finished the last command sequence, an image appeared on his screen. Rather than the Anla'Shok stand-by screen David was familiar with, he saw an Earthforce logo with an attacking shark superimposed over it. Around the shark, four stylized Minbari Warcruisers appeared to be fleeing. One of the Warcruisers, David noted, was black. Underneath the image, the words 'Stellarcom - EAS Lexington, CDR John J. Sheridan' flashed.

   "What's this?" David asked. This planet was disgorging more surprises every minute, and only the dangerous situation the two men found themselves in was keeping him from demanding explanations immediately.

   John seemed to read something in his son's expression. "David, I know," he replied to his son's unvoiced thought. "Once we're down on the surface you won't need a lengthy explanation…trust me, you'll understand, in a manner of speaking." Sighing, he gestured at the screen and continued, "As for this, we left my old ship's secondary comm link on the ground as part of the colony's recovery package. I'm going to use it to transmit the warning." David looked a question at him, and John added, "The Dilgar will be expecting us to transmit from this ship into space towards the nearest jumpgate beacon, so that's what they'll be jamming. I'm going to transmit to the surface and beam the signal from there as we're on our way down. It'll take them a couple of seconds to react and trace the signal back to the real transmitter. Hopefully that couple of seconds will be enough to get one warning out."

   "Clever. I think that…" David trailed off as he heard a strange sound whispering off the hull. It sounded as if their ship was caught in a gust of blowing sand. Looking up at the organic plating over his head, he whispered, "They've found us…"

   "Yeah, they were bound to sooner or later. That was a sensor sweep…" As John spoke he saw a flash of light outside the viewport an instant before the Isil'zha was jarred violently. Glimmering hull fragments spun off the wrecked ship above them and it only took John a split second to figure out what that meant. "They're flushing us out, son! They're going to break up the Warcruiser with their heavy guns! Power us up and get ready to go!"

   Outside the ring of satellites, the matter disruptors of the three Penetrators opened fire on the floating hulk masking their prey, systematically beginning to take the larger wreck apart. The Minbari ship absorbed the enemy fire for a moment, but began disintegrating as continuous blasts peeled the remains of the tough outer hull shielding away and began penetrating into the ship's more vulnerable interior. Secondary explosions blew the ventral fins of the Warcruiser free and sent them spinning into space, and the primary hull began heeling over as interior detonations upset the dead cruiser's equilibrium. As the ship canted, a small, blue vessel was exposed underneath. Their prey in sight, swarms of agile small ships issued from the three capital ships' launch bays.

   "That tears it," John muttered, simultaneously watching the Warcruiser breaking up over his ship and the Scorpions launching from the larger Dilgar vessels. The time to make a run for it was at hand. "As my great-grandfather would say, it's time to un-ass this area of operations," he announced. "Get us the hell out of here, David! Follow the beacon!"

   "Executing the 'Getting the Hell out of here' maneuver!" David replied as he furiously punched commands into the ship's helm. In response, the Isil'zha spun quickly on its axis and surged away from the encroaching Scorpions as David applied power to the engines. Both men watched in horror as the skewed hull of the Warcruiser first rippled and then finally came apart over their small ship with a metallic groan that seemed to penetrate even the spatial vacuum. "She's breaking up! We're not going to make it!" David cried as he narrowly avoided a hull plate that was blown almost directly into their path. Gouts of flame spouted from the ship above them and smaller pieces of debris peppered the hull of the Isil'zha, rattling the two men inside the ship until their teeth chattered. A hollow thump sounded through the ship, and both John and David were almost thrown from their seats as a section of the disintegrating Warcruiser was driven into them.

   "Damage?" John shouted as the sound of screeching metal followed the thump.

   "Our stern stabilizer is damaged! I can't tell how badly!" David shouted over the screeching sounds coming from the aft end of the ship. Quickly, he keyed in the self-repair subroutine and returned to piloting. "Auto repair's engaged, but I'm not sure that's going to do any good!"

   "Those Scorpions are almost on top of us! Punch it! We'll worry about the stabilizer when we hit atmosphere! Get us into the satellite field!" John hollered. Out the viewport, he could already see arcing bolts of blue energy narrowly missing them from behind…fire from the approaching Dilgar fighters.

   David was doing an admirable job of evading, but there were just too many. "Dad, they're all over us! I count twenty ships in close-in weapons range…and more closing fast!" he shouted. To punctuate his observation, the ship lurched and sparks flew from the rear cabin as one of the bolts found its mark. Outside, their small blue ship was already trailing a thin, glowing contrail as overtaxed systems vented hot gases into space. The sleek, brownish fighters trailing them homed in on the damage like jackals, trying to close the distance and dart in on their dying prey.

   "Just hold us together, son…just a little longer…" John murmured. "Just get us through the satellite field…"

   The small Ranger ship lurched again, sending a shower of sparks down onto John's head. He ducked, hunching over the control panel. Glancing back up, John thankfully noted that the old Lexington logo was still up on the screen. As long as it remained, he still had a Stellarcom link…and he could get his warning off. After that…survival. He and David had to survive. Delenn…what had Lorien told him? If he died so soon after returning…no, he wouldn't. It wouldn't happen. Delenn needed him, and David had a young woman of his own awaiting him now as well. The galaxy had far too many widows already. They would survive. They owed it to the people who loved them…

   "Your few minutes aren't going to last a few minutes at this rate! I'm doing what I can, but it's like trying to dodge raindrops in a hurricane!" David shouted as he continued to fight the ship's controls. "Whatever you're going to do, do it!"

   Glancing out the viewport, John watched the last satellite slide by. "EAS Lexington mainframe, activate!"

   "On Line."

   "Activate satellites A-1 through AB-13. At my command…Engage all in-range targets. Continuous fire."

   "Satellites A-1 through AB-13 activated. Multiple targets identified. At your command."

   John watched the sensor readout closely. The swarms of small dots trailing his ship were almost on them. He could see showers of blue energy bolts flying by outside the viewport as David feverishly manipulated the ship controls, keeping the small Ranger vessel bobbing and weaving to avoid the brunt of the assault. Finally, he saw the trailing Scorpions enter the space where he wanted them…

   "Engage!"

   Behind the Isil'zha, the battle satellites John had deactivated earlier sprang to life. The pursuing Dilgar Scorpions found themselves embroiled in a crisscrossing latticework of pulse cannon fire, ion bursts, and high energy projectile discharges that lit up the space over the whole northern hemisphere of Flynn's World. Satellites that were of limited usefulness against heavy warships proved highly effective against small, lightly armored fighters and several of the pursuers were destroyed immediately, their detonations creating obstacles for follow-on ships to avoid. A few collided with each other in their haste to dodge the new, unexpected threat. Many others were forced to break off pursuit to engage the suddenly very deadly automated weapons. The space around the now almost unrecognizable Warcruiser was lit with explosions, as the whole area became a confused mass of laser fire, spinning wreckage and dying Dilgar pilots.

   Even through the killing zone John had created with the satellites, a few Scorpions penetrated and continued to pursue. "We've still got several fighters behind us," David announced, glancing at the sensors. "They're a little farther back, but closing rapidly." Grimacing, he tried to perform a quick assessment of the damage to their ship, punching commands into the main control board and cursing as he received negative responses in return. "The stabilizer may or may not be functional…I still can't tell," he noted. "We also have damage to life support and uh, waste disposal." Looking over at his father, he managed a slight smile. "I'm glad we emptied the bilges before the Dilgar showed up, otherwise we'd be covered in shit right now. That last blast took out the ship's toilet."

   "Damn, and I had to go, too. Oh, well…we live for number one, we die for number one, as the Ranger motto says."

   "Potty humor?" David groaned. "You'd better get that transmission off. Our friends are almost on us again, and we have about twenty minutes before it starts getting cold and stale in here." As he spoke, a bright flash of light screamed by the ship, sending vibrations through the already overstressed hull. "What in the hell was that?" the younger man gasped, his father's shaky attempt at humor under fire instantly forgotten.

   "Heavy weapons, David! We bought a small lead with my satellite maneuver, so the Penetrators are trying to rein us in with their big guns! We're too small for them to target effectively, but they can slow us down so their fighters can catch up! It's not over yet! Keep the ship firewalled, and jink around a little." David nodded, his expression grim and John turned back to the comm panel where the EAS Lexington's logo was still displayed. "EAS Lexington mainframe, establish Stellarcom channel. Transmission to Sector 120, station 111…frequency 117.2."

   "Establishing link to specified location. Carrier signal received. WARNING: Receiving location is in territory occupied by a hostile power. Do you wish to terminate?"

   "A hostile power?" David asked as he wrestled to keep the ship on beacon and warily watched the approaching Scorpions.

   "When I left this equipment here, the Minbari Federation was a hostile power," John pointed out. Keying a switch he addressed the AI on the planet's surface. "Negative. I'm exercising command override, code word Obsidian. Complete establishing the link."

   "Real-time mode cannot be established. Error code 404…incompatible real-time transmission and reception software. Signal encoding capabilities at sending station are inadequate. For further assistance, please contact the helpdesk or your administrator."

   "Dammit, you're not going to make this easy for me, are you?" John muttered disgustedly at the screen, just as the ship was pinwheeled by another close heavy gun burst. He was trying to make a forty year-old Earthforce transmitter interface directly with a state of the art Minbari receiver, and the older machine was balking. "Is messaging mode available?"

   "Affirmative. Message will be received and logged for download at receiving station. Specify addressee."

   "Susan Ivanova." Silently, John prayed that she didn't require a password to leave a message.

   The machine went quiet. John could almost hear the AI thinking as it sorted through the addressees available at the receiving end. Finally, just as the reincarnated Entil'zha was ready to put his fist through the screen in frustration, it seemed to find the right one. "Addressee messaging system located. Send message."

   Another bright flash momentarily blanked out the viewport, and the ship was rocked violently. Almost simultaneously, the hull began to groan as small vibrations rattled up through her struts. "I don't mean to pressure you, Dad, but hurry the hell up," David muttered through gritted teeth. "They're moving one of those ugly-ass Penetrators in to try to cut us off and we're starting to bounce off the atmosphere."

   "Got it." John replied. Turning to face the screen, he composed himself and said, "Susan, I hope you get this message soon, because we've got problems. The Dilgar are at Flynn's World…I repeat, the Dilgar are at Flynn's World. They're here, and they're here in force. They destroyed the Wind Sword Warcruiser and they were waiting for us. David and I have counted at least three Armada Penetrators at this location, they've found us and they're in pursuit…"

   As John spoke, the Isil'zha was struck a glancing blow fired from the guns of the closest Penetrator. The force of the blast blew John from his seat as the ship inverted, tossing everything not secured around the cabin. Sparks and flames spouted from several recessed panels, and several bulkheads began to buckle under the strain of dissipating so much free energy. Soft warning klaxons began sounding across the small compartment as the ship's self-repair subroutines continued trying to fix failed systems. Through it all, David managed to maintain his seat, struggling valiantly to right the ship. "Automatic course correction has failed and we've lost our vertical thrusters! Navigation has failed! Primary weapons are off-line and the hull is starting to buckle!"

   "Just stay on the beacon, David!" John groaned. "It isn't the fall that'll get us, it's the sudden stop at the end!" Crawling back to his seat, John put his hand to his forehead and glanced at it as he pulled it away. He was bleeding, and he felt a little groggy. Looking back at the screen, he struggled to finish the transmission. "I'm…transmitting the data we collected…the vids and sensor readings…" His voice rising a few octaves, he concluded, "David and I are…trying for the surface…the colony. You…have to alert the Alliance, alert Delenn. Susan…I think I know what they're after…look for us in Moria. Understand? The Lexington's logs…look at my logs! They're in my office at the compound! May 2249, got it? We'll see you when we see you." Raising his hand in the Ranger salute, he closed with, "Tell Delenn I love her, and not to worry. We'll survive. Tell her to have faith."

   "And tell Ardenn!" David shouted.

   "And Ardenn also," John repeated, glancing over at his son and forcing a smile he didn't feel as he terminated the transmission.

   Farther away, one of the Penetrators detected the transmission as it was beamed from the surface of the planet. Adjusting its position, the Dilgar captain shifted his weapons systems to ground bombardment mode and fired two missile salvos at a small point on the ground hundreds of kilometers away. The missiles streaked towards their target at near relativistic velocity. On the ground near the shattered dome of what was once a thriving Earth colony, a small trailer and the large dish antenna adjacent to it were vaporized in a bright flash of light.

   Anyone watching the Isil'zha's descent into the planet's atmosphere from above would have seen a hot, yellow streak slowly descending into a white background, leaving a smoking contrail that seemed to cut across half the planet. The pursuing Scorpions, not configured for atmospheric flight, broke off their attack and began returning to their mother ships.

   "Our friends are gone but we're in bad fucking shape…" David muttered as he tried to reroute damaged systems to other relays. The ship's cabin was filling with smoke, and both he and John were coughing as the acrid stench of burning insulation and fried circuitry wafted through the living spaces. "Our drive is failing, life support is out…navigation is shot…the atmospheric control surfaces are flapping in the breeze…"

   "We got our warning off, David, that's what counts. We did our duty, now we can worry about ourselves." John replied as he coughed. "Have you still got the beacon?"

   "Yeah…uh, yeah. But I'm having a hell of a time staying on it. Our stabilizer is barely hanging on, and we'll be flying dead-stick if our drive cuts out." Glancing over at his father, he said, "Have you ever flown one of these scouts without engine power?"

   "No."

   "Neither have I. Let's hope that she can glide, and that my fingers are as magic as I said they were."

   "They are. That was an impressive bit of flying you did back there." Looking out the viewport, John saw that they had descended into a mountain pass. Snow-capped peaks seemed to rise out of a greenish haze as the ship rapidly dumped forward velocity. "We're getting close. We should be able to see…there it is!"

   "There what is?" David asked, straining to see over his father's shoulder.

   "The colony's habitat dome…or what's left of it."

   John pointed, and in the distance David saw sunlight glinting off the shattered panels of what had once been a large plexisteel environmental shield. "That's our destination, son…actually, our destination is a little ways up that mountain just to the north of the colony. The mine."

   David was about to reply when the low hum that had been their constant companion for over three days abruptly ceased. Both he and John were thrown off balance as the gravitic drive and, by default, the ship's artificial gravity, finally shorted out. The Isil'zha began descending far more rapidly than she had been before. "Get to your seat and strap in!" David barked. "We're flying dead-stick now. I'll get us as close as I can and try to get us down in one piece."

   Just as both men were hastily fastening their harnesses, the sound of groaning metal echoed from the rear of the ship. On David's control board, the few remaining green and yellow indicators turned red and the ship lurched. The young man glanced hurriedly at his father, his green eyes wide. "That was the stabilizer tearing loose!" he shouted as the ship abruptly nosed down and began spiraling to the ground below. "We're totally out of control! Hold on! This is going to be a rough one!"

   John barely had time to glance out the viewport again as the ground rushed up to meet them. <Flynn's World…I knew there was a reason I swore I was never coming back here…>

   David Sheridan was jarred violently when the ship impacted. Everything seemed to move in slow motion. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw his father tear free from his harness and slam into the shattering comm screen to his front even as he was torn from his harness also. He glimpsed the navigational control board as he was propelled into it…and then a crushing blackness overcame him…

   

   ***

   "Delenn, are you ready to go?" Susan called out as she walked down the entrance hall of the presidential quarters. "Delenn? Where are you?"

   Getting no answer, Susan began checking rooms as she walked. With cursory glances in the kitchen and dining room, she continued into the family rooms and passed down the corridor that led to the balcony. Expecting to find her friend perched on her bench, she paused at the archway and peeked out. Still no Delenn…it was a beautiful day outside but the bench was unoccupied. Backtracking to the hallway, she made her way towards Delenn's bedroom, thinking that perhaps she was taking a nap. As she walked past the door of what had been Ardenn's room until three days prior, she paused and glanced in curiously. Everything within was just as the young Minbari had left it…neat and tidy, as if Delenn's aide and would-be daughter had merely gone on a short trip rather than leaving permanently. As she stood in Ardenn's doorway, she looked back over her shoulder at the adjoining door to Delenn's bedroom and called out, "Hello? Delenn? Are you in there? Are you decent?"

   "I am…most of the time," Delenn murmured from right behind her, a touch of amusement in her voice.

   Susan startled and spun around at the sound of the voice, chagrined that her friend had slipped up behind her without her noticing. "God, don't do that to me…I was about to call security. Didn't you hear me calling?"

   "I apologize. I did not mean to startle you. I heard you, but I was in the middle of some research and I wanted to finish before your presence pulled me away from it." Smiling, she added, "As for my decency level, John might debate you about that, but if you were asking if I am dressed appropriately then the answer is yes."

   Susan looked her friend over. She had discovered over the years that Delenn was a meticulous person and left little to chance. Even the choice of her clothes from day to day was meant to convey messages to those around her. For her meeting with Irilenn, Delenn had dressed conservatively, a simple white inner robe and a sky-blue outer one. The symbology in this wasn't hard to figure out. Delenn planned to approach her mother as an equal, but an opposite. "Research, huh? Alone in your bedroom?" Susan queried, cocking her head and raising an eyebrow. "John's only been gone a few days. You're way too disciplined to get that desperate that fast."

   "Why is it always 'sex, sex, sex' with you humans?" Delenn retorted with mock-annoyance. "In the morning when you awaken, your first thought is about sex. You daydream about it as you perform your daily tasks. In the evening, you go to sleep and dream about it. It amazes me that your race is as productive and advanced as it is when most of your people are always so…so preoccupied. Even my husband falls prey to this…obsession…on occasion. How did John put it to me? Ah, yes…he said that it was 'high time we got Susan laid before she busts'." Crooking a finger under her chin, she knitted her brow ridge in puzzlement and murmured, "Or did he say 'bursts'?"

   "He said that, huh?" Susan muttered darkly, already running through potential revenge scenarios involving her well-meaning but loose-tongued former CO. "He actually had the stones to insinuate that I need a good screwing?"

   "Yes, he did, although he stated it much less parochially," Delenn brightly replied.

   "Does the big stud intend to take care of this task himself?" Susan sarcastically countered, "Or did he get really imaginative and sign you up for a three-way?"

   "A polygamous encounter between the three of us? That would be imaginative indeed…" Putting her finger back to her chin, Delenn furrowed her brow ridge and pretended to consider the idea. "Well, the number 'three' is sacred among my people, this is true…and we are very close already…" she muttered seemingly to herself, inwardly smiling at the shocked expression spreading across her friend's face. Falling silent, she held Susan in suspense for a moment, amusedly wondering what her human companion would say if she proved receptive to the suggestion. Not that she would…it was not the Minbari way, at least not the way of the Religious and Worker castes, and Susan knew it. Deciding that she had 'messed with Susan's mind' long enough, Delenn let her outspoken friend off the hook. "No…" she muttered, shaking her head slightly, "I think John likely is too old to realistically harbor that adolescent fantasy. As for me…I love you, Sister of my Heart, but I know myself well enough to acknowledge that I am a possessive and jealous woman where my husband's affections are concerned. I would take no pleasure participating in a joining that involves John mating with any female other than me. He is mine alone and I do not share."

   "Well, that blows Ivanova nookie scenario number two," Susan chuckled. Delenn glared at her and Susan backed off, putting her hands up in surrender. "Just a joke, Delenn…don't beat me, I was only kidding."

   "Noo'kie? You humans and your euphemisms…" the Minbari woman muttered under her breath. Shaking her head, she said, "I hesitate to inquire as to who or what your, uh…'Noo'kie'…scenario number one involves. It is probably better that I not know." Brightening, she added, "But it is of no matter. If you find my John attractive, I know you well enough to not feel threatened by it. Your good taste is an affirmation of my good taste. Still, even though his statement was made in jest, I have found that my husband is fond of dispensing wisdom under the veil of humor. Therefore, I have given his words some consideration."

   "What, exactly, do you mean by 'consideration'?" Susan uncertainly replied, suddenly on her guard. Delenn had that annoying mischievous twinkle in her eyes that usually meant her human friend was in for something.

   Delenn smiled and reached into her outer robe, extracting a data pad from the folds. "While the making of matches is not a skill that I have cultivated over the cycles, I see the necessity of assisting you in maintaining your equilibrium as John has indicated. As it is beneficial to the Alliance to have you at optimal performance, I have compiled a list of potentially suitable…"

   "Stop. Hold on a minute," Susan interjected. "This was your research? Finding me a…a GUY?"

   "No…not really," the Minbari woman answered innocently. "As I am aware that you have evidenced a preference for 'Fal sala a'othla'cha' occasionally, I took the liberty of including several like-minded females as well." With a flourish, she handed Susan the data pad and added, "Perhaps I was a little…ah, presumptuous, but I thought it best to provide you a broad sampling."

   "Fal sala a'othla'cha, eh? Personally, I prefer to call it 'expanding my horizons'." Taking the data pad, Susan glanced at the names…curious to see whom her Minbari friend would consider 'suitable' for her despite her slight annoyance. As she scrolled through the list, she was surprised to note that Delenn actually did have pretty good taste…both ways. "Oh…he's a good choice," she murmured, pausing at one of the names. "I've seen him in denn'bok training a couple of times…ahem." Susan breasted the pad as Delenn tried to look at the candidate. "No peeking."

   Chagrined, Delenn looked away. "I apologize…this was probably not the best advised activity I have undertaken..."

   "Uh…well," Susan said slowly. "Look, Delenn…I appreciate the help but if this is what you've been up to for three days, you obviously have cabin fever. I knew I should've come over and checked on you earlier. I thought you'd be trying to figure out what to do regarding Ardenn."

   "Ardenn's situation is what I have really been researching, Susan," Delenn replied with a smile. "Your list was just a side project I thought of to take my mind off my little family's absence…" Her expression becoming guardedly curious, she continued, "…and the nagging fact that no one seems to think it important that I be told their…um, precise destination?"

   "You're fishing for information, aren't you?"

   "Have I become so obvious in my old age?" Delenn sighed. Absently rubbing the back of her neck, she continued, "My people have a saying, Susan. 'Ner'is a vash'hana ter'es'. Translated into English, it would be nonsense, but it roughly coincides with the Human idiom, 'Bad news does not grow better with age'. Should I be expecting bad news, old friend?"

   "I don't know," Susan replied with a shrug. "Do you remember ever keeping your husband out of the loop when he was President and you were Anla'Shok Na?" Turning, she walked into Ardenn's room and absently fingered the coverlet on her bed. Delenn remained in the doorway, silently watching, so Susan answered for her. "I believe the word you're looking for is 'yes', Delenn." Continuing around the bed, she picked up a small, framed picture and eyed it. It was a photograph of David and Ardenn. The young Minbari had her arms around David's neck and was gazing unabashedly up at him, her eyes dancing and a smile on her lips. "This is a beautiful picture, a happy picture," Susan murmured under her breath as she set it back in its place. Turning back to her friend, she continued, "The answer is 'yes' and you were probably entirely justified in doing it. Its called 'deniability', Delenn, and I know that you understand the necessity of a leader having plausible deniability as an option from time to time. I've asked John to undertake a sensitive mission that could have negative political ramifications were it to become common knowledge."

   "Negative political ramifications for the Alliance? Or for me personally?"

   "Both," Susan sighed. "Delenn…you're a good, honorable person and I love you, but you do have a few skeletons in your closet. John and I want them to stay there. Because of that, I don't want you having too many details, and John agreed with my reasons. Should the bad news you seem to be worried about materialize, I want you to be able to stand in front of ISN and the Alliance Advisory Council and, with a clear conscience, say that you hid nothing while you rebuke me for not informing you about this."

   Delenn smiled at her friend, but it was a smile without mirth. "Skeletons in our closets. We all have those skeletons, Susan. You more than anyone should know that."

   "I do, but then again, I'm not the President of the Interstellar Alliance. I have nothing to lose should my skeletons choose an inopportune time to spring to life and say 'howdy, remember me?' as they pop out of that closet. I always have my mail-order bartender school training to fall back on. You don't have that option."

   Delenn remorsefully ran through her potential 'skeletons' in her mind, and found that the list was distressingly long. "It is strange, is it not?" she muttered darkly. "Emperor Mollari once said that we either seem to have no power and all the choices in the world, or absolute power and no choices at all. I have lived the one, and now I live the other." Snorting at her suddenly dark train of thought, she continued, "From time to time it has come to my attention that some believe me to be the single most powerful person in known space. Yet I find that with all this 'power' I supposedly have I cannot even prevent my own mother from stealing away the daughter of my heart and I cannot force my closest friend to tell me where my husband and son are."

   "That isn't necessarily a bad thing, Delenn. Understanding the limitations of power is a mark of good, responsible leadership. People in your position…you have to govern yourselves, because there's no one above you to do it. On Earth we have a saying, 'Absolute power corrupts absolutely', and it's true…even for people like you. The mere fact that you can set limits on yourself and acknowledge them tells me that you're a leader worth following."

   "I know absolute power, Susan. I knew it before I was ready to," Delenn whispered. Walking into the room, she sat down on the stool in front of Ardenn's mirror and gazed at her reflection forlornly. "There was a time, Susan…" she sadly whispered, "…there was a time before the Alliance, before David, when John would not have thought twice about taking me with him. A time when we were simply two people in love and the galaxy would have continued to turn if we both disappeared. I understand why accompanying him is impossible now, but it does not keep me from…from missing that sense of shared adventure. I had choices then, but now…now my choices are made and no one wants to play with me anymore. John now has David to stand beside him where I once stood and I get left at home to worry…alone and forgotten."

   Susan came up behind her friend and placed her hands on her shoulders. "No one has forgotten you, sweetheart…certainly John hasn't. Times change, but I think you have a ways to go yet before David replaces you," she murmured. "I know that you're lonely…that you miss John, David and Ardenn. I know that you're still readjusting and you weren't ready for John to start taking on missions yet. I didn't want to send him, Delenn, but I didn't have a choice. Now…you've been rattling around in here alone for three days. I wasn't kidding about that case of cabin fever. You've got it and it's making you morose."

   "I know," Delenn replied huskily, placing one of her hands over Susan's. "John would not have gone had he not found your reasoning sound. He would not have left me here alone had he not thought your mission sufficiently important." Looking away from the mirror, Delenn's eye fell on Ardenn's wastebasket. Glancing in, she saw a small pile of whitish flakes and dust at the bottom. Chuckling softly, she changed the subject and murmured, "Ardenn…she blunted her crest before she left…I had not even noticed…"

   "Uh, excuse me?"

   "When we take mates we file down our crests," Delenn explained, shaking the contents of the wastebasket out into her hand. "In our society, rounded crest edges and blunted points are one way of telling when a female has become sexually active. This is all that remains of Ardenn's points and sharp edges. She did this to protect David's hands while he was making love to her." Looking back up at her friend, she cocked her head and said, "Surely you must have noticed that my crest changed from time to time after my transformation? During the Chrysalis, almost all of my points and edges crumbled away, and I was afraid that the whole Minbari population of Babylon 5 would think me a…a loose woman as well as a human. Within a year, what remained of my crest thankfully grew sharp again…just in time for me to blunt it voluntarily as soon as John and I began the joining rituals."

   "It's not something I would have known to look for, but it makes sense."

   Letting the flakes and dust trickle through her fingers back into the wastebasket, Delenn observed, "Now that she has filed her points once, Ardenn will need to do so regularly if she desires that they stay that way. Because we have so many sensitive nerve endings in the crest, it is not a particularly comfortable undertaking. I would imagine that it is somewhat like…removing undesirable body hair? An annoying but necessary aspect of being female." Delenn paused, put her hands on her knees and rose from the stool. "That reminds me…I was going to tell you of my research. Follow me."

   "We don't have a lot of time to spare, Delenn…" Susan began as her friend took her hand and led her towards her bedroom. "We don't want to be late for the meeting with Irilenn."

   "Yes, we do," Delenn corrected. "I want to be precisely thirty minutes late."

   "Why?"

   "Because we are expected to be punctual. It is our way." Pausing between the rooms, Delenn turned to Susan and continued, "As you know, in my society symbolic gestures…gestures that would seem unimportant to most humans…can have great meaning. Intentional tardiness is considered a mild rebuke. By arriving precisely thirty minutes late, I can convey my displeasure about Ardenn's treatment without causing any great offense on Irilenn's part. If we were to arrive any sooner, she might assume our tardiness to be the result of a chance delay. Any later and it would insult her. I do not wish to insult the Mistress of the Sisters of Valeria, but I want her to have no doubt that she is dealing with an influential person who is…what is that human idiom? Oh, yes…pissed off. She will understand."

   Susan quickly glanced at the chronometer built into her link. "Okay…uh, if you want to be thirty minutes late, we have to be leaving in about…how about that? Thirty minutes. Go figure…your time sense is excellent."

   "One does not advance as far as I have in my society through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, Susan…or through walking into situations blind." Taking the human woman's hand again, Delenn led her into her bedroom.

   Susan glanced around the room and opened her mouth in surprise. Delenn's normally tidy sleeping chamber was littered with bookpads and ancient-looking scrolls. They were everywhere…some were bound and leaning in corners, some were unrolled across her bed. Old books…the paper kind…were stacked on her dressing table alongside a bowl of unidentified brownish goo. Several other bowls were stacked unceremoniously behind it. Susan picked up the bowl and sniffed at it curiously. "What's this? Some sort of Minbari incense?"

   "No, it was my lunch. Ice cream…fudge ripple, I believe."

   "Oh. Well, at least you're getting one of the four food groups while John's gone." Susan sighed. "Delenn, when we finish in Yedor, you're coming home with me. John will kill me when he comes back and finds out that I let his wife survive off ice cream while he was gone. You need to eat."

   "I have not survived solely off human dairy products," Delenn weakly countered. "There are several bowls of…of flarn in that stack of dishes, but first things first, as your people say. The research."

   "Ice cream and flarn. Ugh! And to think I was worried about you for a minute there. Silly me…" Susan muttered under her breath, rolling her eyes as her stomach clenched. <Best just to let it go…> "Okay, the research. What is all of this stuff anyway?"

   "Records," Delenn indicated, waving her arm at the assembled documents. "The scrolls come from the archives of the Grey Council and from those of my clan. Some of the other materials are newer…Minbari and human texts on genetics, including several papers written by Doctor Franklin concerning Minbari physiology."

   "Okay…and this has to do with Ardenn…how? I don't see the link."

   "Children of Valen, Susan. That is the key, I am convinced."

   "Children of Valen? You mean Jeff's descendants…people like you."

   "Yes, people like me…and Ardenn. She is one of us also." Hastening to explain, Delenn continued, "Three days ago, I sat down and listed everything I knew about Ardenn…her origins, her background, how she came to be here, what kind of person she is…that kind of information. About her origins, I know little. She is an orphan, she was born in Yedor during the Civil War of 2261, and the Sisters found her…specifically Irilenn, with a young attendant from Tuzanor, Vadenn, as an onlooker. Sister Vadenn told me that Irilenn took Ardenn away from her dead mother, which leads me to believe that Irilenn possibly knows more about Ardenn's family than she has divulged."

   "How do you figure that?"

   "Because Irilenn would have had to be physically co-located with Ardenn's mother to take her away. If nothing else, Irilenn would have been able to tell from the remains what caste the child was…either through clothing or the mother's crest pattern, yet she did not. Instead, the baby Ardenn was apparently sent to the Tuzanor Chapter House with Vadenn at the conclusion of the war."

   "Why, Delenn? It seems to me that the Main Temple in Yedor would've been much closer and more convenient. Why put a newborn through the long trip when your main facility is right there in town?"

   "Exactly, Susan. 'Why' is the crux of the matter. If Ardenn were truly unidentified, sending her to Tuzanor makes no sense at all. She should have been kept in Yedor, as that was the most likely place any surviving relatives would look. If, however, one wished for some reason to…retain…a child whose family was known, it makes perfect sense to send the child halfway around the planet. No surviving clan members would think to look there." Sighing, the Minbari woman concluded, "I do not doubt that Ardenn's parents are dead. I do not believe Irilenn would have taken her if they were still alive. However, I have come to believe that Ardenn was spirited away from Yedor to keep other relatives from locating and recovering her."

   Tapping her chin with a knuckle, Susan furrowed her brows and asked, "Would surviving family look that hard for a child who wasn't even born when the civil war started?"

   "Oh, absolutely," Delenn replied. "Children are precious to us, Susan. Our population is declining and infant mortality rates are high. Each child lengthens the life of the clan into which he or she is born. They are Isil'zha. Even in a clan as large as mine, pregnant females are closely watched. Ardenn's parent's clan leaders would have known that her mother was close to birth. After the fighting ended, they would have inquired at the Main Temple about newborn children even if they knew her parents were deceased. They would also have searched the places of healing…the hospitals."

   "So Ardenn probably has a clan after all. That's good to know, but where does that get us now?"

   "In and of itself, nowhere," Delenn muttered disappointedly. "That was then, but it leads back to the 'why?' you asked about. Assuming I am generally correct, why would Irilenn keep a child whose family could possibly be located? The Order is not short of people. Many young females voluntarily enter the Sisterhood as Attendants even if most do not stay on to become Sisters. What would make Ardenn important enough for Irilenn to risk censure by the Grey Council to keep her?"

   "Censure?"

   "Yes. If Ardenn's clan discovered that one of their children was improperly taken and hidden away, they could lodge a grievance. Because Irilenn is of the Sisters, she does not fall under the…jurisdiction? Yes, jurisdiction of the Council of Clans. A complaint against her or the Sisterhood would have to go before the Grey Council itself."

   "Okay…but censure doesn't sound particularly damning. It sounds more like a slap on the wrist. What could the Grey Council do?"

   "It is not so much what they could do, Susan…the power of the censure would come from the fact that it would be unprecedented. No Mistress has been censured in the history of the Council. Were it to happen, I doubt that Irilenn could stay on as Mistress of the Order with that kind of stain on her integrity. She would probably have to step down…but I digress. As I was saying, the only 'special' reason for retaining Ardenn I can determine is that she is a Child of Valen…hence, the collected scholarship you see here. Everything I could find in the archives concerning the Children of Valen."

   "Correct me if I'm wrong, but I was under the impression that Children of Valen were uncommon, but not particularly rare. If censure is as damaging as you make it sound, would one Child of Valen newborn be worth risking it?"

   "Ah! This is where I made my breakthrough, old friend…" Delenn answered happily, her fingers scurrying over the scrolls. "Now where did I put it?" she muttered as she combed through the documents. Finally, her hands settled on a particularly dusty scroll. "Here we are…" Pursing her lips, she read quickly and said, "At first, I would have answered 'no' to your question…but I have since come across additional information. I used to believe that those among us who carry human genes had them in varying degrees, some having more than others. We have had over one thousand years to dilute Valen's strain through interbreeding, so anyone who is a Child of Valen in this day and age should carry very little of his influence…"

   "But now?"

   "But I was wrong, Susan. It appears that the genetic string inherited from Valen breeds more or less true to each succeeding generation. Simply put, each Child of Valen passes the human genetic string on to his or her offspring unbroken. Thus, a normal Child of Valen today carries roughly as much human genetic material as Valen's own grandchildren did. Almost every Child of Valen carries a dominant Minbari genetic strain inherited from a full Minbari parent along with a recessive Minbari strain interlaced with a human genetic string inherited from a parent of Valen's lineage."

   "I think I heard an 'almost' in there somewhere, Delenn, and you're looking awfully proud of yourself…so I take it there's more."

   "You did, I am, and there is," Delenn answered with a smile. "I did say 'almost', Susan, and it was very perceptive of you to note it. As I said, the human genetic string embedded in the recessive Minbari strain always breeds true…in any conception between Minbari, the parent who is a Child of Valen always passes it on to his or her child. What do you suppose would happen if the line of Valen merged again at some point…if two Children of Valen came together and produced offspring?

   "Both parents would pass on the recessive genes and the child would have two human strings. They would have double the number of human genes that a normal Child of Valen has. A child like that…would be half human?"

   "Oh, no…not even close to half," Delenn clarified. "The recessive strains are still far more Minbari than human. An estimate of five percent human would be a closer approximation, but five percent is extremely significant when you consider that even 'pure' humans and 'pure' Minbari are genetically close to begin with. One human string alone was sufficient to turn me into the person you see before you." Getting back to her explanation, she continued, "According to the few texts that allude to them, children such as these are known as 'kas'Valen'… 'Double Valens' or 'doublets', for lack of a better translation." Casting the scroll she was holding aside, Delenn glanced about looking for something else. Spying the data pad she was looking for, she reached over and picked it up. "There is no mention of any 'kas'Valen' children actually being born…most of the texts only discuss them in the abstract. It has only been in the past few hundred years that the population of Children of Valen expanded enough to make the likelihood of two meeting and conceiving children together a significant possibility. A study commissioned by my Mentor before his death concluded that any 'kas'Valen' children would have such a high concentration of Valen's genes that their likelihood of survival beyond a few days would be slim if they were born alive at all. Given these two facts, any doublet child born alive and healthy would be so rare as to almost be unique. A 'true' Child of Valen, as much so as one of his own natural children…a living child like that might be worth much, perhaps worth…risking censure?"

   "Fascinating, Delenn…but you're making a huge assumption if you think Ardenn might be one of these doublets. You're assuming that the Sisterhood would recognize her as such when they found her, first of all. Unless Ardenn was genetically tested, how would they know?"

   "The Sisters of Valeria have one of the Triluminaries, Susan. It would tell them, just as it did with me." Tapping the data pad in the palm of her hand, she added, "Also, that study Dukhat commissioned? He asked none other than the Sisters of Valeria to conduct it." Placing the data pad back on the dressing table, Delenn sighed and said, "Gathering the data likely was no simple task. Unlike your people, Minbari do not perform childhood genetic testing routinely. It is considered an invasion of privacy to violate the body for the necessary sample. A few cursory tests are done at birth to check for the more obvious defects and disease susceptibilities, but that is all. I did not receive a full gene scan until I was an adult, when Doctor Franklin requested one. He was attempting to establish a baseline Minbari physiological type before my transformation, and he asked me to participate in the study."

   "And the presence of human genes didn't alert him?"

   "Humans and Minbari are not especially different. Genetically speaking, we are almost the same species...unusual for races that evolved on different worlds. We share many combinations naturally. Neither Stephen nor I had any reason to assume that I was not a full Minbari at the time and, as I was the person he used to establish his baseline, his results were skewed without either of us realizing it."

   "Okay, so Ardenn has no genetic workup available to us. Where do we stand?"

   "To identify a Child of Valen requires only a Triluminary, but to determine the exact extent of human gene integration in a Child of Valen requires a fairly extensive genetic sample. Without Ardenn here to provide that sample, we have no way of proving any of what I just told you."

   Susan knuckled her chin and mulled it over for a moment, her brows knitting. Turning to Delenn, she said, "Do you think a garbage can full of bonecrest shavings would be enough?"

   Delenn looked at her blankly for a moment before a slow smile spread across her face. "Sister of my Heart, I knew that there was a reason other than your gentle nature and subtle wit that I keep you near me." Dashing excitedly into Ardenn's room, Delenn returned with the wastebasket. "Do you suppose we can have this analyzed somewhere before we arrive in Yedor?"

   "It's a six-hour flight to Yedor, and a full gene scan at a human facility takes about four hours, if I remember correctly. I can have one of your Ranger detail take the flakes to the base medical facility. Coupled with a fair amount of presidential interest, I think they'll put a rush on the analysis."

   "Very well. Do it."

   Susan rose and summoned one of Delenn's security Rangers, passing him the wastebasket and giving him instructions. As he left, she turned back to her friend, who was checking herself in the mirror and tucking a data pad in her robe. "You know, Delenn," Susan observed, "even if the tests confirm what you suspect, they still won't answer the question of 'why' the Sisterhood is doing all of this…this manipulation of that poor girl. There's another angle to this that we haven't identified yet."

   "True, but even knowing this much puts me in a stronger position when meeting with Irilenn," the Minbari replied as she straightened her robe. "If the tests come back negative, I am in no worse position than I would have been otherwise. If they come back positive, I will be in the position of knowing more than Irilenn thinks I know. That is a good position in which to be, do you not agree?" With a final quick brush of her hair, Delenn turned to her friend. "I think we have expended our thirty minutes. It would not do to keep Irilenn waiting any longer…she and I have so much to discuss, so much more than I initially thought. Shall we go?"

   

   ***

   "Breathe, dammit! That's it David…just suck it in," his father whispered urgently to him. David coughed and spasmed, his eyes snapping open with panic. He was back on board the Isil'zha, or what was left of it, and John was standing over him, a breather on his face. Groggy and confused, David struggled again as the wild thought that his father was trying to suffocate him flashed through his brain.

   "Dammit! Stop fighting me, son! Breathe!" the older man exclaimed. "Come on, wake up! We don't have much time! Dilgar assault teams will be here any minute! I've already seen the contrails from some of their drop ships!"

   The mention of the Dilgar snapped David back to full wakefulness. He also realized that his dad wasn't trying to suffocate him…he was holding a breather similar to the one he was wearing to his face. "You have to wear this, David. The atmosphere here isn't completely safe…"

   "Mmmph…whatthefuck? Wait…Dad…" David began, trying to both regain his equilibrium and figure out what was going on. "Wha…what happened?"

   "You managed to get us down in one piece, David," John replied as he glanced around. "You were knocked out for a couple of minutes. Don't you remember?"

   "Yeah…uh, yeah…it's coming back to me," David stammered uncertainly as he reached up and replaced his father's hand over the breather with his own. Sitting up slowly, he pulled the straps of the mask around his head and held it a moment to stop the spinning sensation he felt. "Uh…how's the ship?"

   "A total loss. She'll never fly again."

   "Shit…two ships in three months," David muttered, resting his elbows on his knees and looking disgustedly at the sparking wreckage that had once been the tiny ship's bridge. "Well, so much for getting my insurance at the 'safe driver' rate…"

   "You did a good job, son, and we're alive," John countered as he began rummaging around in the debris. Digging out a rucksack, he hurriedly added, "We'll worry about your driving record when we have time. Right now, I'm worried about the assholes that are about to drop in on us. Can you walk?"

   "If it's the difference between being free and staring down a gun barrel, I can fly."

   "Good," the older man said as he stuffed items into the rucksack. David watched as his father grabbed insta-heats, extra filters for the breathers, glowlights, water and a set of binoculars. "Son, dig out the PPGs, they're in the aft cabin. Grab a cold weather suit and get into it. You're going to need it."

   The younger man rushed to comply, hastily moving to the rear of the ship and removing the necessary items from a locker. He tossed a PPG and some spare energy caps to his father and began pulling on the thick leggings and parka of the cold weather suit. "How long do you think we have?" he asked as he dressed.

   "Ten…fifteen minutes tops…" John replied, trailing off as he heard an engine whine in the distance. "Shit, that one's setting down close…five, ten minutes tops. Are you ready?"

    "Are you kidding me? Let's go!" David exclaimed as he keyed the hatch. Nothing happened. Hastily, he keyed it again. "We're stuck!"

   "Use the hand crank, David! We don't have any power, remember?"

   "Uh…yeah, the hand crank…sorry," David repeated as he grabbed the mechanical lever, feeling stupid all of a sudden. Turning furiously, he watched as the hatch creaked up…far too slowly. Finally, just as the muscles in his arms were starting to scream, the hatch locked into the 'open' position.

   John practically shoved the young man out of the ship. The two tumbled out onto frozen tundra littered with rocky outcroppings. Grabbing David by the collar, John pointed in the general direction of a mountain rising from the plain that appeared to be a few kilometers distant. "We're going that way," he breathed. Without warning, John jerked his son up under one of the twisted, broken wings of the Isil'zha as a low rumble sounded in the distance.

   "What's that?" David whispered, instinctively huddling up further under the wing as the sound steadily approached.

   "Dilgar drop ship," John grunted, risking a glance out from under their temporary refuge. "It's coming in fast and low…probably to get a quick visual on the damage before setting down." Glancing around quickly, John relaxed a little. "Unless the pilot is a damn fool, he's not going to try to set down here. There's not enough room on this plateau. There going to have to go in about a kilometer down the ridgeline."

   "Well, let's get out of here then." David replied, starting to move. John held up a hand and stilled him.

   "Not yet. Let them get their look first. They can't see us under here…maybe they'll think we're dead or too badly injured to move."

   "Now that you mention it," David observed, eyeing his father closely for the first time since their abrupt arrival, "you do look pretty beat up." It was true. John had caked blood down the side of his face from a nasty gash in the forehead he'd received in the crash. It looked like his nose had bled, as well, and his lip was split. "We'll have to get you cleaned up before we head home, or Mother will think you've been in a bar fight…and come out on the losing end."

   "You don't look so good yourself," John replied with a slight chuckle as he looked his son over. The younger Sheridan had a huge knot on his head from where he had struck the control board in the crash, and one of his eyes was swollen and already starting to blacken. "Ardenn…excuse me, Sister Ardenn is going to be hanging Minbari liniments all over you when she sees you again."

   Holding up his hand again to silence the retort forming on his son's lips, John listened again. The whine of the Dilgar drop ship's engine began to fade as the troop carrier passed over the lip of the plateau, searching for a place to set down. "Now's our chance. Head for that mountain I showed you. We've got to get as far from the ship as possible. This is the first place they'll look."

   David pulled a small remote transmitter from his pocket and keyed a series of numbers into it before tucking the device away. "Good," he replied as they began to move. "I'm counting on it."

   The two men alternately ran and jogged for about thirty minutes, near-featureless landscape sliding by slowly before David spoke again. Pointing to a rocky outcrop a slight distance ahead of them, he said, "We need to stop for a minute. Over there."

   "You're not tired already, are you son?" John breathed beside him. "You and Ardenn only slept together once…and she wore you out that much? Minbari stamina is pretty impressive, but with your Ranger training you should be able to hold this pace for a lot longer."

   "Funny. No I'm not tired, and even if I were, I wouldn't let an old geezer like you outpace me. Just get over behind those rocks."

   His son had something in mind, John realized. Without further discussion, he did as David asked. When they were hidden, David said, "Okay, Dad…pass me those binos you took from the ship." His father passed him the binoculars, and the young man hung them around his neck and then pulled the transmitter from his pocket. Setting it on the rocks beside them, he raised the binoculars to his eyes.

   Through the eyepieces, he looked back the way they had come. On the horizon, a bluish lump marked the final resting-place of the good ship Isil'zha. While continuing to watch the ship, he asked, "How many Dilgar troops can one of those drop ships carry?"

   "About fifteen, fully outfitted."

   David nodded in acknowledgement and continued to scan for a moment. Presently, he saw what he was waiting for. The young Ranger could see humanoid figures…heavily armed humanoids…approaching the ship. "Okay…" he whispered, "I've got eleven…no, thirteen that I can see." Reaching down, he retrieved the remote. "Ah…there you are…in the ship, were you? Good. Sorry that you caught me in such a bad mood. See you in hell." Glancing down at his father, he muttered, "Cover your ears," before flipping up the safety catch on the remote and keying a red toggle switch.

   John saw the explosion about three seconds before he heard it. One moment, there was a distant blue speck on the horizon…and then there was a brilliant orange fireball billowing into the gray sky. The sound came soon afterwards…a violent thunderclap that rattled the ground underneath their feet even at their distance. Continuing to watch, David saw a cloud of debris traveling toward them, carried aloft by the detonation's pressure wave. He dropped down beside his father as a light peppering of pebbles and dust rained down on them. "That's for making me execute a three-point landing on my fourth point of contact…" he murmured, his green eyes hard and cold as he watched the dust settle. "That should keep that squad off our backs, at least."

   "Yeah, you sure showed em', son," John murmured beside him. "You're a Sheridan all right…never met an explosive you didn't like, eh?"

   "I have my moments. What can I say? It's in my genes."

   Rising back up, John watched as smoke rose from the remains of the ship from which his previous self had passed beyond. Another piece of history lost. "Well," he chuckled ruefully, "that'll teach them. They'll never tear the warning tags off our seat cushions again." Reaching down, he helped David to his feet. Taking the binoculars back, he stowed them in the rucksack and slung the bag over his shoulder. "We'd better get moving. It's late in the day here and we've got several kilometers to cover before we reach a decent resting spot."

   

   ***

   The two men hiked along for several more hours, the mountains growing steadily nearer. John and David weren't seriously troubled by Dilgar troops again, although they had to take cover a few times as scouts and drop ships passed nearby. As darkness fell, the two men found themselves huddling in a small, partially covered gully, the temperature settings on their suits set to maximum to ward off the bitter cold that threatened to creep in on them. "This is as good a place as any to bed down for the night, David," John indicated, pulling off his rucksack. "We've been lucky so far, but we need rest."

   Flopping down beside his father, David grunted and replied, "You don't think the Dilgar will come after us in the middle of the night?"

   John considered it for a moment. "No," he finally answered, "I don't think so."

   "Do you think they even realize that we're still alive?" David asked. "They could believe we vanished in the explosion."

   "I think they've probably figured out by now that we're still around. Our bodies aren't in the wreckage. They won't come after us because they don't know precisely where we are." Pointing up at the stars, John indicated the moving points of light that marked the descent tracks of more Dilgar drop ships. "They're bringing in more troops to flush us out. I figure that, come tomorrow, they'll start at the crash site and try to herd us up onto the mountain ahead of us. Tomorrow…tomorrow they'll seriously come after us, David…but that's okay. The mountain's where we're headed anyway." With a grunt, John propped himself up against a rock and fell silent.

   David watched him for a moment and then stretched out on his back, resting his head on his arms. Looking up at the stars, he murmured, "Are you thinking about Mother?"

   "I'm always thinking about your mother, David," John quietly acknowledged. Touching himself on the heart, he added, "She's my strength and she's never far from me, but right now…I'm wondering how she's holding up. I'm pretty sure our message got through and she probably knows what's happened by now. I'd imagine that she's pretty upset about all of this."

   "You think she'll come after us?"

   "I hope not. I'd rather that she or Susan just dispatch a couple of Warcruisers or Victories. I don't want her to come here personally."

   "Why not?"

   "For a couple of reasons," John answered, adjusting his breather so he could speak a little more clearly. "First, if the Dilgar are strong enough to devote three warships to tracking us down, then they're probably strong enough to be causing trouble in other places. This isn't the time for your mother to personally mount a rescue expedition. She's a leader and she needs to be where she can effectively lead…and that's not here. For her, that's on Minbar. Second…well, I don't think she knows what happened here after the war and I don't want her to. She carries more than enough guilt around with her as it is. She doesn't deserve the additional burden seeing this place would bring." Falling silent, John glanced up at the stars again.

   "What did happen here?" David asked quietly after a moment. "You haven't told me anything specific, and I think it's about time you did."

   His father didn't answer immediately, and David disappointedly gazed up at the stars, thinking that no answer would be forthcoming. Turning his thoughts away from the cold, miserable place that he found himself in, his mind's eye turned to a young Minbari woman, now far away. Was she thinking of him? Was she looking up at the stars even now and wondering where he was? Did she even know that something had gone wrong? For the first time, it occurred to David that he might never see Ardenn again…not because of the Sisterhood or the Obligation, but because he stood a good chance of dying here. "Dad…I do love her, you know. Ardenn, I mean. Uh, whatever happens…that night we had together…that made her 'mine', didn't it?"

   "Yeah, son…when she, uh, came to you, she…well, she tied her path to yours. Unless Minbari tradition changes drastically, there won't be another for her. That's why they have all of the rituals beforehand…to make sure, absolutely sure."

   "When she asked for…for me, for her place with me…she didn't want me to accept the part of the joining obligation that demands she be the only mate I take. But…when I was with her…I looked in her eyes and I knew that in her heart she had uh, accepted it herself even though she didn't want me to." Taking a deep breath, the younger man stammered, "If something should happen to me…I don't want her to…to go through what Mother went through…"

   John knew exactly what the younger man was thinking. "You'll make it back to her, don't worry. Ardenn won't spend the rest of her life alone. When you see her again…no matter what her status is, she'll always be yours. That's the Minbari way, and that's your way now, too…if you want to honor her commitment." Settling his head back against the rock, John added, "Forever is a long time, son, but don't let that scare you. She understands that she's choosing a Ranger. She knows what that means…the risks…but at the same time, you'll never have a more loyal companion, friend or lover than a Minbari female. She's waiting…they both are. Waiting for their other halves to come home." Snorting amusedly, he added, "You've heard of my 'life of adventure'? Well, this is it…freezing your ass off with enemy all around you while you sleep on rocks and dream of making love to beautiful, exotic women far away."

   "Yeah, well…I'm going to try to get some sleep. You?"

   "Go ahead, son. Rest for awhile. I'll watch," John said softly, and as David rooted around trying to find a comfortable position on the stony ground, he began talking. "Thirty-six years," he quietly began, "almost thirty-six years ago, everything was different for me, David. It was a time before I knew your mother, a time before I was even engaged to Anna. I was a different person, then…God, it seems like a whole different lifetime ago now. My people…hell, the war had just ended and we couldn't believe that we'd survived…but the war was over and we were still alive." Sighing, John looked fondly at his son, the product of a union between him and a person who had once been the 'enemy'. "Well," he continued, "I was commanding the EAS Lexington. A great ship…she was such a great ship…and she had carried me through the war, but the war was over and people move on. I had already received orders to take command of Io Station, but I had one more mission to complete before relinquishing command." Pausing a moment, John cleared his throat and said, "And on that last mission…I learned a lesson about war that three years of near-continuous combat hadn't taught me, and it was a valuable lesson…so I'll pass it on to you. Maybe it'll make a difference someday that way."

   "Go ahead, I'm listening." David murmured, his green eyes closed. "What's the lesson?"

   "Everybody understands fighting, but no one understands war. How powerful, damaging and ugly it is." Glancing over at David, John softly added, "You know I love your mother, and she loves me. You've grown up with two parents who love one another fiercely, and to you that seems like a 'given' but it's not. It's…incredible. Do you have any conception of how incredible our love is?" the older man asked rhetorically. "You see, we were enemies…and wars don't end when the armistice is signed. They don't end when the fighting stops. They only end when the 'hate' ends, when the 'rage' ends…and that can take so very, very long. To this very day, I sometimes wonder if wars, once they're fought long enough for the hate to set in, ever really end at all…but back then, even after three years of war, I never really realized that the Minbari hated us. Not until I came here…"

   

   Earth Year 2249

   "Ensign Smith, do you want to live?"

   "Yes sir!"

   "Then get to your station and do exactly as I say." Spinning around in his chair, the ship's commanding officer watched as another young crewmember scrambled onto his bridge and froze at the sight that met her there. "Lieutenant Singh! Are you wetting your pants yet?"

   "No, sir!"

   <Fresh out of the Academy…> the CO ruefully thought. <If you knew half of what I do, you'd be gushing and looking for water so you could pee some more…> "Well, you're doing better than I am, newbie. My underwear's soaked. Now that we've worked that out, get to your console."

   Giving the young woman a faint reassuring grin that he didn't really feel, Commander John Sheridan turned his command chair away from his jumpy weapons and life sciences officers. He was young for the position he held…only in his mid-thirties yet commanding one of Earth's few remaining heavy cruisers…but attrition had a way of thrusting responsibility onto people quickly. To most of his crew, he knew he seemed much older. It wasn't physical…physically he stood straight and tall, a man in his prime with fresh features and not a trace of gray, but his eyes were those of a man who had weathered more storms than many twice his age. He was what old soldiers publicly called 'seasoned'…and what he privately called 'tired'.

   Facing the EAS Lexington's main viewer, John crooked a finger absently to his chin and considered the encounter currently causing his crew so much excitement and trepidation. On screen, the ugly, intimidating snout of a Minbari Warcruiser faced them almost bow to bow, blocking their course. Despite his reassurances to his new crewmembers, John admitted to himself that the sight made his sphincter several orders of magnitude tighter than it had been a few minutes previously. Tight enough that a burly road crew would have difficulty getting a pin up his ass with a jackhammer at that moment. He couldn't let his people know that, however. He had a reputation, or reputations, both with his own people and the enemy…now the former enemy, he amended. As the Commander, he had to live up to both of them.

   Sometimes, living up to his reputation was hard. Those were the good days. Most of the time, it was just plain excruciating.

   Indicating the klaxons and proximity warnings sounding across the bridge, John looked back over his shoulder and shouted, "Would someone please turn that shit off? We see the damn ship already!" Someone flipped a switch, and the sirens quieted. Nodding with satisfaction, the Commanding officer of the Lexington settled himself more comfortably in his seat and murmured, "Much better." Turning to his Executive Officer, John gestured at the screen and tried to sound relatively unconcerned as he asked, "What's their status, Billy?"

   John's exec, Lieutenant Commander Billy Daniels, had been with him for a long time and knew John better than anyone on the crew. He was a large black man who didn't shake easily, and John had leaned heavily on him for help in keeping the crew calm during the latter part of the war…the part where all hope seemed gone. Now, the war was supposedly over…but it hadn't been over long enough for any human to be comfortable around the Minbari, particularly the Warrior Caste. Evidently, John noted, the black-robed baldies in the ship facing them weren't particularly comfortable, either.

   As John waited for Billy to reply, an unusual sound…like sand against a windowpane…softly peppered the hull. Slowly, it gained strength until it sounded as if the Lexington were caught in a sandstorm.

   "They're pinging us…getting our range!" John's weapons officer exclaimed, his voice rising a few octaves. "Should I power up the forward guns?"

   "No, Chuck, not yet," John indicated with seeming calm. "A few years ago, a targeting scan from a Minbari warship would've been intense enough to shut down an Earth ship's jump engines. We're shielded against that now. Don't panic." Smiling reassuringly at the younger officer, John murmured, "Besides, they've already got our range…we're point blank."

   Ensign Chuck Smith was new, like many among his crew, and John understood his excitement. With the war's end, a new generation of officers was starting to come into the pipeline…a generation with no real combat experience. A lifetime ago, or so it seemed, John recalled that a young Ensign Sheridan had entered Earthforce with the same sense of excitement immediately after Earth's last great war…the Dilgar War…ended. At the time, missing all the action had disappointed him. Stories of heroic exploits by Earthforce ships and pilots against the Dilgar Armada ran rampant through the Academy, and he had been looking forward to adding his own chapter. During the Earth-Minbari War, John Sheridan got his chance and wrote his chapter…but experience made him very conscious that it was inked in the blood of his crewmates. Chuck was good and thankfully, John thought, with the war's end he would get a chance to learn…just as John had. Turning back to his exec, his smile faded and he said, "Anything, Billy?"

   "We're facing A Sharlin-class Warcruiser one-on-one, obviously," Billy indicated with a snort. "It goes without saying that she's twice our size and we're seriously outgunned." Glancing surreptitiously at the sensor readings, he continued, "The boneheads are sitting dead in our path, Captain. Their cloak is inactive…hmm, their weapons are powered but the main gun ports are closed."

   Captain. Even after three years sitting in the ship's Captain's chair, John wasn't completely used to hearing that impressive title used when addressing him…but it fit. Few outside the military community realized that the title 'Captain' referred to both a rank and a duty position. John, as a Commander, did not hold the rank of Captain, but he did occupy the position…he had occupied the position since destroying the Black Star…and so the coveted title 'Captain' was applied to him, just as it had been to Commanding officers since a time long before navies sailed the stars instead of the seas…but that was history. This was now. "Options, Exec?"

   "We smile, wave and run like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are after us?"

   "Well, so much for the master tactician," John groaned, rolling his eyes. "Billy…you really should have been an Intelligence officer."

   "I tried for that branch, sir," Billy drolly replied, "but I was able to pat my head, rub my belly and whistle Dixie at the same time. The recruiter said I was overqualified." Sighing, he added, "Well, since running like hell seems to be out, I recommend…diplomacy. Uh, you did read that directive on diplomacy Earthgov sent out, didn't you? The one with words like 'rapport' and 'open hands of friendship' in it?"

   "Oh, that one?" John replied nonchalantly. "Nah…didn't need it. I can already tell by the open and accommodating posture of our guests that they're extremely anxious to 'dialogue' with us."

   "Yes, sir, I agree," Billy indicated with the same nonchalant tone. "That fully powered cutting beam emitter facing our bow appears to be speaking volumes. I admire your perceptiveness."

   "What can I say? I have a gift," John chuckled.

   The banter, of course, was designed to relax the younger officers. Both John and Billy knew that nervous officers tended to make mistakes…such as the one that precipitated the recently-ended conflict with the race manning the ship they were now facing. John couldn't afford a mistake now, and he knew it. Humanity couldn't afford any mistakes at all where the Minbari were concerned. Just six short months ago, the ship facing them would likely have destroyed the Lexington with relative ease. John's ship had already almost been destroyed several times over the past few years, but ships were more than metal. They were the Captain and crew, and the Lexington was blessed with the most dedicated crew in Earthforce…paired with Earth's cagiest commander.

   "Seriously, I think they're just trying to spook us a little, sir," Billy continued. "If they were gonna frag us, they could have done it about a hundred klicks ago. It's not like we snuck up on them."

   "OK, I figured as much…don't panic, they're just giving us the bonehead version of 'Up Yours'," John said loudly for the benefit of his bridge crew.

   From the comm station, a voice piped up. "Should we hail them, sir?"

   John thought a moment. "No, Sparks," he finally answered. "The war is over, and we won…at least symbolically. They're in our space. They should hail us." Turning to Billy, he said, "You say their weapons are powered? Let's reciprocate. OK, Chuck…power up the forward batteries, but don't target them."

   "That might provoke them," Billy noted neutrally. "That could be what they're looking for. We may have been up-gunned during our refit but that Warcruiser would still slag us in a heartbeat at this range."

   John forced a chuckle. "They won't. They'll sit there praying to their fucking 'Valen' or whatever god the deadskins answer to that we fire first so they can retaliate. We have to show strength, Billy. The Warriors respect that." Billy still looked dubious, and John added, "Look…they lost, and they're being petulant about it. They need to be reminded. Still…" Turning to his weapons officer, he said, "Chuck, I want you to manually target their sensor array. Just toggle the crosshair in on your board. Don't send the acquisition to the guns. I don't want the pulse cannons spinning around…they'd see that. All I want them to know is that we've powered our guns, just like they have."

   "Uh…OK, sir…" the young ensign answered nervously. "Now…uh, where on that behemoth is the sensor array, exactly?"

   "Up on the dorsal fin," John indicated. Pointing at the screen he said, "See it? It's that opening that looks like a big gray asshole just above the main hull. Put the rail guns in the firing order before the pulse cannons. The baldies' hull will repel energy weapons really well but it's brittle…and a brittle hull ain't so good against impact weapons."

   "And what good will that do? We'll put a few dings in their paint job while they slice us up?" Billy whispered.

   "Schoolyard philosophy," John answered. "What do you do when the biggest meanest bully in the schoolyard is spoiling for a fight and he's picked you as a target?"

   "I dunno. I was the biggest, meanest bully."

   "Figures," John snorted amusedly. "Well, if you're a scrawny guy and you've got no chance in hell of winning, you try to swagger and bluster your way out of the fight. If that doesn't work, you kick that bully in the nuts as hard as you can and run for it. Now, our hard-skulled friends here are that big, mean bully. If my swaggering and blustering doesn't work and they decide to beat the shit out of us, I plan to give em' a quick kick and bolt."

   "Sir, forward batteries are powered and I've toggled in their asshole."

   "Good." Turning back to his exec, John said, "Now it's time to swagger and bluster. Billy, give em' our middle finger. Flash our colors at the hardheaded bastards. I can't imagine that one of their flat-eyed, cock-jerking Alyts will pass up their chance to talk to the despised 'Starkiller'."

   Billy toggled a switch on his console. Outside, the blue and white hull of the upgraded Hyperion-class cruiser was bathed in light. On her central gun tower, the image of a Minuteman appeared. Underneath it was painted an attacking shark, with four stylized Minbari Warcruisers frantically swimming to get away. Three were of silver and one was black, and each had a red 'X' crossed over it.

   "That should get their attention," John murmured.

   "What now?" John's weapons officer whispered in the silence.

   "Now, you watch your control board and the sensor readings like a hawk, and we wait. We won't have to wait…"

   "Sir!" the comm officer piped up, "We have an incoming hail!"

   "…Long." John finished. "Predictable. Tougher than hell, but predictable. Very well, patch it through."

   The image of the Warcruiser blanked out and was replaced by that of the roughest-looking Warrior Caste deadskin John had ever seen. The Minbari commander was sporting a goatee and had a spiky, ornate crest…an affectation John had learned indicated high rank among Minbari Warriors. The Alyt glared across space at him…sizing him up. Snorting derisively, he said, "I am Clan Leader Shakiri of the Wind Swords."

   "I am Commander…"

   "I know who you are, dishonorable one," Shakiri spat, cutting John off. "So…I finally get to meet you, Starkiller. Somehow, I always pictured you as…more formidable. Disappointing…you appear to be nothing more than a soft, pink little Mura, a little fleshy worm."

   "Funny…" John said evenly, "I always pictured Minbari as bald, pale little demons with horns and forked tails. Wait a second…you are pale, bald and you do have horns. Could you turn around for me?"

   It took Shakiri a second to comprehend Sheridan's retort. When he did, he began to glower. His face becoming suffused with anger, he said, "Monkey boy…you have no idea of the effort I am exerting to restrain my crew from disintegrating your flimsy little ship even as we speak. Destroyer of the Black Star, you would do well to show some respect to your betters."

   "The Black Star," John replied, trying to project patient amusement and maintain control of the conversation, "It always comes back to that, doesn't it? You know…you Warriors have twisted that lie around so much to fool your own people that you've started believing your own bullshit. I sent a distress signal…and your ship stupidly came, but I seriously doubt they were returning to render assistance. They were returning to finish off helpless survivors. Unfortunately for your deceased ship, we proved to be somewhat less than helpless." Thinking a moment, he then observed, "You know, for a caste that grows up learning warfare, your commanders have shitty tactical sense. If it weren't for your technological advantage, we would have shoved your bony heads up your asses a long time ago. Perhaps in the future you should educate your warriors to not be so cocky…and to tell the truth when they fuck up." Almost as an afterthought, John gestured at the screen and continued, "Oh, as for respect…when I meet someone of your race that I consider my 'better', I'll treat him or her with appropriate respect. I haven't met that person yet, and I doubt I ever will."

   "You call us liars and fornicators, Sheridan? The best of the Warrior caste…and you taunt and insult us? I ought to blast your paper warship out of this incarnation! Were it not for our government's injunction…"

   "Injunction? Is that the word you're using to avoid saying…surrender?" John innocently asked, cutting the angry Warrior off. "Surrender…" he mused. "Yeah, roll that one around in your head for a while, because that's what your Grey Council did. The Pooh-Bahs of your Moose Lodge surrendered." Glancing quickly at his weapons officer, John noted his hand hovering over the 'initiate' toggle that slaved the gun controls to the target on his screen. Imperceptibly, John shook his head negatively. "It must really suck," he mused, stroking his chin, "to just…give up…on the verge of victory like that. I'll bet your warrior pride is stung." Straightening, John added, "Well, I'm not going to argue with it or worry about the reasons. You surrendered, we're no longer at war and that's that. If your feelings are hurt go home and cry to your mommy, loser. Now, what you said is true. You could vaporize us right here, I suppose…but I have a whole hold full of nukes in this ship. You'd still get us, but I think I could hold out long enough to get them deployed. I'm sure that one or two would make it through your screening fire and latch onto your hull. Even if they didn't, there's still your…injunction…to consider. What happens to Minbari who willfully disobey their leaders' orders, anyway?"

   It wasn't true, of course. Commander Sheridan was playing a big bluff. He had a couple of nukes available, but every hold on his ship was filled to the gunwales with relief supplies, shuttles and recovery equipment meant for Flynn's Colony. The Lexington had even given up all but two of its Starfuries…the Cobra bays instead carried dozens of battle satellites meant to reestablish the colony's defense grid. Other than the heavy guns of his ship, which weren't heavy enough to sustain this kind of fight, John had precious little to work with…but the bonehead didn't know that. Smiling in placation, John spread his hands and added, "But we don't need to resort to more…ugliness, Clan Leader. We're supposed to be fostering good relations…broadening our understanding of each other, at least that's the pap our respective governments are putting out. Right now you are a guest, but unfortunately an unwelcome one, and you can best foster understanding by…standing aside, and getting the hell out of our space!"

   "Bah!" Shakiri snorted in disgust. "You are truly a lower life form, vermin, and you are trying my patience. Letting your race survive was a mistake..."

   "Shut up and listen," John shot back, his own patience at an end, "The war is over…finished, ended…whatever. Understand? I don't love your race and I never will…and you don't love us. Fine, I can live with that. Despite our feelings, our governments have an agreement and that agreement says this is Earth Alliance territory. Now, we can sit here for a solar year and trade insults, or you can move your fishy-looking tub out of this area and we can go our separate ways. I can continue my patrol, and you can go off somewhere, whack on yourself with one of those long sticks and have a circle jerk with your Grey Council over this 'surrender' business. Is that acceptable?"

   "What is a 'circle jerk', human?" Shakiri growled.

   "It's a ritual. We humans assume your people use it to foster greater understanding of each other's inner minds and establish your relative worth in your society. You should be worthy indeed, Clan Leader. I imagine you practice this ritual often."

   The Minbari Clan Leader looked uncertain for a moment, and then he smiled evilly. "Very well, Starkiller. Someday, you and I will practice this ritual together if we meet face to face. Pray that does not happen…and know that I am praying that it does."

   "Believe me, that prayer is already on my lips," John replied. Smiling disarmingly, he added, "There, you see? That wasn't so hard…was it? We fostered some mutual understanding just now. You want to kill me and I don't want to be killed, so we both understand one another. Now, if you will have your ship heave to, we'll be on our way. Don't forget about that circle jerk with your Grey Council."

   "Oh, I do not wish to kill you, vermin…at least not quickly," Shakiri concluded. "Enjoy your patrol, human. Enjoy it…and remember us. You and I will see each other again."

   The comm channel terminated, and the Warcruiser replaced Shakiri's image on the screen. A moment later, the Warcruiser banked away from the Lexington, barely missing the smaller ship as she opened a jump point and disappeared into hyperspace.

   Almost as a single person, John's bridge crew collectively heaved a sigh of relief. "Jeezus…" Ensign Smith breathed. "Begging your pardon, sir…but what the hell are your balls made out of, and where do I order a set?"

   "Well, gentlemen," John said, smiling at the question but ignoring it for the moment, "That was our fun for the day. Now, I don't want the Minbari knowing where we're headed, so give that cruiser time to get away from here before setting course for Flynn's World. Comm, try to raise the colony as we approach. I doubt the boneheads left a working transmitter, but you never know. Billy, you have the bridge." Unstrapping himself, John drifted lazily for the maglev tram connecting the bridge to the other areas of the ship.

   "So that's what 'dialogue' is supposed to sound like?" Billy snorted as his captain reached the tram carriage. "You foster mutual understanding really uh, uniquely…although I doubt Earthgov would take the same view."

   "Ah…diplomacy. Fostering understanding can be stressful but also rewarding," John replied with a smile. "We're no longer fighting, but that doesn't mean we're at peace." Chuckling a little, he added, "The day I meet a bonehead that doesn't make my skin crawl, I'll marry her. Don't place any bets on that day arriving."

   "Marry a deadskin? You?" Billy laughed. "I think my money's safe." As he took John's seat, the burly exec asked, "So, where are you headed, Captain?"

   "My quarters." Grinning, John added, "Jeezus, Billy…a Clan Leader. That's so high up the bonehead food chain that I think my nose is bleeding. I'm pretty sure I lost about three pounds in that exchange and I think I know where it went. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go change my shorts. Oh, by the way Chuck…"

   "Sir?"

   "I'm not sure what they're made of…but I do know that they're riding about eight inches up into my gut right now."

   

   ***

   "Starkiller Sheridan…" Clan Leader Shakiri murmured as the human's hologram winked out. "It is true that he is vermin, but under different circumstances I could almost respect him. At least he carries himself as a Warrior…even if he is the spawn of a puny and inconsequential race." Stroking his goatee thoughtfully, the Minbari warrior turned to face his companions. "This is already working out better than expected. How appropriate that he should be the one drawing this sector of space as his patrol area. I almost wish I had told him to be sure and visit the planet. I would risk the Council's displeasure simply to watch his expression when he reached the surface."

   Stepping into the light circle, a second Warrior spoke. "Do you think he will visit, Clan Leader?"

   "Possibly, Vashaer. The planet is in this sector. I imagine that sooner or later Starkiller's garbage scow will bumble into it. Is everything on Khon'dar in order?"

   "It is in order, Clan Leader."

   "Everything is 'in order'…" a soft, female voice chuckled from the shadows of the command center. "I like your way of lying without lying, Vashaer. You must have been one of my people in a previous incarnation." Stepping forward into the light, the female approached Vashaer and laid a hand on his breast. She was garbed as a warrior, but the greenish cast of her skin and her black hair marked her as an outsider…not Minbari, yet a guest of the Clan.

   "The colony is in order, Jha'Dur…that is not a falsehood. We did leave everything neat and orderly, just as the Council directed." Chuckling, Vashaer covered her hand with his, adding, "And everyone, of course. And if our interpretation of 'neat and orderly' does not match the Council's…then perhaps the child-Satai should have been more specific in her instructions."

   "And the…evidence?" the Dilgar female asked.

   "We left several incriminating documents and vids that succinctly detail the Council's involvement…and, of course, the Earthers should have no trouble finding the other evidence. That is, assuming the evidence does not find them first. If the humans return to Khon'dar, they will leave truly understanding the power of our wrath. Our demonstration will have served its purpose, and more."

   Shakiri sighed contentedly as he watched his two companions. "The outcry of the Earthers when they see what we…or should I say the Council…have done will be so great that the few remaining human threats like Sheridan will have no choice but to attack. We can then finish this as it should have been finished…and the Grey Council will break from the shame of having surrendered at what should have been our moment of victory. So, we eliminate two problems with one denn'bok swing."

   "I love this!" Jha'Dur exclaimed with a grin, almost dancing away from Vashaer and Shakiri. "We exterminate the humans…and those on your Council who would oppose the New Order are disgraced at the same time! We truly make a good team, Wind Swords."

   Vashaer turned to his Clan Leader and explained, "We took especial care to ensure that those on the Council who might prove troublesome later were clearly identified and implicated. Even someone as lacking in intelligence as Sheridan will be able to ascertain their identities. It is truly beautiful, Leader. The beauty of it is that we do not even have to perpetuate a falsehood…the Council did initially approve the demonstration, after all, and the most obstinate Satai of the lot currently speaks for the Council."

   "And those on the Council sympathetic to us?"

   "The evidence was massaged to make the identities of our friends indistinct. We omitted nothing, but only four Council names can be determined from the records we left behind…the four we want the humans to know."

   "Sometimes it is a disadvantage that the Council speaks with one voice even if its members disagree." Shakiri mused. "The little Satai and her followers are guilty by association even if they voted against our activities."

   Vashaer laughed as he pictured it…the haughty 'child-priestess' relinquishing Dukhat's staff in disgrace and scandal…all of her plans crumbling. "Yes, the humans will throw the puny remnants of their fleet at us in outrage, dying under our guns, and in the resulting euphoria among our people this weak 'surrender' Council will be cast down. You, my Clan Leader, can then step in and establish a new Grey Council more sympathetic to the Wind Swords…and our people."

   "And mine," Jha'Dur added. "My people chafe to come out of hiding…between your people and ours, we can finally establish the order that our galaxy so desperately needs. But the humans must be eliminated first."

   "And what of this 'Ancient Enemy' that Satai Delenn prattles on about?"

   "Satai Delenn spends far too much time confusing herself in dusty old scrolls, Clan Leader." Vashaer snorted. "The ancient enemy is gone. They are Religious caste superstitions left over from hundreds of cycles ago. Delenn uses the myths to maintain her influence…nothing more."

   "Delenn…the human coddler. Bah! I grow annoyed just thinking of her. She is no better than a human herself," Shakiri observed. "When this…this child is stripped of her title and influence, I will see to it that she finds herself outcast and paraded through the streets, the word 'traitor' carved into her crest for all to see. Once she is publicly humiliated, then perhaps the priestlings will finally learn to stay away from the business of Warriors." Grinding his teeth in anger, the warrior added, "A circle jerk with the Grey Council…Sheridan was closer to the truth than he realized. It was he who taunted me, Vashaer…but he was correct. He was not the author of the insult. Delenn and her spinelessness brought this to pass, and she will pay. Before this affair is finished, I will have her on her knees in submission before me…begging our Caste to forgive her for her treachery. Once there, Vashaer…once there, she and her followers will stay there. Her example will serve as a reminder to the priestlings of their proper place…on their knees before us, just as they were in the time before Valen."

   "Delenn and her zealots are obstacles for now, but are of little long term concern," Jha'Dur observed. "She is no match for you. Eventually, people like her bring about their own downfalls and she will be no different. Do not let her distract you from the primary objective. There is only one enemy of the Minbari in existence today, Shakiri," she concluded. "Once the humans are gone, our peoples can both achieve their true destinies. And Delenn…she will be cast down, cursed and forgotten."

   

   ***

   Commander Sheridan couldn't help turning his chair to face out the plexisteel viewport of the Lexington's conference room as his staff briefed him on the current situation regarding the planet below. Not that they knew much, he thought as the mostly white mass of Flynn's World wheeled by beneath him. They had only just completed the preliminary scans. In the decks beneath him, John had a myriad of different ships and teams ready to go into action as soon as he gave the word. Behind him, Billy softly cleared his throat to let John know that the command staff was present. With a last look out the viewport, he turned back to the table and said, "Okay, let's get on with it. Who's up first? Sparky?"

   John's communications specialist glanced at the notes in front of him. "Captain, we've detected no transmissions emanating from the surface so far. We've been transmitting hails across the spectrum and monitoring every conceivable frequency. My guess is that the deadskins didn't leave the colonists with any working comms, and we've also heard nothing from the GROPOS garrison."

   John sighed and looked at his communications officer. "That's not surprising…I'm pretty sure the GROPOS are all dead," he noted. "They fight to the last man and the Minbari don't take prisoners anyway."

   Somberly, Billy noted, "Perhaps the colonists didn't survive, either."

   "We don't know that," John replied. "This is the only colony the boneheads seized where we weren't able to evacuate the civilians in advance. The Minbari were ruthless when fighting our troops, but they generally avoided attacking civilian population centers until near the end of the war." Looking at each member of his command staff in turn, he continued, "I'm hoping that they saw the advantage in having a working Quantium-40 mine under their control with a trained labor pool to keep it operational. Until we know differently, we'll work under the assumption that the civilians are still alive. What else?"

   Ensign Smith spoke up. "We've detected the remnants of the primary orbital defense grid…about twenty of the satellites downloaded their statuses in response to our system query. They're functional, but useless with the colony's central core inoperative."

   "When we get to the surface, we'll help the colonists get their core back on line. We brought more than enough satellites to reestablish their grid. Until we can do that, tie those satellites into one of our fire control mainframes. I don't like the fact that bonehead ships are still cruising this area, so it won't hurt to have a little extra firepower, just in case." Turning to his sensor officer, John asked, "Have you detected any power sources? According to our records, the colony had two fusion reactors…one for the colony proper and one to power the mining operation."

   "We've detected no power of any kind, sir. Sensor sweeps of the colony site indicate the habitat dome was breached. About half the structures inside are still standing but…Jesus, that must have been some fight. The area looks like the surface of the moon." Looking at his datapad again, the sensor officer thought for a moment and then added, "I doubt there's much left of the colony reactor, but the reactor in the mine could still be operational. If it were taken into the mine itself, we wouldn't be able to detect it."

   "It's entirely possible that the surviving colonists are down in the mine as well, particularly if there's no habitat dome or power in the colony," John noted, crooking a finger and putting it to his chin. "It would be warmer there."

   "Yes it would, sir," A crisp female voice acknowledged from the other end of the conference table with the barest hint of a German accent. Unlike the other officers, she was not a member of John's crew and wore brownish-gray battle dress rather than leather-trimmed blue. Major Ocelina 'Oz' Altenbourg was a commander in the ground warfare arm of Earthforce, a GROPO. Like John and Billy, Oz had seen more than her fair share of action during the war. She and a company of assault troops had been assigned to the Lexington specifically to secure the colony for this mission. "I believe that any survivors we find will be in the mine. It's also likely that the mines are where the troops garrisoned here made their last stand."

   "Do we have a schematic of the mine?"

   Oz stood, lurching slightly as the weak magnetic field running through the Lexington's deck plating reacted to the small steel studs in her boots. Artificial gravity for starships was another of Earthforce R&D's 'breakthroughs' that always seemed to be just a few 'short' years away and it had been a few short years away for about thirty years now…much like the cure for the common cold. The only facility on the ship with 'real' gravity was the gymnasium, a massive rotating ring in the center of the ship where crewmembers were required to exercise for two hours a day to maintain their strength. Oz had missed her workout that day and was feeling the loss. Sighing to herself, she touched a keypad on the table. In response, a screen to her rear activated, displaying a confusing spiderweb of multicolored lines, circles and boxes.

   "You have all already been briefed on the layout of the habitat dome and other surface facilities, so I won't go into them here. What you are looking at, gentlemen, is a three-dimensional representation of the Moria mine complex as it existed three years ago…just prior to the Minbari assault." As Major Altenbourg spoke, the graphic rotated in a circle, displaying the map from different angles.

   "Moria?" one of John's officers asked.

   "Named after a fictional mine in an Old Earth fantasy story," Oz explained. Continuing with her briefing, she said, "This mine is the largest of its kind in the Earth Alliance, outside Earth itself. There are a total of seventy-five miles of passages, fifteen major underground boring sites, forty smaller chambers, and eleven hundred underground storage rooms and other facilities." On the graphic, different areas highlighted as Oz described them. Finally, the GROPO commander concluded, "The mine has seven levels and, at its deepest point, is well over four kilometers underground. When they reached that point, the miners encountered a crack…a geologic fault in the mantle of the planet that drops off…well…deep. It's simply called 'The Pit'."

   "What is that large circle in the center of the…uh, web?" One of the officers at the table asked. "Most of the other tunnels seem to branch off from there."

   Major Altenbourg turned and glanced at the graphic. "That's the core chamber, called 'The Cathedral' by the miners. It served as the hub for activities throughout the rest of the complex. I've never seen it, but I'm told that it's so large that it has its own weather patterns." Facing John and his staff again, she concluded, "Our intelligence about the colony and mine, of course, doesn't take into account any changes the Minbari may have made since overrunning the planet. There are likely to be differences between our information and ground truth."

   "Major, I've only got three hundred people on this ship, not counting your GROPOs. Even if I strip every non-essential person and send them down, it will still take a while to completely search the mine."

   "If the civilians did take refuge there or were forced into working there for the Minbari, we're hoping that they'll come out when they see we've arrived. That'll save us the trouble of going in after them."

   John sat and eyed the graphic thoughtfully, mulling over courses of action. Searching the mine was going to be tedious, particularly if the civilians had been underground for three years. They might be reluctant to emerge. Tapping his chin absently with a stylus, he pursed his lips and came to a decision. "Thank you, Major," he said, "I don't have any questions for now, but keep yourself available."

   "Yes sir," Oz replied, returning to her seat.

   Once the GROPO was seated, John stood and said, "All right people, this is how I want to do this. I'm modifying the plan a little. Earthgov wanted the mine taken care of first, but I don't want us setting our support equipment down at the mine without knowing that any surface facilities we might use are clear beforehand. There's no telling what the boneheads may have left behind to surprise us. Booby-traps are a distinct possibility, both in the mine and on the surface." Pausing for a second, John looked at each person seated in front of him. "Oz…I'm sending you and your troops down first. I want the habitat dome and the surface facilities swept and secured. We're going to do this sequentially. Start your pre-combat checks as soon as we break up here. I want you hitting space in your landers in two hours. You already have your LZs picked out?"

   "Yes, sir…landing zones both for the dome and the mine."

   "Leave the mine for now. We'll eliminate the surface as a possibility first before tackling the big kahuna. As soon as the surface is secure, call me and give me a status. If you find colonists, I'm sending the support equipment to the dome. If you don't, I'm sending you to the mine entrance and setting our equipment down near there. It'll keep us from having to move it twice."

   Major Altenbourg nodded and John turned to his weapons officer. "Chuck, go ahead and start deploying the new satellites. I want a three-layer defensive configuration in geosynchronous orbit over the colony site before I deploy the engineers and medical teams. Slave them all to our central core until we determine the status of the colony's computer core. Hmm…based on the damage to the dome, I'm betting that their core will be a total loss. While you're at it, have your teams start prepping the backup for transport to the surface, along with a portable reactor."

   "The backup's already in a transport trailer and ready to load out, sir. All we have to do is uncouple the data link from the ship's core and put it on a hauler." John raised his eyebrows in surprise and the young Ensign smiled with embarrassment, saying, "I, uh…anticipated that you might want to do that, sir."

   John flashed a quick smile at the young man and said, "Chuck…I see a decent fitness report in your future. Good initiative." Looking at the rest of his assembled staff, he quickly outlined the other tasks that would need to be accomplished, indicating that he would lead the engineers and medical relief personnel down personally once the colony was secure. Lieutenant Commander Daniels would remain in orbit with the ship. Once that was finished, he asked, "Anything else? Good…you have your tasks, so let's get moving, people. We start hitting space in two hours."

   

   ***

   All things considered, clearing the remains of the Flynn's Colony habitat dome went quickly…far more quickly than either Oz Altenbourg or John Sheridan anticipated. Right at the two hour mark, Major Altenbourg's GROPOS assault shuttles dropped into their LZs in an opposed strike formation, not expecting a fight but at the same time unsure of exactly what they might face on the surface. She had planned for scenarios ranging from hard-core warrior caste suicide squads to roving bands of disorganized, starving refugees. What she and her troops found was…nothing. The dome, which had once supported over five thousand miners and their families, was totally devoid of life.

   A frigid wind howled through the fractured plexisteel of the dome as GROPOs armored fighting vehicles systematically fanned out into the empty streets, kicking up clouds of steam and pushing through small drifts of snow and ice as they searched the small city for inhabitants and information. The only other sound that wafted through the seemingly deserted area was the echo of GROPO engine turbines rattling off of empty building facades.

   The search went on for hours. As each of her teams relayed their reports back, Oz started getting an uneasy feeling. The dome was broken but the surface colony was still habitable, despite the biting cold. Those structures that were still standing showed very little battle damage from the fight with the Minbari. In fact, most showed signs of careful repair. On a hunch, Oz ordered teams to enter several of the structures. What they reported back puzzled her even more.

   Going over her notes, Oz had to shout into her helmet mike to be heard over the wind as she reported what she had learned back to the orbiting cruiser. "…It's as we expected, sir. The dome is deserted…we have structures, but no inhabitants. It's like a ghost town. I've got a bad feeling about this."

   "Why?"

   "About half the colony is destroyed, but the half that isn't is habitable…and shows signs of subsequent, recent repair. I had some of my troops begin interior searches. Those homes and public buildings they entered are in near-perfect order."

   "Perfect order? What does that mean?"

   "It means that they looked as if people had been in them recently…very recently. Beds were made, clothes were folded, food…human food…was in the refrigerators and dinner tables were set. And there was no dust, in most cases. Everything is neat and orderly."

   "Okay…I'd think that's a good sign. At least some of the colonists survived and were allowed to stay in their homes."

   "Then why isn't anyone here now? The only other place they could be is the mine, but we're talking about more than just the mineworkers. What about their families? Kids, spouses…someone should be here."

   "Perhaps the Minbari settled in and moved all of our people into the mine?"

   "I don't think so. I doubt the Minbari would be willing to live in human homes or eat human food, at least Warrior Caste Minbari. They'd consider it beneath them." Thinking a moment, the GROPO Major added, "Not only that, sir. It's cold down here…really cold. From what I understand about Minbari physiology, they don't handle temperature extremes too well even though they come from a fairly cool planet. They wouldn't choose to live here…and I'm not even sure they could survive this kind of cold for long even with shelter."

   "Croatoan…" John murmured to himself over the link.

   "Excuse me?"

   "Oh, sorry…I was just thinking aloud. When Europeans first settled North America, a colony was founded in the area where Virginia is now. When the ships bringing the colonists sailed back to Europe, they left the colony thriving. When they returned a few years later, the place was abandoned but in perfect order. The only clue as to what happened to the colonists was the word 'Croatoan' carved into a tree. The mystery was never solved. This situation reminds me a little of that."

   "I don't mind telling you that this gives me the creeps, sir."

   "Hmm…well, I guess it's a mystery, at least for now. I don't think we'll get an answer until we get down into the mine and run into some colonists. What else have you got?"

   "The fusion reactor for the colony is shut down but operable. It also shows signs of recent repair. Also, the colony's computer core is fried…and the weird thing is that the explosive scoring on the mainframe is fresh, like it was blown within the last week or two.

   "Really? That bonehead cease-fire negotiator, uh…Delenn whatshername, told Earthgov that their forces pulled out of all our colonies over three months ago. That's plenty of time for any leftover damage to become a little weathered given the environmental conditions down there."

   "Understood, sir…but we're calling them as we see them," Oz acknowledged. "One good thing, though…the deadskins mangled the main and secondary processors and the primary memory interface pretty thoroughly, but we may be able to pull information out of the secondary memory. I've got a few of my people trying to work their way through the wreckage of the processor to get at the colony log, but we'll need your computer guru and his mainframe down here to link in and extract anything that we find."

   "Consider him on his way."

   Lowering her voice a little at a lull in the wind, she added, "We also found a mass grave on the outskirts of the colony. If the Minbari here followed past practices, it's probably the burial site for the GROPOs garrison. It appears to have been there for some time…my guess is about three years."

   "Understood. Just let them be for now," John instructed. Both he and Oz knew of other colonies vacated by the Minbari that had similar sites. From what Earth's sociologists were able to ascertain, it appeared that the boneheads respected the bravery and fighting ability of their GROPO counterparts even though they didn't take prisoners. After a battle, the Warrior Caste took care to ensure that the remains of GROPOs who had fought bravely were treated with at least a modicum of dignity. It was small comfort to the dead, of course, but to the living it was more comforting than several other gruesome alternatives. "When I get the support package on the ground, I'll dispatch a mortuary affairs team to the site. We'll get your comrades home."

   "Thanks, sir. The troops will appreciate that. Any new instructions?"

   "Based on the situation, I don't think there's anything else you can do in the colony so I'm going to land the support package at the mine. Leave a team at the computer core to prep it for Ensign Smith and the backup mainframe and move to Phase Two. Once the mine entrance is secure, we'll begin launching up here."

   "WILCO, sir. We're moving now. Altenbourg out." Terminating the transmission, Oz pulled her mike away from her faceplate and glared at her sergeants, shouting, "ALRIGHT! Listen up people! We're moving to Moria! Get the vehicles formed up! All I want to see are asses and elbows! Let's go…"

   As her armored fighting vehicles formed up, Oz sat in the command carrier and thought. Something was wrong…very wrong…in the colony. Relatively fresh food, recently repaired homes and a fusion reactor that was merely shut down rather than destroyed…and a computer core that was practically still warm from the explosive charges that had destroyed it. And there was no dust…no dust, and no people. <Perhaps the mine holds the answer…> she thought as her vehicle's engine turbine whined its way to full power and she felt the AFV lurch forward.

   Unfortunately, as the GROPO Major was soon to discover…she was right on both counts.

   

   ***

   John Sheridan bounced violently in his seat as the lead support shuttle dropped through the heavy, cold atmosphere of Flynn's World. Quickly regaining his equilibrium, he glanced at the thermometer displaying the atmospheric temperature and groaned to himself. <Negative 10 degrees Celsius…and this is supposed to be spring here?> he forlornly thought, unconsciously tightening his cold-weather parka. Whatever else the colonists here were, they were tough. They would have to be to withstand the bitter cold…not to mention three years of Minbari occupation.

   John had received Major Altenbourg's 'Go' code, indicating that the mine entrance was secure, and wasted no time launching his small fleet of relief landers. In addition to his command shuttle, he was leading down a medical ship, two Engineer teams and the shuttles carrying their heavy equipment, an intelligence exploitation team, and two medium-sized transports carrying among other things the backup fire-control mainframe and a heavy-duty communications rig. Oz was already marking his LZs and had fanned her troops out around the Moria mine's clamshell doors without incident. John had specifically directed her not to enter to mine itself until he was on the ground. If there were injured or sick, he wanted on-site facilities available to care for them immediately.

   <The surface…> John mused as he gazed out the front viewport of his shuttle at the huge snow-capped mountains that marked the approach to Flynn's Colony. <People had been on the surface, and fairly recently. They had to be the colonists. The deadskins wouldn't have bothered with repairing any of the surface dwellings…they had no use for them. It was more than likely that the Minbari had rotated a small team of overseers on the ground to control the colonists and the majority of the deadskins had stayed nice and warm in their Warcruisers…>

   "We're ten minutes out, sir," John's co-pilot intoned through his headset, shaking the commander out of his reverie. "Time for Ensign Smith to break off and head for the dome."

   "Understood," the Earthforce commander replied. Thumbing a new frequency in to his comm system, John said, "Chuck, you can break formation now."

   "ROGER, sir. I'll report in when we've established the mainframe and cracked the colony log."

   "Don't forget to transfer satellite control to your location as soon as your mainframe is in," John directed. "The Lexington's core is almost at peak capacity as long as it's trying to run the ship and handle the satellite grid at the same time. I'd hate to have a system failure up there. We'd have a long cold wait on this rock while we reconfigured the third mainframe to handle hyperspace navigation."

   "No problem, sir," came the slightly distorted response. "We'll make it happen. Smith out."

   Glancing to his left, John watched as one of the large cargo landers banked away from his little flotilla, headed for the remains of the colony's habitat dome. In the distance, he could see a small shaft of sunlight breaking through the clouds and reflecting off the dome's shattered panels.

   In the future, John would remember that lone shaft of sunlight as the last hopeful thing he saw on this world, and the last hopeful thing he would experience for a long time afterwards…

   

   ***

   Oz Altenbourg was waiting. Around her, crews from the Lexington scuttled about as the field hospital was emplaced, those soldiers from her company who were not covering the mine entrance assisting as they were able. She watched them, admiring the crisp efficiency that Commander Sheridan's crew displayed as they went about their duties. Not that they could be anything other than crisp, she thought. It was so cold that a person either had to move or freeze in one spot. Until they got shelter set up, the only habitable places were inside her AFVs or in the shuttles. The habitat remains in the valley below wouldn't be livable until the colony reactor was brought back on line…if it ever was.

   Presently, the person Oz was awaiting appeared. John Sheridan emerged from the command shuttle shortly after it set down, his eyes going wide as he felt the first bite of cold air. Recovering quickly, John stomped his feet to set his heavy cold weather boots on his feet more firmly and trotted over to where she stood.

   "Colder than a witch's tit out here, eh?" John muttered by way of an opening when he reached her location. Looking around speculatively, he took in the bare rocky outcroppings and the small stubby bushes and grass that made up the planet's primary native life. A short distance away, he could see the gaping opening in the side of the mountain that was the entrance to the mine. A huge set of double steel clamshell doors closed it off from the bitter cold outside. As he looked, John continued, "Not much of a vacation spot, is it?"

   "No, sir," Oz replied. "It reminds me a little of the Alps…without the comfortable feeling of home that goes along with them. Somehow, these mountains looks far more…foreboding."

   "I know what you mean. When I was in Tibet back in '36, the Himalayas were overwhelmingly beautiful…from a distance. These mountains just seem to…to crush you with their proximity." Shaking off his uneasy feeling, John continued, "So, what have we got?"

   Handing John a set of powered binoculars, Oz pointed up to the mine entrance. As he looked, John could see Oz's AFVs lined up, dwarfed by the doors closed to their front. "We've swept the area around the entrance," Oz briefed as John continued to scan around the huge closed-off passage, "and we've found no leftover 'gifts' from our deadskin friends. Just like the habitat area, everything seems to be in order, but shut down. We're ready to start down the main shaft as soon as you give the word."

   "Will the surface doors be an obstacle? You're going to blow them, I assume."

   "There's no need. They're operable, except that there's no power. We've rigged the main door controls to one of our AFV generators. It should supply enough power to open the doors. All that remains is for you to give the word."

   "And once you're in?"

   "According to the schematics, the main shaft is wide enough for us to take our AFVs as far as the Cathedral. After that, we're either on foot or, if the mine generator is still operable, the mine trams." Looking at John as he lowered the binoculars, she said, "So, are we a go?"

   "Sure, as soon as you and I get there. I'm going with you."

   "Uh, wait a second, sir," Oz replied. "Time Out. Respectfully, there is no 'you and I' in there until at least the main passages are secured."

   "What are you talking about?" John shot back testily. "I'm the commanding officer here. I said I was going and I am."

   Oz sighed tiredly. These 'Spacers'…why did they always want to 'play' GROPO whenever they were planetbound? She never tried to run the ships she was transported on, even when she outranked their CO's. At least Sheridan was better than most…and he was easy on the eyes, to top it off. "Sir, look…I admire that you're not afraid to get your hands dirty, and I know that you've participated in ground actions before. But this is my job, and I have my own instructions from Earthgov involving you."

   John's eyebrows went up. This was a new twist. It hadn't occurred to him that his GROPO commander would have received orders that he was unaware of. "Instructions?" he queried, "What…instructions?"

   "Permit me to quote General Lefcourt… 'Major Altenbourg, you absolutely will not allow Commander Sheridan to risk his life on your watch. He is not expendable during this mission. Under no circumstances are you to allow him to bully his way into doing something stupid'." Shrugging, she continued, "You're an Alliance hero, Commander, and Earth needs heroes right now. That makes you valuable, so deal with it." Grinning, she added, "Besides, if I may say so, sir…you're kind of a hottie, if you know what I mean. I'd really hate myself if I got you snuffed before I had the chance to seduce you."

   "What?" John stammered, thrown off by the GROPO leader's unexpected change in subject. "You, uh…you ground pounders don't exactly beat around the bush, do you?"

   "Boldness, audacity…yes sir, they're occupational traits, I'm afraid," Oz replied with a cheshire-like grin. "You know, 'here today, gone tomorrow' and all that crap. We grab what little comfort we can where we can, and if we see something we want, we don't wait. In my business, there might not be a chance tomorrow. So…seeing as you and I are the ranking officers and I'm not under your command, strictly speaking…hey, can you cook?"

   "Uh, cook? As in prepare a meal? I can cook anything that comes out of a can…my chili is halfway decent and I can fix spaghetti in a pinch… "

    "I see. One of those unrepentant frozen-pizza bachelor types, eh? All the better, then. Well, if you prefer, we can skip the insta-heats and get right to the boomsen. I'm not picky."

   John knew that he must have an idiotic look plastered on his face at that moment, but he laughed anyway. He couldn't remember the last time a woman had propositioned him so bluntly. Hell, come to think of it, there hadn't been any quite that straightforward. Still…it had been a long time, and she was right…as well as decent looking. "Um…okay…it's a date." His laugh fading to an amused grin, he added, "Oh, and you dodged the protest about the mine I was about to make really skillfully."

   "Yes, sir…that was part of the idea. You're in charge, but as long as we're on the ground, I won't let you do anything foolhardy." Strapping her helmet back on, Oz turned to mount her AFV. Climbing into the hatch to rejoin her small staff, she turned and said, "But I'm still holding you to the date. Just so you know, I like it on top."

   "On top of what?"

   Oz eyed John knowingly. "You've been drifting out here alone in the Big Empty for a while, haven't you flyboy? This is going to be fun, I can tell already."

   "Oh…ahem…well, so much for keeping me in suspense," John chuckled with embarrassment. Shaking his head, he added, "Okay, Oz, you win. I'll sit this one out…for now. I'm going to finish up with the field hospital and the backup mainframe, and I expect regular reports. When you get to the Cathedral, I want to know."

   "Yes, sir!" Snapping John a quick salute, Oz turned and clambered the rest of the way into her vehicle. A moment later, her head popped up in the commander's hatch and her driver pulled out. As John's gaze followed the GROPO commander's vehicle across the kilometer or so that separated them from the mine entrance, he could see the gaping maw of the main shaft revealed as the GROPOs began to open the doors.

   "On top, huh?" he murmured as he watched the first vehicle's searchlight snap on as it entered the tunnel. "Why doesn't that surprise me?"

   

   ***

   About thirty minutes later, the call John had been waiting for came through. "Altenbourg to Sheridan…are you reading me, sir?"

   The transmission was heavily laced with static, owing to Oz's present location, but John could make her voice out over it. Keying his link, he replied, "Sheridan, Go."

   "We've reached the Cathedral entrance with no serious incidents," the GROPO Major began, "and the main passageway's clear…we had to pull some equipment out of the way to get to the secondary blast doors leading in, but everything seems to be in order."

   "What sort of distance are we talking about?" John asked.

   "It was about a three-kilometer road march down from the entrance, all things considered. It was a fairly straight shot."

   "Any signs of colonists?"

   "Negative, no colonists sighted," Oz answered, causing John to sigh disappointedly., "But all sorts of indicators that recent activity has taken place…the equipment looked like it had been placed purposely to block anyone trying to reach this point," she added.

   "Understood," Commander Sheridan acknowledged. "Have you entered the Cathedral yet?"

   "Negative, sir. The blast doors are closed and…this is strange…they've been sealed from the outside…"

   "Can you power the doors like you did on the surface?"

   "Uh…that's a negative, sir. These doors aren't simply unpowered…they've been sealed with some sort of Minbari locking mechanism of a type that I don't recognize. I can't blow it off in this confined space without possibly hurting anyone waiting on the other side. We're going to have to cut it off with a laser torch. I've got the equipment. Do you want us to proceed?"

   "Affirmative. Let me know when you're in position."

   "Hell, sir," Oz said mirthfully, "you should know that I wouldn't have called you unless my torch man was already standing right beside me. We'll have it off in about two seconds."

   John started getting an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something was wrong. "Oz, did you say locked from the outside? The Minbari might have left…"

   "We're through!" Oz exclaimed over the link, cutting John off. "Something smells musty…uh, give us a minute, sir. I've got to get the assault teams up..." Oz turned away from her link, and John could hear her bellowing at her troops to get into position to storm the chamber as soon as the door was completely unsealed. Turning back to her link, she excitedly whispered, "Sir! We can hear something on the other side of the door! Stand by!"

   "Oz! Wait! Scan through the door first!" John cried out, but it was no use. The link with the underground GROPOs cut out. His suddenly overeager ground force commander had turned her link off. For what seemed an eternity but was in reality only a minute or so, John tried vainly to contact Major Altenbourg. Just as he was getting ready to call his own vehicle forward to go after her, the link cut back in. What John heard sounded like pandemonium.

   John Sheridan heard the screams first, as if a thousand voices were bellowing in unison. He heard crying, piteous wails and the sound of ranting, although he couldn't make out the words. And over it all, he heard the sounds of automatic weapons fire. The din was so deafening that it threatened to short out the small speaker in his link. In the background, he could hear Oz screaming at her soldiers to hold their fire. Holding his link away from his ear, John hollered to be heard over the racket, "OZ! WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON DOWN THERE?"

   "JEEZUSFUCKINCHRIST! JOHN! CLOSE THE OUTER DOORS! DO YOU HEAR ME? CLOSE THE OUTER DOORS RIGHT NOW AND GET EVERYONE AWAY FROM THEM! IT'S COMING UP THE MAIN PASSAGE! DO YOU HEAR ME? IT'S COMING UP!"

   John didn't understand, but he didn't waste any time. Punching a new frequency into his link, he waved his arms at the GROPO team stationed with their AFV by the Moria mine's main doors. "SHUT THE GODDAMN DOORS! DO IT NOW!" he bellowed into the device. The GROPOs obviously heard him. They leapt to their feet as if they had just heard free booty call in a Mars whorehouse and quickly keyed the closing instructions into the massive doors. The clamshell apparatus began sliding closed…far too slowly, in John's opinion. Just as the doors were about to seal, John saw a faint green stream of smoke issue from the roof of the tunnel…then the door sealed, cutting whatever was making its way up off.

   The immediate crisis averted, John reprogrammed Oz's frequency back into his link and began calling. "Oz, send me a situation report…" he whispered vehemently into the device. "Tell me what's going on. Come on…talk to me Major. Talk to me or you'll be eating that chili I was talking about…"

   Another voice crackled over the link. "Sir, this is Ensign Smith!"

   "Not now, Chuck…"

   "Sir! This is important! We've accessed the colony's backup logs and there's some really nasty shit in the mine! Don't let anyone go into the Cathedral! Sir, did you hear me? Keep everyone away from the Cathedral!"

   "It's too late, Chuck…too late."

   

   ***

   Oz Altenbourg keyed her link closed, cutting Commander Sheridan off in the process. Turning to her First Sergeant, she offhandedly said, "He's cute for a Spacer, but long-winded as hell. If he can screw like he talks, I'm in for a helluva night. You got your people up, Gunny?

   "Yes, Ma'am," the senior noncom began, indicating the ten heavily armed troopers standing on either side of the door. The Sergeant started to speak further, but abruptly stopped. "Shh…there it is again," he whispered. On the other side of the door, there was a faint scraping sound. "What the hell do you suppose that is?"

   "There's one way to find out," Oz replied. Stepping aside, she motioned the lead AFV forward. "Gunny, as soon as the door's down, get your people in and fan out. Keep your weapons high and I want fingers off triggers…got it?"

   "WILCO, Ma'am," the Sergeant replied, pumping his arm in a signal to his men and nodding as they raised the barrels of their weapons.

   Oz turned to the AFV driver. "Okay…take it down."

   The driver applied power and the AFV surged forward, slamming into the large steel doors leading into the Cathedral and just as quickly applying the brakes as the doors gave way and swung open. Immediately, there was a hiss and a large green gas cloud billowed out through the doors and started making its way up the tunnel towards the surface. Oz and her soldiers coughed for a moment, but other than a stale smell, they felt no other ill effects. Pumping his arm again, the senior Sergeant and his men surged through the door into the green cloud, their CO close behind them.

   They were met with what at first seemed to be dead silence. "I can't see a thing in this shit!" one of the soldier called out, waving his hand in front of his face as they advanced further into the chamber. Oz could hear the troop's voice echo off walls a kilometer or more distant.

   "Switch to thermal imaging and shut up," Oz instructed, slapping her faceplate down and keying up her heat sensors on the small screen in front of her eyes. "I want total silence, got it?" As the green LED lit, she saw shapeless forms drifting toward her. They looked vaguely humanoid, but the resolution in her faceplate wasn't good enough to be sure. "Hello?" she called out to the nearest shape. "Are you a colonist? Can you hear me? We've come to help you…"

   The stumbling image seemed to surge at her, coming up against her faceplate and pressing against it. With a cry, Oz recoiled in surprise. The face was human…that of a bearded man…but it was horrifying. His skin was green. <The thermals…> she wildly thought. Slapping her faceplate up, she continued backing as the man approached. His hair was wild and unkempt, and there were bare patches on his skull where it had sloughed off. Those bare patches were oozing pus, and more bilious liquid was dribbling from his mouth and nose. His face was covered in festering boils, and he was missing an ear. As he continued towards her, he held up a hand, and Major Altenbourg saw that several of his fingers were missing, the stumps jagged as he splayed his fingers. It was his eyes, though, that caused her to pull her sidearm in disgust. They weren't crazy. The…human…in front of her had advanced beyond that…they were maniacal.

   "What the fuck…stay away from me!" Around her, she could hear shouts from her troops, as they no doubt encountered similar shambling monstrosities. Glancing quickly around her, Oz noticed that the green haze was thinning and more of the gas vented towards the surface. She could see more…many more…shapes shifting about. As the gas lifted towards the ceiling high above, she could see hundreds…no, thousands of people gathered in the Cathedral. Thousands…

   "You've released it," the shambling man stated in a slurred voice.

   "Wha…What?"

   "You've released it," the man said again, this time pointing at the door Oz and her troops had just entered through. Green mist continued to swirl out.

   <Oh, Shit…> the GROPO Major thought, abruptly realizing what the creature meant. Oz keyed her link to warn John, and the man leapt forward at her with surprising speed. Grabbing her gun hand, he forced the weapon to his temple and sobbed, "Kill me…please kill me. PLEASE KILL ME!"

   Oz tried to pull away, breaking another of the man's fingers off in the process, but he had once been a miner and still retained some of his strength. Closing his finger over hers, he shouted, "WE'RE DEAD! WE'RE ALL DEAD! DON'T YOU UNDERSTAND? DEAD, DEAD, DEAD! AND NOW YOU'RE DEAD TOO!" and then he squeezed, blowing out his skull with Oz's PPG.

   The shot from Oz's weapon stirred the rest of the colonists to action. Almost as one, they screamed and surged towards the GROPOs, crying and pleading with the soldiers to kill them. "WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE THINGS?" one of her men shouted. "THEY'RE ALL AROUND US! TAKE EM' OUT!" Another screamed, and then the firing began in earnest, the wailing of the creatures momentarily drowned out by the stacco bursts of GROPO slug throwers. Oz's troops were panicking…firing into the crowd and dropping the shambling colonists in scores.

   They continued to come…men, women and children. Thousands of them were moving en masse towards her and her soldiers. If Oz didn't do something soon, it would be a slaughter…it already was a slaughter, she realized. "HOLD YOUR FIRE! THEY'RE HUMANS, GODDAMMIT!" Slapping up the gun barrel of the nearest GROPO, Oz bellowed, "HOLD YOUR GODDAMN FIRE!"

   The soldiers seemed to be listening, and she heard the shooting taper off. Idiotically, her attention was grabbed by the tinny sound of a voice coming from her hand. "OZ! WHAT IN THE HELL IS GOING ON DOWN THERE?" <John…FUCK! The surface is open!> Raising her link hurriedly, Oz shouted, "JEEZUSFUCKINCHRIST! JOHN! CLOSE THE OUTER DOORS! DO YOU HEAR ME? CLOSE THE OUTER DOORS RIGHT NOW AND GET EVERYONE AWAY FROM THEM! IT'S COMING UP THE MAIN PASSAGE! DO YOU HEAR ME? IT'S COMING UP!" John didn't answer her, but over one of her soldier's links she could hear him shouting at the vehicle left on the surface to get the doors closed. Hopefully, that would take care of the biggest danger for now.

   Looking at the obviously poisoned colonists now huddled around the corpses of their friends and family members…corpses left by her soldiers…she saw other dead among them. The colonists, all of them, had been gassed with something…experimented on in some hideous way by the Minbari.

   And now, she reflected forlornly as she considered the green mist hovering over them, she and her unprotected troops had been also. As she looked at her soldiers through the mist, she could see that realization dawning on them as well. She could see it in their faces.

   Keying her link, she called up to the surface once more. In a quiet voice, she said, "John? We seem to have a…a situation down here…"

   

   ***

   Earth Year 2285

   Delenn stood looking up at the huge, ornate crystal doors that marked the entrance to the Main Temple of the Sisters of Valeria in Yedor. The light of the morning sun sparkled off the embossed carvings and Ancient tongue inscriptions that covered the surface and yet she could make out only a few words of the elder language. From what little she could understand, this was the Gate of Welcome…the first of several other gates that the uninitiated passed through as they followed the path to full Sisterhood. According to Susan, this gate had been open and the courtyards surrounding the landing pad full of Sisters when Ardenn passed through three days previously. Now it was shut and locked, the surrounding courtyards empty. <Symbolic gestures…> the Minbari woman noted. Just as their time of arrival was Delenn's gesture of disapproval to her one-time mother, so the locked gate was Irilenn's gesture to her. For all of her power and influence, Delenn was not of them and would not be allowed the courtesy of entering through the front door.

   Glancing around, she snorted amusedly, wondering exactly through what door she and Susan were expected to enter. She wasn't familiar with the layout of the building, having been to this temple only once before…as a small child. She and her father, Moraval, had brought Irilenn here before her Elevation and said their final farewells. The memory should have been a murky one, given her age at the time, but she remembered it clearly. Irilenn…her mother then…had been so excited. Within the Clan Mir, she had gained a reputation as a physician of great skill and dedication despite her youth and the accolades she received resulted in a special invitation to enter the Sisterhood…one that the young Healer had eagerly accepted. Moraval, understandably, had been heartbroken at the parting. The young Delenn, on the other hand, had not understood what was happening and had been thrilled to see all of the serene women in bright crimson robes flowing around her. It had seemed to her like a glorious festival, and she was intensely proud that her mother was to be a part of it even if it meant she would be away for a while. Only later had she realized that the parting was not temporary.

   It had taken her a few days without her mother before she started missing her and asking questions. When she did start, her father had told her all about the great honor her mother had received, all about the important service mother would render their people, and all about mother's selflessness. Delenn, ever a dutiful child, had nodded in all of the right places, but had walked away from the conversation realizing only one thing…that this 'honor' meant more to her mother than her husband's love…and more than her daughter's.

    "Are you alright?" Susan asked, touching her Minbari companion lightly on the arm and startling Delenn out of her ruminations about the past. "For a minute, you looked like you were far away from here."

   "No…I was here. Right here." Delenn replied quietly. Covering Susan's hand where it rested on her arm with her own, she took in a deep breath and tried to banish her melancholy recollection. Calling upon a lifetime of experience, she schooled her somber expression into a more businesslike one and said, "So…is there any word?"

   "Is there…" Susan echoed, stepping away from Delenn and removing a data pad from the fold of her cloak. "I'll say there is. Listen to this, and I quote the Ranger doctor… 'This sample appears on the surface to be fully Minbari, but contains so many random human gene combinations that I am unable to determine how the Minbari donor sustains proper life functions. At the same time, the chromosome helix appears perfectly meshed and stable. When run against the control, the sample evidences approximately twice the number of human gene instances...' unquote. How about that, huh?" Replacing the data pad in her cloak, Susan added, "Just so you know, I had them use the gene scan you provided Stephen prior to your transformation as the control. Ardenn is twice as 'human' as you…or, I should say, as you were back then."

   "It is as I suspected, then. Ardenn is 'kas'Valen'. Please thank the physicians for working this as diligently as they did. It is good that they were able to inform us of this before we entered the Temple."

   "Oh, they had the results three hours ago. I applied a little of my well-known charm to encourage haste. Sometimes having a reputation for possessing a sweet disposition really helps out."

   Delenn glanced with irritation at her friend. "If that is the case, why are we standing out here now looking like a couple of tourists waiting for them? Why did they not send the results to us on the flyer?"

   "Because I told them to run one other test. The medical facility has a gene scan of Jeff Sinclair in their database, and I had them do a quick comparison. Delenn, as you said, Valen's human genes appear to breed true to each succeeding generation. Both you and Ardenn are directly descended from him…but you're descended from different branches of his family. I don't know how many immediate children Valen had, but from among his kids, you two have different siblings as ancestors. The gene strings are similar, but not exact duplicates."

   "That does not surprise me. I would think that some slight variation would be expected among siblings."

   "Yeah, well…here's the rub. You and Ardenn both share a lot of genes. Obviously, she has more human ones than you, and as I said, there are a few that you have that she doesn't and vice versa. In you, most of the genes trace back to Jeff but there are a few that, uh…don't. In Ardenn, these mystery genes are far more prevalent. Nearly half of her human genes aren't present in Jeff's scan. Uh, I don't know how to tell you this, but there's another transformed human in the mix somewhere in both your ancestries…and that other human's influence is far more pronounced in Ardenn than it is in you."

   "I believe that would be 'Drala'Fizha' you refer to," a friendly voice chimed in from behind the two women. Both Susan and Delenn turned to see a Sister of Valeria gazing attentively at them. She was of medium height, stature and she appeared to be of middle age…neither particularly old nor particularly young. The Minbari Sister was garbed, as was all of her Order, in a crimson outer robe worn over an unadorned white inner one. Smiling as the two women looked her over, she made the sign of the triangle and bowed.

   It was an uninflected greeting bow, Delenn noted as she and Susan returned the gesture, one that did not convey rank or position. "Drala'Fizha?" she queried as the trio straightened. "Black Star One? That does not sound like a human name."

   "You have the translation correct, but your syntax is modern Adronato," the Sister explained. "Were you to speak Adronato as those of Valen's time did, the literal translation would be 'Dark One from the Stars', but we digress. I am the revered Sister Rakell, Enlightened One of the Order, and I greet you both on behalf of Mistress Irilenn. Welcome, Madame President." Turning to Susan, she added, "And welcome to you as well, Anla'Shok Na. You should know that your presence here is a historic event. You are to be the first outworlder in over a thousand of your years allowed within our Temple."

   "I'm honored. Now, this 'Dark One from the Stars' business?"

   "The Dark One is one of our minor secrets, minor only because she is also alluded to in the records of both the Religious caste and the Grey Council. Normally, I would not speak of her as most of our own Sisters are unaware of her existence, but as you are who you are, I am revealing nothing you would not have reasoned out on your own." Rakell gestured at Delenn and said, "She understands already."

   "Catherine Sakai?" Delenn breathed.

   "Yes…that is one of her many names," Rakell noted with a smile. "Knew her in this existence, did you not?"

   "We both did," Susan chimed in. "So that's what happened to her. She ended up here…a thousand years ago."

   "That is why I feel safe speaking of her now. As you already know of her, I break no vows." Glancing back at the Temple, Rakell gestured at a small side door. "Going we should be," she indicated. "I apologize, but through the main doors you cannot enter. That way is for Sisters and those to be Elevated only. We use this side passage to welcome those rare visitors such as you who are not of the Order. Please follow me. We must not keep the Mistress waiting any longer…you have had your thirty minutes and she has noted it. Taking more time would be unwise."

   As Sister Rakell led the two women through the small door, Susan leaned over to her friend and whispered, "That wasn't so bad. She seems friendly enough."

   "No, Susan…this is already going badly," Delenn whispered back. "Irilenn has already sent several negative signals. Even for us, the main entrance doors should have been open to indicate a true welcome. Irilenn knows that I would know enough to not pass through them or allow you to. Also, in our society, I am considered of equivalent standing to her…for a meeting such as this both she and Rakell should have greeted us to balance the party between guests and hostesses. Lastly, did you notice that Rakell greeted us using our titles rather than our names?"

   "Yeah, so?"

   "Titles outside the Order have no meaning to the Sisterhood, Susan." Delenn murmured, pursing her lips in consternation. "They consider themselves above such things. Rakell's greeting was the minimum required of her to acknowledge our presence without causing offense. Through her, Irilenn is putting me on notice that I have no status within her Temple. She knew I would understand even if you did not…"

   In front of them, Sister Rakell held up her hand, bringing the party to a halt. "One minor item I need to address to you before we go too far. The subject we discussed outside…Drala'Fizha…we cannot speak of her within the Temple."

   "Why?" Susan asked.

   "It is…prohibited. More than that I cannot say. Please respect our wishes in this matter."

   "That's curious," Susan muttered when they began walking again. "I wonder what she did?"

   "Hush about her, Susan. You will get us thrown out before we even begin, and there is one other matter we need to address before we meet with the Mistress." Leaning closer, Delenn whispered, "Be careful what you say…and listen well. You and I both know that there is more going on here than we realize, and even people as disciplined as the Sisters can possibly misspeak and tell us more than they intend if we allow them the opportunity to do so. Have no doubt that they will be looking for us to do the same. Act as if the walls have ears, because more likely than not, they are listening to us even now."

   "I always act as if the walls have ears, Delenn. Remember, I was an Earthforce General before I became Anla'Shok Na. We had our fair share of intrigue. I wasn't born yesterday."

   "I know, Susan, I know. Just remember that you are among Minbari, not humans, and we are at an extreme disadvantage here." With that, both women fell silent as they followed Sister Rakell deeper into the temple.

   The corridor they followed was well lit, straight, and narrow, and Delenn assumed it paralleled the main corridor used by the Temple's residents. That it was designed specifically for conveying those not of the Order through otherwise secret areas was evident. No other corridors branched off that she could see. "Sister Rakell?" Delenn queried, "Where exactly are you taking us?"

   "To meet with the Mistress Irilenn, of course," the Enlightened One replied. "Most of the temple is closed to outsiders, so we cannot use the main ways. Please take no offense at this. The Great Dukhat himself was forced to enter in this manner when meeting with Irilenn's predecessor…ah, here we are…"

   As Rakell trailed off, Delenn squeezed Susan's hand and mouthed, "See what I mean?" with a smile. Susan didn't see where the knowledge that Dukhat had come here was useful, but she took her friend's meaning. It was something they hadn't known before.

   Rakell stood before an unadorned crystal door. "The public office of the Mistress is through here," she indicated as she pushed the door open and indicated that Delenn and Susan were to enter. After the two visitors stepped through the archway, Rakell followed and pulled the door closed. Waving a hand at the spacious chamber, she said, "Please consider this room yours while you are with us. If you will wait a moment, I will inform the Mistress that you are here." Bowing in the same manner she had when greeting them, she then turned and exited the chamber through a more ornate door at the far end of the chamber.

   After Rakell was gone, Delenn and Susan took a moment to look around. The chamber they were in was circular, about fifty meters across and was constructed of stone walls heavily inlaid with crystal. Massive crystal pillars supported a clear, domed roof high over their heads and the sun shining through the dome lighted the chamber. Crystal chimes and statuary ringed the room, which was essentially unfurnished except for a low desk-like table set slightly off to one side. On either side of the desk, pillows were scattered, and a Minbari tea service was placed against the wall nearby. Against another wall was what appeared to be an ancient globe mounted on a crystal pedestal.

   Susan walked to the center of the chamber and turned full circle, gazing about in awe. "I hate to admit this, Delenn, but it's a bit more impressive than your office back home."

   "And more ancient," Delenn replied. "This Temple is approximately two thousand human years old."

   Her circle complete, Susan placed her hands behind her back and began pacing, examining her surroundings more critically. "Two thousand, eh? Not many buildings that old left on Earth." As she walked the perimeter of the room, she stopped every now and then to examine the statues and other accoutrements. "Pretty fancy trappings for the head of an Order devoted to selfless service, if you ask me. Some of this artwork would be considered priceless back home. All of this for just one person…it's impressive, but I can't imagine anyone using this chamber to conduct any real business." Pausing at the globe, Susan eyed it curiously. "Interesting. Delenn, this is a globe of…"

   "Of Earth? Yes it is."

   "How did you know?" Susan asked, turning to face her friend. "You've never been in here…" the human woman began, but trailed off as she realized that Delenn had not spoken. Another Sister had silently entered the room while her back was turned…one that looked exactly like Delenn or, more precisely, looked as Delenn had a quarter-century prior. "Wow, uh…talk about déjà vu," she managed to stammer. Turning to her silent companion, Susan noticed that Delenn was staring neutrally at the Sister, evidently just as surprised at the interruption as she was.

   The Sister looked from one woman to the other and smiled knowingly. Turning to Susan first, she bowed and said, "On behalf of my Order I welcome you, Susan Ivanova. I am the Mistress Irilenn of the Sisters of Valeria. We of the Order are honored to have you here. As I am sure you have been told, you are the first outworlder in over a thousand of your years to enter this Temple." Glancing at the still-silent Delenn, she conspiratorially whispered, "My offspring has not in over thirty of your years seen me face to face. I imagine that this a shock for her is."

   "Yeah…I guess it would be, seeing as you and she are virtually twins."

   "You compliment me…I am many cycles older than she, but appreciated your observation is. Now…we are being rude, as your people say." Turning to Delenn, Irilenn bowed again, lower this time. "On behalf of my Order, I welcome you, Delenn of Mir. You show great honor to both I and my fellow Sisters with your presence."

   Smiling quizzically, Delenn executed the exact same bow as Irilenn in return, and Susan sensed that the two were already attempting to establish some sort of pecking order. As she rose, Delenn replied, "I greet you, Irilenn of Valeria, and thank you for allowing us into your home. You honor us by agreeing to meet with us."

   Irilenn smiled indulgently at the two women once the greeting rituals were complete. Clasping her hands in front of her, she sighed and mirthfully said, "Formality so awkward can be, do you not agree? Well, now that we have moved beyond ceremony, let us talk. I for the chamber apologize, uh…how do you prefer to be addressed? Anla'Shok Na? Ranger One? General?"

   "Susan will do."

   "You compliment me again!" Irilenn exclaimed happily. "I have read that the offering of the Given or First name is considered a gesture of peace and friendship among your people. Perhaps we have barred Humans from the Temple for too long." Smiling, Irilenn tapped her chin in thought, in Susan's opinion looking exactly like Delenn as she did so. "Very well, then…Susan," she murmured after a moment, "I shall reciprocate. As it is just us in here, you may address me as Irilenn." Turning to face both women, she continued, "As I was saying, I for the chamber apologize," Turning her palms up in a Minbari shrug, she explained, "It is along with the position inherited, not from any indulgence of mine. This room pleases me not and I do not normally work here but, as it is one of the few chambers open to outsiders, necessity forces this to be our meeting place."

   "And the globe? It appears to be hundreds of years old, but I thought the Minbari only learned of Humans about fifty years ago."

   "Valen was, of course, a human as you are no doubt aware." Irilenn explained. "The Sisterhood was 'in on his secret' as you might say and helped him from time to time. The globe was originally his. As for it being here, studying your species is one of my…projects?" Deciding that she had used the wrong word, she paused and furrowed her brow ridge. "No…not project, that is work is it not? Hobbies…yes, that is the word. My hobby, yes…it is another reason why gratified I am that you came along with Delenn. I have never before met a human in person. Perhaps we shall have time to…chat? Yes, chat once our business is concluded." Behind her, a door closed as Rakell quietly reentered the chamber and Irilenn turned slightly at the sound. "Ah, but that will wait." Turning back to Delenn, Irilenn said, "As you have brought your second with you, pleased as I am about it, her presence requires a second on my part. Rakell will attend me. Is that agreeable?"

   "Of course," Delenn replied, secretly thankful that Irilenn and Susan's short conversation had provided her the opportunity to re-center herself. She and Irilenn had spoken several times over the comm system since her permanent return to Minbar, but this was her first time seeing her 'mother' in person in almost twenty-five cycles and the experience had initially shaken her more than she anticipated. Susan had bought her a few precious seconds to compartmentalize her lapse without embarrassing herself. "Sister Rakell probably does not remember, but she and I have met before. She was in attendance at the Chapter House in Tuzanor when I selected my aide…my former aide."

   "Yes, yes…so I was," Rakell chimed in. "I had not forgotten. You selected Ardenn. She was an interesting selection, if I may say…and I am not ashamed to admit that I had serious doubts about your choice at the time. She was so young…"

   "I found her to be quite satisfactory, despite her youth," Delenn replied. "So much so that I…"

   "…Would like a cup of tea?" Irilenn asked cheerily, cutting Delenn off. Moving to the tea service, Irilenn removed four cups from a shelf. "Please, Rakell…we are being inconsiderate hostesses, keeping our guests standing. Show them where to sit."

   Rakell bowed, seemingly embarrassed. "Forgive my manners…we receive so few visitors here." Gesturing to the pillows facing away from Irilenn, she said, "Please make yourselves comfortable."

   Once Delenn and Susan were seated at the low table, Irilenn came up from behind and placed two steaming teacups down in front of them. Returning to the service, she retrieved one each for her and Rakell and took a seat facing the two visitors. "Much better. Please taste the tea and ensure that it is to your liking. I have several different flavorings if it is not."

   Raising her cup to her lips, Delenn tasted hers. "It has an…unusual flavor. One that I am not familiar with, but it is of good taste."

   "It is brewed from leaves here at the Temple grown. That is why familiar with it you are not." Sighing, Irilenn sipped at her own tea. "If you find that you would like more, please let me know. The Apprentices who tend the garden honored will be that you found it acceptable." Setting her cup aside, she continued, "Now, to our business. You have some concerns regarding your former aide, I gather? It surprises me not. Disappointed you she must have when she failed to inform you of her recall…but please be forgiving. She to mislead you did not intend and sorry she was, I am sure. I pray that she did not give you a bad impression of the Sisterhood because of that single unfortunate lapse in her judgment."

   "No, she did not," Delenn replied, setting her own teacup down. "In truth I have come here on her behalf, Mistress. She and my family have become close during her time with us, and I wish to have her returned to my service, if at all possible."

   Irilenn and Rakell glanced at each other uncertainly for a heartbeat before Rakell replied, "That would be…ill-advised, Madame President. For many reasons."

   "Really? Why?" Delenn countered. "She served well enough for three cycles. She has credibility with my staff, she is trusted by the dignitaries and ambassadors I meet with and…"

   "…She has formed a romantic attachment with your son?" Irilenn added lightly. "Might that have something to do with your request?" Smiling indulgently, the Mistress continued, "You need not dance around this subject, Delenn. We are aware of her relationship with David Sheridan. Surely you do not think we would allow one as young and impressionable as Ardenn to live in the world outside without checking on her occasionally?"

   Delenn was surprised, but she recovered quickly. "I concede that it is a consideration," she admitted, "but not the sole consideration." Sighing, the Minbari woman eyed the two Sisters and said, "If you have been watching Ardenn as you say, then certainly you realize that a life in the Order is not what she desires. Her attachment to David notwithstanding, I believe that her calling lies outside the Sisterhood. Your resources are vast, Irilenn…surely the absence of one young female will not adversely affect your organization?"

   "But we are not speaking of just a young female, Delenn," Irilenn corrected gently. "We are no longer speaking of Ardenn. We are speaking of the revered Sister Ardenn, a Sister of Valeria…a person now subject to an obligation of selflessness that has remained virtually inviolate for over sixteen hundred cycles. She is no longer a person of free will, as you would consider it. Her previous personal relationships have been forsworn…this must her way be, if she is to perform her duty to our people. No conflict of interest can there be in her mind."

   "And this is why her return would be ill-advised," Rakell added. "She has only just been Elevated. She has accepted the Obligation, and her acceptance cannot be undone. I watched as she accepted, and it was no easy thing for her to forswear you…and the forswearing of David overcame her emotionally. Her pain is still so close to the surface, Madame President…as it was for all of us when we were first Elevated. To be returned to you…to David now, while fully subject to the Obligation…surely you realize that it would be torture for her."

   "As I understand the Obligation little, I accept your words as accurate and sincerely spoken, Rakell." Delenn observed. "I considered the same issues before coming here, and your argument has merit. Returning her under the conditions you describe would do more harm than good." Turning to Irilenn, she continued, "However, it also seems to me that you, as the Mistress, might have some capability to mitigate the Obligation…as long as Sister Ardenn served the requirements of our people in the process?"

   Irilenn rubbed her chin, considering Delenn's words. "Mitigate? If you believe that I can annul the Obligation, then you are mistaken. I cannot. It is not an Obligation given by or to me, you understand, it is an Obligation the person being Elevated accepts. I do have the authority to suppress aspects of it…if the suppression serves Minbar's needs as you say…" she murmured thoughtfully. "But I could do the same for any Sister, not just Ardenn. Sister Ardenn's service to you has brought honor…and not a small amount of prestige…to the Order and there are many highly-qualified Sisters senior to her that have expressed interest in serving you, including Sister Ardenn's own elder sibling. Explain to me why I should issue a letter of Suppression for Sister Ardenn and not another. There are many Sisters within our ranks who could serve you just as well as she."

   "Because, Mistress, it is not simply 'service' I require. Perhaps I have grown too…human…over the cycles since my transformation, but I desire to know those who serve me as 'people' rather than subordinates. A Sister of Valeria, fully subject to the Obligation, can serve…but cannot allow those not of your Order to know her as a person."

   "Is that why you selected Ardenn in the first place, Madame President?" Rakell asked.

   "No. The Sisters you offered me in Tuzanor…their credentials were all impeccable. Any one of them could have easily handled the duties I required. But as I inspected them, I looked into their eyes. The Humans have a very wise saying, you see…'The Eyes are the Windows to the Soul'…and I have found that it is true. As I looked, I realized that none of those Sisters would ever need anything from me. They were Sisters of Valeria and had already achieved everything that they desired to achieve. I could not make them any…greater…than they already were. So, I instead looked at their Apprentices, and I saw much the same…except for Ardenn. Out of all the people in that room, she was the only one who had not achieved her potential. Her eyes were the only ones that spoke to me. Her eyes asked me for help…and at that moment in my life, I needed for someone to need me." Sighing, Delenn finished the last of her tea and continued, "But you both already knew that, did you not?"

   Irilenn and Rakell glanced at each other furtively. "We…do not understand, Delenn…" Irilenn ventured.

   "Of course you do," Delenn countered knowingly. "The two of you knew that I had just lost my husband, and that my son was no longer living at home. You knew that I was alone and grief-stricken." Placing her teacup gently back on the table, she looked seriously at each of the Sisters in turn. "Now…I would like to know why you placed Ardenn in that room to begin with. I know that it was not her day to attend. She believes she was selected at the last second, but I have come to believe differently. Why?"

   "The answer to your question matters not, Delenn." Irilenn replied. "The knowing would nothing gain you. If purposely we placed Ardenn in a position to meet you, as you suppose, the final selection was still yours to make. Forced on you she was not."

   "The answer matters to me. I believe that you wanted me to select Ardenn, and you arranged the conditions of that meeting so I would do so. I think that you purposely chose the other 'candidates' so that I would find her to be the most appealing to my…my motherly instincts. But, if that is all you have to say…" Sighing, Delenn paused and looked down in her lap, fingering the hem of her robe and chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. To Susan, it looked as if she were weighing a burdensome decision. Finally, she looked back up at the two Sisters. "Forgive us, both of you. I feel that we are wasting your time," she murmured, her voice disappointed. "Irilenn, I thank you and your Order for the time you allowed Ardenn to spend with my family. However she came to be there, her presence helped me through a…a difficult time in my life. As you say, she has her own Obligation now. She has more important tasks before her than indulging David or I, and it is time I allowed her to begin them." Delenn rose, with a surprised Susan rising beside her. Making the sign of the triangle, Delenn bowed. "Do not trouble yourselves escorting us. As the passage we entered through has no other egress points, I am sure we can find the way. By the way, Irilenn, the tea was excellent. Good day, Mistress…Sister."

   Turning to Susan, she said, "I have fulfilled my promise to Ardenn by coming here and trying to have her returned, but unfortunately it is not to be. I have decided to accept the generous offer you made outside, Susan. I will draw my next aide from within the Anla'Shok. It appears that the mystery of why a 'kas'Valen' Minbari was placed in my household will remain…a mystery."

   

   ***

   "What in the hell are you doing?" Susan heatedly whispered once she and Delenn were back in the passage. "I've never known you to give up so easily and I never offered you a Ranger for an aide! I need every one of them I have just to cover our missions!"

   "Shh…remember the walls have ears. We are not giving up, Susan…and forgive my little untruth," Delenn breathed in reply. "We are 'buying a used flyer', as John would say."

   "Huh?"

   "We are practicing the 'Art of the Deal'." Delenn whispered with a slight smile. "My husband introduced me to the concept. I believe this part of the deal is called the 'Walk Out', yes? If I am correct, they will not allow us to leave without making their real…throw?"

   "Pitch."

   "Yes, pitch. Their sales pitch." Delenn echoed as they walked. "I know what I need to know now. They want us to have Ardenn. I could tell by the look in Irilenn's eyes…they are mirrors of my own, after all…and they did purposely place Ardenn in a position where I could meet her as I suspected. Irilenn avoided the question when I confronted her with it. For a Minbari, that is confirmation enough."

   "And so we walk out?"

   "Yes, but we will not walk far. I doubt that we will even reach the outer door…so slow down a little." Huddling up next to Susan, Delenn leaned in close and quietly whispered, "John told me that the most critical parts of the deal concern…offers and prices. Irilenn and Rakell are the 'used flyer salesmen'. They own the flyer and want us to make them an offer. We want the flyer and want them to name their price. I want to know their price before I make my offer."

   "And you know this…how?"

   "I knew the moment the conversation began," Delenn replied with a slow smile. Touching her friend lightly on the arm, she continued, "When dealing with my people, Susan, it is just as important to listen to what they do not say as it is to understand their words. When I told them that I wished to have Ardenn returned to my service, they did not say 'no' outright. They said her return would be ill advised, they said it would be torture for her and they obliquely offered me another Sister…but they did not say 'no'. And Irilenn conceded that she had the authority to weaken parts of Ardenn's Obligation. She even revealed to me the mechanism the Sisterhood uses to accomplish this…the letter of Suppression. The nuances may seem subtle to you, but to me Irilenn's message was clear. She wants to give Ardenn back to us, but she will not do so without some sort of return for her generosity."

   Combing her fingers through her graying hair, Susan shook her head in admiration of her friend's perceptiveness and asked, "What do you suppose they want? It can't be money…you and John are comfortable as people go, but not nearly wealthy enough to make any sort of difference to an organization like this one."

   "No, financial gain for the Order is not Irilenn's objective. The Sisters hold no personal wealth, but the Sisterhood in and of itself is not a poor organization." Turning her palms up, Delenn speculated, "Influence, perhaps? That would be more in keeping with what I would expect of them. It is no matter…whatever their desires are, we will not retrieve Ardenn today in any event."

   "Why not?" the human woman queried, "The way I see it, the fact that we at least know that they want to return her is half the battle."

   "Because she is not here," Susan's Minbari companion indicated, absently fingering the hair at the nape of her neck. "She has been moved away from this Temple."

   Susan stopped walking and looked critically at her friend. "Okay…you just had me mentally patting you on the back for your cleverness. Now you've got me worried. How do you know she's not here?"

   Turning to face Susan, Delenn's formerly confidant expression was replaced by one suddenly a little uncertain. "Because if she were, Irilenn would have had her present while we talked. When selling a used flyer, the salesman will always put the flyer in plain view while the uh…haggling? Yes, the haggling takes place. It distracts the buyer and weakens his or her resolve."

   "I don't follow you."

   Delenn favored Susan with a watery smile. "Surely you do not think I could have done what I just did…walk out…if Ardenn had been standing there making…what do you call them? Puppy frog eyes? Puppy frog eyes at me? For me to turn my back and walk out with her present would have crushed her. She would not realize that it is just a tactic and would think I was abandoning her." Her smile fading, she unconsciously rubbed her hands together in a hand-washing motion, a gesture Susan knew indicated uncertainty in her friend. "But why is she not present?" she queried rhetorically. "Irilenn no doubt understands the pressure that her presence would exert over me. Susan…she should be here. I fear something the Sisterhood did not expect has happened…" Delenn trailed off as she heard footsteps padding quickly up the corridor. "That will be Rakell racing to stop us from leaving," she whispered. "When we go back in, we should get some real answers. If they are trying to sell us a used flyer, Susan, their next tactic will be to isolate us from each other and try to make separate bargains. Agree to nothing without informing me…understand?"

   "Yeah," Reaching out, she caught Delenn's arm as she turned towards the sound and faced her. "Listen. Before we go back in, how high a price are you willing to pay to make this 'deal' happen?"

   "To secure David and Ardenn's happiness? A very high price indeed, old friend. How high that will be…remains to be seen."

   

   *** "They are leaving, Irilenn! You just jeopardized eight hundred cycles of work by refusing to answer a simple question!" Rakell whispered vehemently as she watched the passageway door close behind Delenn and Susan. "It would have done us no harm to acknowledge that we intended for her to select Ardenn! There are any number of reasonable explanations we could have provided…compassion for her grief not being the least of them! You would not have had to reveal that she was meant for David!"

   "Calm yourself, Rakell," the Mistress replied archly. "I did not offer her an explanation because I did not wish for her to know the truth nor did I want to fabricate a falsehood. My integrity has been compromised enough over the cycles for necessary reasons…I have no desire to compromise it for unnecessary ones." Smoothing the front of her robe, she added, "And worry not about the two of them leaving. They will go no further than a few meters down the corridor…and then Delenn will stop and wait for us to come after her."

   "How do you know?"

   Irilenn chuckled and replied, "Do you truly believe that the Minbari who defeated and shamed the entire Warrior caste in the Starfire Wheel surrender so easily would…to a pair of old women in crimson robes?" With an amused shake of her head, she continued, "Clever she is…she learned much and revealed little, even if she only learned that which I wished for her to know. Mistress Avaier was wise to respect her capabilities, even though she is an adversary we ourselves created. Caught you her reference to Sister Ardenn being 'kas'Valen'?"

   Rakell nodded. "I did…and the fact that she even knew the term surprised me, I admit. I was unaware that any outside of our Order even knew such people existed. So few know of Children of Valen at all. How do you think she knew?"

   "She has resources, Rakell," Irilenn indicated as she absently rubbed the back of her neck where the base of her crest touched her skin. "She has a Triluminary just as we do, and access to the testing facilities of the Humans as well. The technologies of medicine and healing are the one area in which the Humans exceed us, and likely it is that her data on Ardenn is more complete and detailed than even our own…but it is knowledge only recently acquired, I am sure."

   "I do not understand how you would know that."

   "Because my former daughter, clever as she is, made one error and misspoke, Rakell," Irilenn answered with a smile. "Had she possessed the information about Sister Ardenn's genetic structure for long, inquired she would not have about us placing the child into her home. Understood already she would have." Furrowing her brow ridge in thought, she explained, "Delenn knows not the ramifications of Ardenn being 'kas'Valen'…only that she is. Her comment was made to Anla'Shok Na but at me it was directed…her signal to me that she knows more than we anticipated." With a chuckle, she murmured, "I am impressed, Delenn…very worthy you are. Already as your own daughter you consider her, so more…agreeable…this may make you."

   "What is your intent now, Mistress?"

   "Oh, we shall let them for a few more minutes wait… 'cooling their heels' as a human might say…and then I shall send you to beg them to return." Irilenn placed a finger on her chin and thought a moment, considering her options. "When they do, I wish to speak to Delenn alone. You will take Anla'Shok Na aside…show her the parts of the Temple that are open to visitors, allow her to speak to a few selected Apprentices and explain to her how…valuable…the support of the Order could be to her organization. Feel her out, Rakell. Having my new friend Susan as an ally would in many ways be even more beneficial than having Delenn herself. Influential she is among both our races, and a direct link to the Humans she would provide us."

   Hesitantly, the Enlightened One asked, "And…if Anla'Shok Na should inquire about…about Sister Ardenn? Her whereabouts? She does not have a reputation for accepting silence as an answer and her temper is legendary..."

   "We agreed not to speak of this, Rakell." Irilenn countered with irritation. "You agreed that you would not address this topic before me again, yet I see that your guilty conscience compels you to. Is it truly your desire that we stand for judgment before the Grey Council? Do you truly wish to hear Valen's greyrobes officially shame and censure the Order?" Looking hard at her subordinate, she dangerously hissed, "Delenn appointed six of the Nine herself…think not that they would refrain from meting out the strictest form of censure were they to find out! What happened to Sister Ardenn was unfortunate, but of no matter in any event…the Plan will proceed, and there will be others in the future. I will not have our goal denied us because one stubborn Minbari female of questionable breeding, below-average intellect and above-average crest density chose to listen to the ranting of a…a 'ver'kaff' rebel eight hundred cycles dead rather than face the reality of her place."

   "That 'ver'kaff' rebel was the Mother of all of us…" Rakell noted, "And she loved her children."

   "Loving one's children does not necessarily make one a 'good' mother, Rakell," Delenn's mother retorted. "Zha'Ver'kaff shirked her responsibility to the race…and influenced her latest progeny to choose…unwisely. Had Sister Ardenn possessed a little more foresight and proven cooperative…standing here today she would be, my Suppression of her oath of Selflessness in her hand and my blessing of her Joining in her ears." Sighing, Irilenn closed her eyes and uttered a silent plea for patience. "Now, I have said all that I will say regarding Sister Ardenn or the incident that befell her. Respect my admonition to you, Enlightened One."

   A chastised Rakell bowed submissively. "You misunderstand me, Mistress. I have not forgotten your admonition to me in this matter. I merely inquire as to what you will say to Delenn should she ask. She and Anla'Shok Na will no doubt compare notes once they leave us. For a matter this serious, our explanations need to match."

   Calming, Irilenn conceded the point. "Very well. Should Delenn ask, I will merely tell her that Ardenn is…indisposed. I will indicate that she asks for privileged information should she request additional details." Standing, Irilenn began clearing the table. As she recovered the cups, she said, "Now…I believe they have had sufficient time to consider their next move. You may go and ask them to reconsider leaving. Be sure to act appropriately beseeching."

   Rakell rose from her bow and turned to follow Delenn and Susan. Turning back to face her superior, she said, "You realize that nothing is going as we planned, Irilenn. Nothing at all."

   "That is not true, old friend," Irilenn murmured in reply. "Even if Delenn and Anla'Shok Na were to truly leave us now and never return, I would consider this meeting successful."

   "If I may ask…why?"

   "Because of this," Bending over the table, Irilenn smiled as she recovered the last cup and held it up. "My daughter enjoyed the tea I prepared for her. She consumed every drop of it."

   

   *** The loud 'CRUMP' of a rocket-propelled grenade detonating over their heads sent both John and David face-first into the dirt behind a small pile of boulders. Scrambling back up to his knees, David leaned against the rock outcrop and raised his binoculars, peering cautiously down the mountainside. What he saw made him groan. Dozens of Dilgar troops were working their way up the rugged slope below them, perhaps a kilometer away. Further down the mountain, he could see more wasp-like drop ships setting down and disgorging enemy troops. "In Valen's Name," he murmured, "They must really be intimidated by a couple of marooned Rangers. They've got to be putting at least a battalion on the ground…and close by."

   "It's not us they're after specifically, David," John huffed, crouching beside his son and cradling a PPG rifle in his arms. "They're after the weapons Jha'Dur designed for the Minbari during the war."

   "Jha'Dur?" David asked, his eyebrows rising curiously. "That's not a Minbari name."

   "Jha'Dur…Deathwalker…was a Dilgar, not a Minbari. She was killed by the Vorlons about five years before you were born," John explained. "After the Dilgar War ended, the Dilgar core worlds were destroyed when their sun went nova. One of their leaders, a particularly nasty War Marshal named Jha'Dur, somehow survived and wound up hiding out with the Wind Swords clan. When the Earth-Minbari war broke out, she volunteered her services." Snorting disgustedly, he glanced over the boulders at the advancing troops and added, "Well, to make a long story short, she knew a lot more about human physiology than the Minbari did and the Wind Swords had her secretly design weapons specifically tailored to target humans."

   "Why would the Minbari even need them?" David grunted as they darted a few meters further up the mountain and took up a new position. "Earth was already being pulped pretty thoroughly."

   John glanced over the outcropping and saw that they were momentarily out of the view of the advancing troops. "Okay…let's go, David!" he barked. As the two trotted down the footpath they were following, John continued, "Earth was losing, son, but not fast enough to suit them. We were putting up more of a fight than the Minbari anticipated, and the Warrior caste was…Hell, we were embarrassing them and it was pissing them off."

   "Embarrassing them?" David huffed, watching his breath vaporize in the frigid air surrounding them as he followed his father, every now and then glancing back to ensure no Dilgar scouts were creeping up on them. "How could they be embarrassed about winning?"

   "At the outbreak of the war, the Minbari were enraged and were screaming for human blood…" John answered, trailing off as he paused at a fork in the path and tried to remember the way. Deciding to follow the uphill route, he began jogging again with David in tow. As he jogged, he picked up the conversation and said, "The Warriors cockily told the Grey Council that it would take them only a few weeks to eradicate us…they had a thousand-year technological advantage, after all. Well, it didn't work out that way. It ended up taking them three years. After two, they were losing their support…the Minbari people were getting tired of the fighting and had pretty much figured out that, while humans were the scum of the universe, we weren't as evil as the Warriors made us out to be." Stopping to catch his breath, John put his hands on his knees and sucked in air, his breather hissing at the strain. "Son…" he gasped, "…remind me when we get home that I'm almost seventy years old."

   "It's the breather restricting your airflow, not your age. You're doing fine. You don't look a day over fifty."

   "Okay…thanks, I think." Looking over David's shoulder, John pointed behind the younger man and said, "Turn around, son. Do you see that whitish dome? That's the entrance to the mine I was telling you about. That's where we're headed. Not much farther, now…"

   Quickly estimating the distance, David figured that they had about half a kilometer to go. Almost simultaneously, he heard the clatter of falling rock and an alien scream from somewhere behind them. One less Dilgar to deal with, but they were getting close. "We'd better be moving."

   "Yeah," John breathed. Heaving himself back up he began trotting up the path, talking as he went. "There were Minbari, David…powerful Minbari…who wanted the war ended. Jha'Dur's weapons seemed to be a means of ending the hostilities quickly…kind of like using the atomic bomb on Japan at the end of World War Two on Earth. Minbar's victory was assured one way or the other, but the Grey Council reasoned that use of a superweapon would end the fighting in days rather than months and save many more lives…Minbari lives…in the long run."

   "But they never used the weapons…"

   "Sure they did," John grimly corrected, pulling them up short of the dome and peering around the corner at the entrance. Behind him, David could see a much smaller door, resembling an airlock, cut into the main clamshell. "The Grey Council wanted a demonstration before giving final approval to deploy the weapons throughout the fleet, and the Wind Swords happened to have captured this human colony, a colony world that had a fairly large noncombatant population. They brought the Grey Council here and demonstrated their most effective and insidious weapon to them." Gesturing at the mine entrance to their front, he concluded, "And so here we are."

   "I don't get it," David grunted. "If they did their demonstration, how could the people still have been alive when you got here? The war had been over for half a year."

   "The weapons was used twice. Once for the demonstration and once…well, that's part of why what happened here was so horrible, son. You see, the Dilgar believe that only they have a right to exist and all the other races are here at their sufferance. When others don't agree, the Dilgar take it personally and believe that anyone who says different should suffer for their lack of enlightenment…and that's the philosophy Jha'Dur followed when she developed her weapons for the Minbari. The demonstration to the Grey Council only involved a few test subjects, but what the Council saw was…brutal. Jha'Dur's weapons killed humans, all right…but they weren't quick or efficient. The people subjected to them died slowly and painfully over a matter of a couple of weeks, fully aware of what was happening for the most part…at least until close to the end."

   "I assume that this wasn't what the Council wanted," the younger man murmured as he glanced back the way they had come, his green eyes darting across the rocky escarpments looking for unwelcome visitors.

   John eyed the airlock door welded into the clamshell entrance. Pulling out his notebook, he flipped quickly through the pages as he answered. "Actually, I think most of them couldn't have cared less how we died as long as we did, son. For the Warrior members, the only good human was a dead human. The others were…divided. The Satai most against it raised enough of a stink after the demonstration that the full Council ultimately decided that they were going to beat us anyway, so why bother with the uh…moral implications."

   The whine of another incoming round sent the two men scrambling for cover again. "Dammit!" David exclaimed in frustration. "They know we're here…why didn't they just leapfrog ahead of us?"

   "Because…shit…" John broke off as a shower of dislodged stones rained down on their heads, "Because they can't get in. The entrance is booby-trapped."

   "They can't get in?" David repeated incredulously, almost straightening in surprise until his alert father jerked him back down. "They can't get in? Did it ever occur to you that the same booby traps that keep them out will keep us out, too?"

   "Dammit, David!" John hissed. "Why don't you go and get your fool head blown off while we're here, okay? Give me something really heavy to explain to your mother and fiancée when we get back!" Chewing his lip in irritation, he slapped his worn black notebook against his palm. "Who the hell do you think booby-trapped the entrance in the first place?" Replacing the notebook in his pocket, he continued, "The problem's not getting in, son. The problem's keeping the Dilgar out once we get in. Once I deactivate the surface trigger, it can't be reactivated until we get to the Cathedral. That's where the bomb is."

   "The…bomb? There's a bomb in there?"

   "Son, back in those days I had quite a reputation for creative use of explosive devices. They have their advantages."

   "I hesitate to ask this, but what kind of…bomb…did you leave?" Rolling his eyes, he muttered, "As if I really have any doubts," under his breath.

   "Why, a nuke, of course," John answered innocently. "A Dark Star Labs DS-207 AI smart bomb. Five hundred megatons."

   "AI? As in Artificial Intelligence?" David queried dubiously. "This isn't one of those creepy bombs that talks to you, is it? The kind that like to carry on a conversation while you're arming them?" Putting his head in his hands, David reflected, not for the first time, that he should have stayed home. Hell, Ardenn was probably back and safe in her own bed right now…or snuggled up in his waiting for him. "Dad…this 'life of adventure' stuff? It isn't all that it's cracked up to be."

   "No…not really. I've generally found that the 'adventure' part doesn't come into play until you're safe at home and looking back on it years later. As for now, don't worry…you'll like Bomb. She's quite the optimist, and she plays a mean hand of Poker." Leaning in, John smiled slightly and added, "Just don't tell her your mother's a Minbari. Bomb's programmed not to like Minbari and we don't want to piss her off, eh?"

   "Earthforce programmed its bombs to hate the Minbari? That's sick!"

   "Yeah, but it sure kept the bombs motivated," John replied with a shrug. Quickly scanning both the door and the path behind them, he dropped the subject and said, "Time to go underground…" As the young Ranger got ready to dart for the entrance, John grabbed his arm and made him hesitate. "Once we're inside, son…you've got to keep that breather on. If you take it off or it comes loose…you'll become the last victim of the war. And one more thing…I can't let the Dilgar have what's in the mine, but I want you to live to see your mother and Ardenn again. No matter what happens to me, I won't let it end here for you. It ended here for others…too many others. If I tell you to go, you go. Understand?"

   "No," David replied. "No, I don't…and don't even think about laying some sort of self-sacrifice scenario on me. I'll do as you say, but we're leaving together."

   John shook his head in disappointment. His original scenario for this trip hadn't involved the mine. He and David would have come down, toured the colony site and GROPOs graveyard, and left. The mine…David wasn't ready for this…he'd see the evidence and start asking difficult questions, assuming the Dilgar didn't get them first. The presence of the Dilgar had changed everything. They didn't have a choice now. They hadn't had a choice since the moment they arrived. David would either understand or he wouldn't. His blue eyes unreadable, John gazed hard at the young man and murmured, "You'll understand soon…at least I hope you will."

   

   Earth Year 2249

   "We're dying, aren't we, John?" Oz Altenbourg murmured, slumping dejectedly down on a bench in the Cathedral. Around her, others milled about…her soldiers infected by an as yet unidentified Minbari weapon and the remaining colonists, far fewer in number now than they had been even a few days prior. For days, the colonists had been dying…with the living barely coherent enough to move the bodies aside. The GROPOs weren't as far along, but the green clouds hovered around them as surely as they did the colonists who had been exposed previously. The GROPO Major had no doubt that a fate similar to that of the colonists she was observing awaited her and her soldiers…perhaps in a week, maybe two. "Have your people figured out anything yet?"

   "Between the research data left in the colony's database and our own analysis, we believe that the cloud is a biogenic weapon specifically designed to target the human genetic structure." John Sheridan answered, his voice hissing through the voice box of the mask covering his face. "The…spores…the spores that carry the weapon itself seem to be attracted by human life energy. They enter through the lungs and spread throughout the body, latching onto cells and releasing some sort of sub-molecular gene destroyer. The…the active ingredient goes after our genes, breaking them down over time."

   "That's good to know, sir," Oz answered sarcastically, "but I meant have you figured out how to flush this shit out of us?"

   "No, but don't give up yet," John replied. "The best minds on Earth are looking for answers as hard as they can. They'll come up with something."

   "Bullshit!" Oz exclaimed. Gesturing around her at the people milling about, she said, "Look at them. The colonists are dropping like flies, and we're not far behind!" As she spoke, one of the colonists slumped to the ground…twitching and spasming in his death throes, his eyes rolling back in his head as the green Minbari death cloud finally overcame him. As John and Oz watched, a trio of masked medtechs rushed over to the fallen man, arriving just in time to pronounce him dead.

   Gesturing at herself, she waved her fingers through the green mist surrounding her. The mist seemed to follow her hand…in fact, it followed every human in the chamber, moving when they moved and settling around them when they stopped. "Do you see this, sir? Once it latches on, it doesn't let go! I've got this shit all down in my lungs now. Hell, three days we've been down here! It's found its way into my bloodstream…into every cell in my body, just like you said! And you tell me that the 'best minds' are working on it? What fucking 'best minds' are you talking about? Earthmed? The biotech megacorps? Who?"

   John sighed sadly. "We've transmitted everything we've got on this to Earthdome. General Lefcourt has assured me that…"

   "They're not doing anything, John!" Oz hissed. "Don't you get it? They're not going to do anything! Have they asked that fucking fake Minbari 'Ambassador' Delenn what this shit is? Of course not! Her goddamn chop is all over the records you pulled from the colony database! She authorized this bullshit! You think Earthdome is going to reveal that the bitch is a Satai and risk retaliation? Hell no! All of that 'Peace and Understanding' crap she's spouting…forget it, she's just another deadskin butcher and we're powerless to do anything about it!"

   "It's only been a few days…and this…cloud…is unlike any chem or bio weapon we've ever seen. We think that its beyond anything the Minbari could do alone, too. It came from somewhere else, Oz! Give the med guys a chance…"

   "John," Major Altenbourg said quietly, "I'm not a doctor, but I know that this…weapon…isn't just chemical or biological. I can…I can feel it. Feel it inside of me. It likes us. We taste good to it…its alive, John. Its hovering around you, too. Can't you feel it?"

   "It's an inhalant, Oz. The carrier spores are too large to penetrate our skin. As long as we don't breathe it in and we decontaminate ourselves when leaving the mine, we're safe. Your warning saved everybody on the surface."

   "The few colonists left coherent down here told us what happened, John." Oz murmured, standing up and starting to pace. "I'd like to hang on just long enough to pay those bonehead murderers back for this. Why, John? The war is over. Five months, John…THE WAR HAD BEEN OVER FOR FIVE FUCKING MONTHS WHEN THEY USED THIS SHIT! WHY DID THEY DO THIS?" Settling almost immediately, Oz continued, "Two years during the war the boneheads pretty much leave the colonists alone…and then…five months after the fighting stops…they herd them all down here and expose them to this 'biogenic cloud'. Why?"

   "I don't know. Perhaps they wanted to destroy the witnesses. Maybe they were leaving us a message…like 'We could have done this to your whole civilization, but we didn't'. I just don't know."

   "I'll tell you what I think," Oz muttered. "I think that they did this out of spite. I think they did this because they were pissed off at the surrender and they knew we couldn't do anything about it. I think that fucking bonehead Delenn…Ambassador, Satai, Peace Negotiator…whatever she calls herself when she gets up in the morning, decided that ending the war was a mistake and is trying to goad us into attacking."

   "Satai Delenn ordered the Warriors to clean this place up and withdraw. We haven't found any evidence to indicate that she ordered the Warriors here to kill all the inhabitants."

   "They don't DO anything without orders, sir!" Oz heatedly countered. "There is no such thing as 'initiative' among the Minbari! Out of their whole flat-eyed stinking race, only the nine grey-robed fuckers at the top make any big decisions and I've seen the vids you downloaded! Delenn was here! She sat in on the so-called 'demonstration' the deadskins put on last year!"

   "And she ordered a halt to it. She and the three others whose names we got from the database." Scratching his head through the hood of his mask, he continued, "Doesn't that seem suspicious to you? The four Satai who are identified by name also happen to be the ones that ordered a halt to the tests? And why the hell was all that information on a HUMAN database to begin with? Don't you think the Minbari would've brought computers of their own when they occupied this place?" Snorting through his mask, John said, "It's a set-up. We were meant to find those names."

   "What are you doing, sir? Defending the lead murderess now?" Oz exclaimed, angrily throwing her helmet across the stone floor of the chamber. "That deadskin put her name on this! It doesn't matter whether she liked the results of her little project or not! She still started it! Your computer guru pulled the names of four of those sleazy animals out of the database, including the lead killer, and verified that the reports were genuine. That's all I need to know. Whether the records were left on purpose or not, we've got four of the responsible boneheads cold…not that we can do anything about it." Oz snorted in disgust, and John couldn't help but notice a thin trail of green mist blowing out her nostrils…only to be just as quickly re-inhaled. Looking back up at him, she said, "You passed the names to Earthdome I assume, sir?"

   "They went forward with the last report."

   "And that's why we're going to die, John," she whispered, suddenly subdued. "Earth can't afford to fight any more, and Earth can't allow us to survive. Peace is breaking out, John…that 'Babylon Project' everyone's talking about…and no one can afford a scandal. Earthgov can't allow the 'peace' to be jeopardized…and if word about this got out, we'd either have to go to war again or Earthgov would collapse. Either option means disaster. What's a GROPO company and a few thousand colonists that everyone had already given up for dead when compared to that?" Leaning forward so no one else could hear, she murmured, "John, listen to me. Earthgov will string this 'best minds' drivel out for another week or two. Just long enough for us to get beyond hope…and then they're going to call you up and say 'This is now classified Top Secret'. If you were anyone else, any other ship Captain, they'd probably even make you disappear. But you're a highly visible war hero. That fact may be the only thing that'll keep you and your crew alive. I guarantee, though, that they're going to watch you like a hawk over this, you and your crew. You're going to be part of a cover-up, you just wait and see…and if you ever become 'inconvenient' you'll have an airlock accident someday."

   "I'll believe it when I see it."

   "Sir…I'm sorry." Oz noted sadly. "You're still a Believer. You think that others will do the right thing because you would if you were in their position." Walking over to her helmet, she bent and picked it up, dusting it off before sticking it back under the crook of her arm. Turning back to John, she continued, "Well, the galaxy doesn't turn like that. I don't know you all that well, but I know enough to tell that you're a decent man, John Sheridan, and it's a shame that other people aren't as…as good as you picture them to be. The Minbari who killed us…your 'Satai' Delenn…she can talk cooperation and friendship until she maybe believes it herself, but in her heart she'll always be an unrepentant murderess who will never see us as 'people'. And our own government…they'll write this off as an 'aberration' that's best forgotten about in the name of peace and stability." Gesturing around her, she took in her soldiers and the few hundred colonists remaining and sighed. "Do what you can. Have your med teams do what they can. I'll hope for the best because you ask it of me…but John, when that message from Earthgov comes…come back here and see me if I'm still alive. I have a request of you."

   "What?"

   "I'll tell you when the time comes."

   

   ***

   <Over a week,> John thought, staring out at the horizon around his small command post on the surface. <Over a week…and nothing other than routine messages. Oz was right…this is all going to be swept under the carpet…>

   A few hours prior, John had received word from the Cathedral that the last colonist had died. Almost five thousand men, women and children…civilians, who had managed to survive the war and managed to keep their little society functioning under Minbari occupation. People who had every reason to believe that they would someday be a part of the human community again. The last one had finally succumbed to a weapon that shouldn't have been used, a weapon whose use made no sense. And Earthgov said…nothing. Except to acknowledge that the EAS Lexington's reports regarding the…atrocity…that had taken place here had been received. And that Earth's 'best minds' were feverishly doing…something.

   Not that it would do the colonists any good now…but John still had Major Altenbourg and over a hundred of her soldiers, people he was responsible for even if they weren't strictly under his command, slowly dying down there. None had died yet, but all were starting to show the effects of genetic degradation. They were becoming weak, their bodies starting to damage easily. Lesions were breaking out on their skin. A few of the worst cases were starting to lose their cognitive abilities…their rationality. There was no panic…GROPOs were a naturally fatalistic lot to begin with, besides being extremely disciplined…but their morale was virtually non-existent.

   Based on the analysis of his own medical personnel, John estimated that the dying wouldn't start for a few more days. Time enough, perhaps, to save them if Earth's 'best minds' came through.

   John still held out hope…but not much.

   "Sir?" Ensign Smith called from behind him, shaking John from his turbulent thoughts.

   "Hmm…what is it, Chuck?" he murmured without taking his gaze off the horizon.

   "That Gold Channel comm you were waiting for is coming through. General Lefcourt is on the horn."

   Turning from the horizon, Commander Sheridan mumbled, "Good, maybe we'll finally get some answers," to himself. More loudly, he said, "I'll take the transmission in the commo shack. Have Commander Daniels patch it through from the ship."

   Entering the commo shack…really an oversized trailer more than anything…John removed his hood and gloves, running a hand absently through his hair before sitting down at the secure comm terminal. On the keypad next to the screen, he punched in his command code and altered the azimuth of the dish antenna outside, directing it to rotate off the local jumpgate beacon and back onto the ship in orbit above. Outside, he could hear the dish shifting on its gimbals as it locked on to the EAS Lexington's secure transmitter. On his screen, the familiar 'Shark and Minuteman' logo of his ship appeared, replacing the ISN logo that had been there before. Once his receiver was aligned, he sat and waited for the Gold Channel relay from his ship to be patched through. He didn't have to wait long.

   "Incoming Gold Channel transmission," The Lexington's computer core intoned, its signal beamed from the orbiting cruiser. "Eyes only for Commander John J. Sheridan. Code word authentication required."

   "This is Commander John J. Sheridan," John answered. "Code word is 'Obsidian'."

   "Code word verified and accepted. Stand by…" After a moment, the ship's logo was replaced by the face of John's commanding officer on this mission, General Lefcourt. John didn't care much for being answerable to a man he held partially responsible for the recently ended war, but then again, he held himself partially responsible as well. Had he accepted Lefcourt's offer to take over as Exec of the Prometheus…well, no one would ever know if things would have turned out differently. It didn't matter any more. "Hello, John," Lefcourt began without preamble. "How's the situation out there?"

   "Not good I'm afraid, sir." John answered honestly, unconsciously straightening in his seat. "We lost the last of the colonists a few hours ago. The specifics will be forwarded with our next scheduled report." Leaning forward slightly, John continued, "I hope you've got some better news at your end. I still have Major Altenbourg and over a hundred GROPOs sick in the mine. They're not goners yet, but they're fading."

   "John, Earthgov is aware of the predicament those soldiers are in. We have the best minds doing everything they can to resolve this."

   "Who's working on it, if I may ask, sir?" John asked. Something about the way Lefcourt flicked his eyes…he wouldn't look directly into his pickup, and that made John suspicious. "Have they come up with anything? A theory…a hypothesis? A hunch? Anything at all? Those poor troops are losing hope…I need to be able to tell them something, and I don't have much information to work with. Give me something to give them."

   "Top experts, John," the General replied nebulously. "That's all I can tell you."

   <Not good enough, sir,> John thought with increasing alarm. He hadn't wanted to believe Oz, but his stomach was starting to sink. "What top experts, sir?" he inquired, his voice rising an octave. "Earthmed? Have they found out anything? Has anybody approached our new Minbari friends and asked? This is their weapon, after all. Certainly their Ambassador could find out the specifics. Maybe they even have a counteragent."

   "The Command Authority believes that to approach the acting Minbari…ambassador…about this matter would be disruptive, given her…alleged…involvement in the development of the weapon and the circumstances under which it was used. From a political standpoint, the Command Authority thinks it best that we not reveal our knowledge of her true position to her at such a critical point in our relations with our former adversaries."

   'Command Authority' was the Earthforce euphemism for the Earth Alliance President. <Shit! This was it, then.> "Politics? This isn't politics, sir! I have almost five thousand dead here…and the few that are left alive are hanging on every word I say! Sir, I don't have anything left to give them!"

   "Listen carefully, John," General Lefcourt intoned slowly, carefully enunciating every word. "I know that from your perspective, it doesn't seem right…but you have to see the 'Big Picture'." Steepling his fingers, the General continued, "We won the war, but it was a hollow victory. Our fleet is effectively non-existent, our Alliance…barely hanging on. We, John…you and I and the few others that are left…are all that stands between Humanity and the abyss. One more little push and we would topple over. Now, through lying low, cooperation and not rocking the boat, we have a chance to gain some breathing room, some room to rebuild…and we will rebuild, John, stronger than we were before. This unfortunate…incident…won't be forgotten and when the right time comes, we'll remind the Minbari about what they did to our people there. That time isn't now, Commander. It's in the future. It has to be in the future…and, God willing, you and I will live to see that future. In the Now, however, we survive at the sufferance of our new 'friends'. That's our reality, John…Sacrifice. That's the big picture."

   "There are no 'best minds', are there, sir?" John asked rhetorically, closing his eyes to keep tears from welling up. "No experts working on a solution. No teams of scientists analyzing the data we're sending. No one is even aware of this, are they?"

   "The people who need to be aware…are aware," Lefcourt replied cryptically. "Remember the big picture, John." Clearing his throat, Lefcourt shuffled some flimsies in front of him and pulled one from the stack. "We have new orders for the Lexington, Commander. You are ordered to stand down your operation on Flynn's World and prepare to withdraw."

   "Sir…didn't you hear what I said earlier? We still have over a hundred sick soldiers down in the mine! My ship doesn't have enough quarantine space for that many…I could barely handle ten of them!"

   "John…you are ordered to stand down your operation," Lefcourt repeated with irritation in his voice. "Which part of 'Stand Down' didn't you understand? Those personnel who are free of the weapon's influence are to be re-embarked aboard your ship immediately. Those…not…will be accounted for as line-of-duty casualties. Next of kin have already been notified. Major Altenbourg and her troops have all been awarded the Alliance Silver Palm, posthumously."

   "She'll be so glad to hear it. It sounds like Earth's 'best…political…minds' came up with a solution even if no one else could…eh, sir?" John replied, not even attempting to hide the disgust in his voice.

   General Lefcourt sighed. "This comes from the top, John…the very, very top. You don't have to like it and I don't have to like it. I just have to order you to do it…and You-Will-Do-It. Do I make myself perfectly, crystal clear, Commander?"

   "As clear as glass."

   "Good. Specified tasks are as follows: This operation and every associated activity are now classified 'Top Secret - Indigo', John. By Presidential Directive, in case you've forgotten…"

   "I haven't," John murmured, his head in his hands.

   "I didn't think you had," Lefcourt noted before returning to the order. "You are to leave any equipment in place that may have become contaminated. You will leave the protective satellite belt in place and operational…ah, John?"

   "Yes, sir?"

   "You have 'devices' aboard you ship, don't you?"

   Lefcourt meant nuclear weapons, John knew. "I have two. One rock-buster and one talker."

   "You are to emplace those weapons at both the colony site and the mine. They are to be armed with timed fusion triggers."

   "You want me to…to nuke the site?" Jerking his head out of his hands, John gaped at the screen, barely able to speak. "And leave our dying on the ground when we do it? Sir…I won't…"

   "No, John," the General corrected. "We don't want the site destroyed. We want it…secured. Remember the big picture, John. We may be able to use this some day in consultations with our new friends…and we don't want any baldies going in there and messing with the 'evidence' of what they did to our people. You are to take such measures, as you deem appropriate, to safeguard the site from outside infiltration. Understood?"

   "Understood, sir."

   "Much better." Lefcourt replied. Almost as an afterthought, he added, "There's one other item…a formality really. Each member of your crew will execute a lifetime binding non-disclosure agreement before you reach Io Station. No member of your crew will ever speak of this…incident…again under penalty of court martial. The specific charge would be Treason, punishable by mind-wipe. John, I can't begin to tell you how serious this is. If word of this were to get out…were to get back to the Minbari, much less our own people…John, we don't have any 'fight' left in us. We can't take the Minbari on over this right now. I need you to make your people understand that. If any balk, they are not to leave your ship."

   "Can you clarify that, sir?"

   "It means that they will not leave your ship." Lefcourt repeated, adding, "I leave the interpretation of that directive up to you, but I want you to know that Lieutenant Commander Daniels is receiving the same set of instructions." Placing the flimsy back on his stack, General Lefcourt licked his lips and said, "Io will be a good assignment for you, John…you can unwind a little. And, in a few years the new Omegas will be rolling off the line. Scuttlebutt is that one of the first will have your name penciled in the Commander's slot. Relax, John…we'll have you out of there soon. The ugly tasks are behind you now."

   "No, sir," John replied sadly, recovering his gloves as he prepared to terminate the transmission, "I have one remaining. Sheridan out."

   The transmission terminated, and John sat quietly for a moment in the silence…staring in disbelief at a blank screen, one glove on his hand. His moment of silence didn't last. He had killed Minbari…hell, he had killed hundreds, perhaps thousands of Minbari…but he'd never killed any of his own people before, directly or indirectly. "You were right, Oz," he murmured to himself. "You were right, and we're no better than the deadskins that caused this. I'm…no better." Turning from the screen to face the door, he keyed the link on his hand and called out, "Chuck? Ensign Smith?"

   A few seconds later the door to the shack opened and John's young weapons officer stuck his head in. "Yes, sir?"

   "I need you to take one of the heavy-lift shuttles back to the Lexington." John instructed. Eyeing the young officer gravely, he continued, "I'm command-authorizing you to withdraw the UL-114 and the DS-207 from the ship and bring them to the surface."

   "The…devices, sir?" the young Ensign stammered. "Here on the surface? Presidential authorization is required to withdraw those weapons from the ship in peacetime, sir."

   "I know, Chuck…and I have it," John indicated. "Now, you will discuss this with no one but Commander Daniels and those people absolutely necessary to get the weapons loaded. You will withdraw the weapons in my name and Commander Daniels will countersign. Got that?"

   "Yes, sir."

   "Chuck, I need you to do one other thing for me. I need you to call down to our med teams and any other non-infected personnel in the mine and tell them to pull out." Sighing, he continued, "Get them into the shuttles and have them head for the ship."

   "Sir…what about our equipment? What about…Jesus, what about Major 'A' and her soldiers?"

   "All equipment minus the GROPO vehicles, our fire control mainframe at the colony and this commo rig is to be recovered. As for Major Altenbourg…when you call down…" John paused, considering his phrasing. After a second, he continued, "Just tell her that she was right and that I'll be down to see her shortly. She'll understand."

   

   ***

   Oz Altenbourg sat silently against the rock wall of the Cathedral and watched as masked work teams wheeled a trolley carrying a large crated object past her and her soldiers. Under other circumstances, her curious nature would have compelled her to get up, walk over to the Spacers and start asking questions…but the fact of the matter was that she no longer had the strength to stand up for very long, much less to walk the few hundred meters over to where the crate was being deposited. From where she sat, she could see that John's Spacers were laying fiber-optic cable from the crate back to the Cathedral entrance. Fiber optics were antiquated but more survivable over long periods of time than wireless transmission methods, which required power sources. Whatever was being set up was going to be here for a while. <Just like us…> she thought forlornly as she glanced at her surroundings.

   Her surroundings were bodies. Her soldiers and thousands of bodies. Dead colonists lined the walls of the Cathedral. Over the past week, teams from the Lexington had done what they could to arrange the dead in the chamber with some sort of dignity, and the magnitude of the task had almost overwhelmed them. It had been gruesome work, but John's people had done it because he asked them to. Oz remembered thinking at the time that if that wasn't respect and loyalty, then nothing else was. John's chaplain had administered last rites until he was near collapse from exhaustion and grief. The crew had moved bodies until they sickened…until there were no more left to move.

   But no one would be here to move her and her soldiers' bodies when the time came. No one would be left.

   The short message John had relayed through his Ensign had told her all that she needed to know. The med teams, until recently hovering around her and her soldiers…their pullout had told her soldiers all they needed to know. Now, all she waited for was Commander Sheridan to come and tell her personally.

   The work crew finished connecting up the fiber optics to the crate and one of them twisted a knob, popping the lid open and collapsing the sides. Several of the others fiddled with the controls on the still-obscured device and Oz heard a soft, melodious voice…a woman's voice…waft through the chamber.

   "Hello, I am a Dark Star Labs DS-207 Thermonuclear Device, Alliance Stock Number A11784715. I was constructed in Urbana, Illinois on March 14, 2247. I am rated at Five Hundred Megatons. Warning…users are referred to Section 409-C of the Earth Alliance Code regarding activation of weapons of mass destruction. It is a punishable felony offense to activate a WMD without Command Authority Directive during peacetime. For wartime use, see EAC Section 414-A. Isn't a beautiful day today? Will we meet some Minbari? I would love to meet some Minbari today. I note that you're installing a remote trigger. Would you like instructions on installing remote triggers?"

   "Ma'am, they're going to blow us up!" Oz's First Sergeant hissed at her from where he sat. "Those fucking Spacers…they don't give a damn about us! Fuckers! First they write us off, and now they're going to nuke us!"

   Oz tiredly turned her head, noting that even simple movements were taking great effort. Gunny was in bad shape…the lesions on his arms and face were starting to fester, and his flesh was starting to hang loosely off his bones. Snorting, Oz reflected that she probably didn't look any better. She had been a pretty woman once…the kind of woman men called 'ruggedly attractive'. Now…she didn't know. She had a mirror with her but hadn't had the heart to look into it since she first noticed her own lesions forming. That had been three days ago. "Our people didn't do this to us, Gunny," she corrected. "The Minbari did. Their people hate us. Ours…they're just plain afraid."

   "That's about the size of it," a gravelly voice said from behind her. Oz turned back to find John Sheridan standing there. "Hello, Oz," he said as calmly as he could manage. "Do you have a few minutes to talk?"

   "I figure at this rate I have a couple of days," the GROPO Major answered. "I'm assuming that you want to do this in private, but I can only walk a few meters now."

   "A few meters will be enough, I think," John indicated. Oz struggled to her feet and shambled after the Earthforce Commander as he led her to a nearby corner, mentally cursing herself for being so helpless.

   When she met up with John again, she noticed him looking her over sadly. "Not exactly the same woman I was a couple of weeks ago, am I," she chuckled weakly. "Maybe a couple of days in the gym will fix me up…what do you think?"

   "I'm so sorry, Oz," John replied with tears in his voice. "It happened…just like you thought it would."

   "I know. John, I knew the moment I saw the colonists that we were…dead. I hoped…I had hoped that our own people would care enough about us to at least try to come up with something…but they didn't, did they?"

   "I don't think so," John answered truthfully. Gentle lies would've been more than useless at this point, and on his way down John had decided that he was going to give the details to her straight. In their last days, Oz and her troops deserved at least that much. "Oz…I think the data, the names in the colony database scared them off. I tried to get them to at least go to the Minbari and ask…but our so-called Command Authority believes it would be 'politically inexpedient', seeing as their Ambassador is a prime suspect." Shaking his head, he added, "I still can't believe that they could hate us so much. He was one man, Oz. Dukhat was just one man…"

   "The war wasn't about Dukhat, John." Oz murmured. Glancing at the watery lesions on her hands, she said, "The Minbari…I've seen them in combat. Not like you…I've seen them up close, eyeball to eyeball and I assure you that the war wasn't about Dukhat…he was just the excuse. It was about a powerful race that had no outlet for its anger."

   "Anger? At what?"

   "I don't know. Maybe something about their society? If we're ever on truly decent terms with them, you can ask…but I don't think they'll answer. I honestly don't think they know, John. But I know I saw something in their warriors' eyes…they weren't angry with us, they hated us. Someday, in the future, they may see us as sentient beings but they'll never see us as people." Gesturing at herself, the GROPO Major sighed and continued, "It really doesn't matter much to me now. The Minbari hate us and I'm dead anyway…but it matters to you. The Minbari who did this…they haven't stopped hating us, and they're still out there. Their vent was closed off before all the steam was gone. They'll find another outlet…either us again, some other race or maybe even themselves." Looking up at John, she managed a pained chuckle and concluded, "Hell, I'm going all philosophical on you at the end, aren't I? But it needs to be said because I think you're going to be seeing a lot of our boneheaded friends in the future…it's just a feeling I have. I want you to watch the Minbari, John. Watch them closely."

   "I will," John assured her, unable to look the dying woman in the eyes.

    Hastily, Oz changed the subject. Jerking her thumb at the bomb in the distance, she said, "Uh…is someone throwing a barbecue we weren't told about? Or are we the guests of honor?"

   "No…that's our Command Authority's idea," John snorted in disgust. "The bomb is being wired up to the entrance portal. It's security…just in case the boneheads ever come back here again. It'll only trigger if the entrance is breached by someone who doesn't know the entry code."

   "They've decided to keep this place as their little 'Ace in the Hole' for later, eh? It figures," Oz snorted. "What are a few thousand lives where politics is concerned?"

   "Yeah…well, listen. Whatever Earthgov says, I'll do everything I can to make things here…uh, a little more comfortable for you. Anything you need, just ask. I'll have anything you want sent down from the ship."

   "There is one more thing," Reaching into her blouse, Oz pulled out a sheaf of envelopes. "Uh, some of the troops…those who have someone waiting at home…"

   John almost broke down in tears at the sight of this once proud woman timidly holding out her little bundle of letters…letters to wives, husbands and children. Letters he couldn't take. "I…I can't, Oz…I'm so sorry. Nothing leaves here that…that might compromise what happened here. I'm sorry."

   Oz lowered the envelopes and looked at the ground. "Oh…yeah, I guess that…makes sense." Glancing around, she spied a crevice in the rock and hastily stuffed the envelopes into it. "We…I just won't tell them. They don't need to know. I'll…uh, just let them think they were sent. It'll make them feel a little better."

   "If I ever get a…a chance, I'll come back and get them."

   "I know you will," Oz replied, smiling sadly. "You always do the right thing, remember?" Chewing her lip, she hesitated a moment, glancing nervously at the floor, the walls, anywhere but at John. "That…uh, brings up the request I was talking about a few days ago…"

   "What is it? Just name it and it's yours."

   "In a moment, John," she replied, glancing over her shoulder. The work crew had quietly left, spinning out the fiber optic line off of a large spool as they worked their way out of the Cathedral and into the main corridor. Only John and the GROPOs remained. Soon, John would leave also and the mine would be sealed…perhaps forever. Reaching up, Oz placed her hand behind John's neck and drew his head down to hers. Planting a quick kiss on his cheek through his breather, she drew back and smiled. "You and I…we would have had a good time, John. I'm sorry, but I think I'll have to cancel the date." Straightening, she wiped her eyes and looked to John as if she were about to break down. Pulling back from the edge, she regained her composure and said, "I'll make my request in a moment. I need to…to go tell my soldiers what's going on first. They deserve to know."

   "I'll tell them, if you want," John gently offered.

   "No," Oz countered, "I'm their Commander. Its my duty, not yours. If you'd wait outside for a moment, I'd appreciate it."

   Nodding uncertainly, John turned and walked towards the Cathedral entrance. As he exited, he could hear Oz calling her First Sergeant and telling him to get the troops into formation. There were groans as the weakened soldiers struggled to comply. Once outside the Cathedral entrance, he could hear little…he was barely able to make out Major Altenbourg's murmuring as she spoke. After a few moments, the murmuring died down and there was silence. Sighing, John squatted against the wall of the main passageway and closed his eyes tiredly, leaning his head back against the rocky surface and waiting for Oz to call him back in.

   The first loud <CRACK!> sent him leaping to his feet as if someone had burned him. <Was that…no… NO!> Turning, John bolted back into the chamber just as the first weapon discharge was followed by a host of others. The firing became a crescendo, the whining sound of PPGs and stacco bursts of slug throwers echoing off the walls of the chamber like a thunderstorm…and then, just as quickly, the storm died away. Rounding the corner at a sprint, John knew what he would see…but actually seeing it paralyzed him in his tracks, his eyes wide and his mouth hanging open.

   "…John…" The voice was so weak that he barely heard it. Searching quickly among the bodies of the fallen GROPOs, he called out, "Oh, Jesus…OZ! WHERE ARE YOU!"

   "…Here…over here," she called out weakly. John saw her, slumped up against the wall and bleeding profusely, wounded in half a dozen places. Running over to her, the young Commander caught her just as she was sliding down to the floor. "Oz…GODDAMMIT…WHY?"

   Her voice low and full of pain, the GROPO commander stammered, "…Someone had to be last…to make sure the others were…taken care…my responsibility. Couldn't die like the colonists…locked down here rotting away with…with no one…to remember us. Planned for days…"

   Hastily, John searched through his pockets…for a rag, a handkerchief…for anything to stop the bleeding. "Just…hold on. I'll get a medic down from the ship. Just hold on."

   "No…my request, John…I had to be last, you see? Someone had to be last." With her eyes, Oz indicated her sidearm, held loosely in her shaking hand. "Not a particularly…good…Catholic, John. Don't want to go to…Hell, though. Can't do…this…myself." Her eyes wide and pleading, she locked eyes with the man kneeling beside her. "Not…afraid, John. I'm…not afraid. Help me…please?"

   

   ***

   "Oh…dear Valen, Dad…" David Sheridan breathed in shock as he stared at the body, wrapped in a sheet and laying on the ground next to the rest of her soldiers. "Did you…"

   "No one else knows about this, David. Not Susan, and definitely not your mother. No one," John replied gravely. "She was the last to die here, son…and I was the last to leave. I didn't leave her suffering."

   To Be Continued…

 

*****

 

 

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